REVIEW – Thanks to a virus (and shades of 2020) I lost a lot of my hearing on one side. Headphones and earbuds don’t provide much help for this condition – in order to get something akin to a stereo experience I have to crank the balance way over to the side and turn the volume up. A bone conduction headset seems like it would be a great solution, at least for the inevitable deluge of conference calls that this year has become. So, with great hope, I plunge into the bone conduction world with the AfterShokz OpenComm headset…
What is it?
Bone conduction audio delivers sound via vibrations applied to your cheekbones where it is picked up by your inner ear. The technology has been around since the 1950’s and is often used to treat some types of hearing loss. The AfterShokz OpenComm is a bone conduction headset specifically designed for communications via softphones or real phones, conference software or other communications mediums. By delivering the audio via bone conduction, your ears are freed to hear what is going on around you – in other words, it promotes situational awareness without impeding communication.
How does it work?
The OpenComm comes with a proprietary charging cable. Under normal circumstances, I would take a point away, but this headset uses a special (and powerful) magnetic connection that doesn’t require peeling open a rubber port cover and trying to wedge a micro-USB connection into the port. Super simple, quick and efficient, so add one point here. The picture below gives you an idea of how the charger connects to the headset.
After a couple of hours to charge I am ready to connect the headset to my computer and my phone. One thing to note – it does not appear that the OpenComm has multipoint technology, so it can be connected to only one device at a time. Pairing is a breeze, though – standard Bluetooth device discovery on my computer and NFC tap and connect on my phone. I was up and running on both in a matter of minutes.
The mic on the OpenComm is on the left side, which is an unusual configuration for headsets with boom mics. The mic can swivel back and out of the way if you are listening to music, but moving the mic does not mute it as other headsets do. Other than the mic and the conduction pad, there is nothing else on the left.
The right side is where all the action takes place. The charging port, volume up and down (separate buttons – yay!) and the multifunction button are all here. That’s the multifunction button on the conduction pad, and the volume controls are on the underside – a better picture of that in a second.
The volume up and down buttons. Pressing and holding the volume up turns the headset on or off. Pressing both for two seconds will mute/unmute the mic when on a call.
A little more on the mic: there are additional mic pickups (one of which is visible in the shot below) which provides outside noise cancellation for the mic. It is able to isolate your voice from the background and deliver crisp, clear sound.
And when you aren’t using the headset, AfterShokz includes a nice hardshell case to store the headset and related stuff.
So now, the real question: does it work? And the answer is a resounding yes. For the first time in a great many years, I can clearly hear Zoom/Teams meetings, phone calls, podcasts and more. It feels like there is a touch more base in bone conduction than there is in a traditional set of headphones – likely because sound waves are not really a part of the picture anymore with this technology. It is also the reason why your voice sounds different in your head when compared to listening to a recording of yourself.
In every single meeting and call I have been in I get kudos for being able to be heard clearly. Hands-down this is the best mic on any headset I have ever had – much better even than the very expensive Universal Communications headset I own from another company, a device that cost just slightly over double what this headset runs. Let me paint a little picture of how good this mic is – on a call last week, the UPS guy rang my doorbell and my Google Assistant next to my desk chimed in to tell me someone was at the door. My two dogs laying about 3 feet away went into the usual frenzy when the doorbell rings (because it could be someone coming to play with them or it could be one of the neighborhood squirrels messing with them), running to the front door barking all the way. No one in my meeting was even aware this happened. I was, they weren’t.
Situational awareness is an important thing, and keeping your ears free while being able to participate in a call or listen to music can be very important. This is especially true if you have a job like a delivery driver – you need to be able to hear what is going on around you and sidetone (the compensation technology used by most other headsets to allow some background sound in) just isn’t all that effective, even if your hearing is 100%.
As far as comfort goes, the OpenComm is right at the top of the list. In the 3 plus weeks I have been using the headset I tend to wear it 8-9 hours a day. There are more than a few days every week where I forget to take the headset off when I leave my office because I forget I am wearing it. But if a call comes in or a team member reaches out during office hours, I can respond quickly. And there isn’t the heat and ear pain associated with traditional on or over the ear headsets, so this really is an all-day device.
The sound quality for music, though, is good but stops just short of great. There is a distinct lack of high notes, and that is directly attributable to bone conduction. It is more than adequate for work use if you need to be aware of what’s going on around you, but you don’t buy the OpenComm for the audiophile experience. And it really shines on podcasts or other human voice-driven entertainment like standup comedy.
In a year that has fundamentally changed how and where I work, I have been looking for the right tech that will help me power through the changes. I am really sorry that the AfterShokz OpenComm was released only a short time ago. The headset has almost instantly become my favorite communications device, and selfishly I wish I had this device back when all the craziness started. Sure, there are some quirks – crank the volume all the way up and feel the buzzing on your cheek. Even with my hearing loss, I find I never need to go that loud, but it is good to know. The comfort and clarity the OpenComm brings to my day greatly outweigh literally any perceived quirks. If 2020 has turned you into a Zoom warrior, the AfterShokz OpenComm needs to be on your head.