Despite decades of refinement, over-ear headphones often look absurd, unless you’ve got a thing for Princess Leia buns. But they also communicate that you’re not to be bothered — which I’ve found to be a huge benefit when dealing with catcallers on the streets of my hometown, New York City.
However, after two weeks of trying out the sleek new OpenRun Pro headphones from Shokz, I am ready to leave big noise-canceling headphones behind. Not only are the OpenRun Pro headphones the most comfortable ones I’ve ever worn; they also made me feel safer out in the world than any over-ear or noise-canceling headphones ever could.
That’s because there are major downsides to wearing any type of noise-canceling headphones while you’re out and about, regardless of the size. Street harassment isn’t the only danger out there. There’s also the risk of getting hit by a car or bike (or an adult on a Razor scooter) that you don’t hear coming because your ears are blocked up. Many modern headphones like AirPods do offer a “transparency” mode to enable the listener to hear what’s going on around them, but it can be tempting not to use it.
“Headphones reduce people’s situational awareness, which can elevate their risk for harmful outcomes, such as injuries resulting from collisions,” said Ed Maguire, the director of Arizona State University’s Public Safety Innovation Lab.
The OpenRun Pro headphones enable you to be aware of what’s going on around you because they rely on bone conduction, a phrase that calls to mind some sort of Tim Burton–esque opera. Rather than sending the new Justin Bieber single straight to your eardrums, bone conduction transmits sound by vibrating against the bones of the head and jaw. The OpenRun Pro, which looks like a thin headband with paws on the end, has a thumbprint-sized speaker that sits right against the top of your jaw and sends the vibrations into your head. Beethoven used this same technique to make music after he went deaf by biting down on a metal rod that was connected to his piano. This allowed him to receive the audio waves as physical vibrations, all without using his eardrums.
Some research has found that bone conduction headphones can make it easier to hear what’s going on around you, though one 2017 study warned that they can impair your ability to assess where hazards are located. A 2018 study found that leaving the ear canal open made bone conduction headphones a safe and viable option while driving, while other studies have shown that they do cause more distraction than no headphones at all. But there’s no doubt I feel safer wearing bone conduction headphones on the street. While I sometimes prefer less situational awareness if it’ll convince people not to bother me, I know that it’s safer to know what’s going on. In many ways, the OpenRun Pro headphones are the opposite of noise cancellation: When you’re wearing them, you can’t quite ignore the world around you (and the catcallers certainly won’t ignore you either).
Bone conduction also means the OpenRun Pro is extremely comfortable. The headphones have hooks at the end that go around your ears, not unlike a backward pair of sunglasses. Because the speaker sits at the top of your jawbone, there’s nothing actually plugging up your ears. I left them on all day and suffered no ear pain with these beauties, a problem I’ve faced with every other set of headphones. In fact, they’re so comfortable that twice I assumed I’d lost them, only to later find them on my head.
The battery didn’t run out when I wore them from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. — even better than the company’s claims of lasting 10 hours — and it took about 30 minutes to recharge when it was totally drained. This is in line with the headphones’ fast-charging feature; a five-minute charge is supposed to offer up to one and a half hours of listening. I found five minutes actually got me slightly more than that.
The product has its own charger, which is a bit annoying. But the charger slightly redeemed itself by employing magnets to attach to the headphones in a deeply satisfying way. The accompanying Shokz app allowed me to see just how much battery life was left in the headphones, and I could optimize them for music versus spoken content like podcasts, which I thought led to a slight improvement in audiobook quality.
The OpenRun Pro headphones are also more comfortable than other bone conduction pairs I’ve tried out in the past, which were much heavier. My first pair from 2016 was a cheaper model also from Shokz (at the time, the brand was known as AfterShokz). It cost $50, relative to the OpenRun Pro’s $179.95. However, because of my penchant for leaving them at the bottom of a crowded backpack, I went through a handful of less expensive pairs, bringing the cost up to…well, more than the OpenRun Pro’s price tag.
In comparison, the main benefit of the OpenRun Pro headphones was how light and comfy they are. I appreciated that they had a smaller design, which made it less cumbersome to figure out how to wear them with a hat or sunglasses. Plus, the battery life lasts a lot longer. I used to struggle with Shokz headphones dying midway through a workout — and that says a lot, given how short my workouts are.
In our constant attempt to make technology smaller, we forget that sometimes there is something to be said for enlarging it.
Just because I could easily hear everything around me doesn’t mean the OpenRun Pro’s sound quality suffered, which was an issue in previous pairs of Shokz headphones. Unlike the regular OpenRun headphones, the Pro boasts additional bass transistors, which definitely helped the listening experience. Jamming along to Sour with the OpenRun Pro was probably the closest I’ll ever get to an Olivia Rodrigo concert. I’m an avid listener of podcasts and audiobooks, and these headphones allowed me to hear the twist in my latest true crime obsession perfectly without missing the announcement for my subway stop. And the sound didn’t leak out, which is ideal for someone with my personal music taste. Thank you, OpenRun Pro, for keeping my Ashlee Simpson playlist between us. Even if you are someone who’s responsible with your headphones, I think the OpenRun Pro is worth the added expense for the comfort and improved sound quality.
The OpenRun Pro is specifically designed for running — and while I’m not a regular runner, I would bet that these super-light headphones won’t slow you down during a marathon. When I wore them on a two-mile jog, I found they stayed snugly on my head, and sweat wasn’t an issue (although, to be fair, it was winter, and I wasn’t running all that fast). I didn’t have to adjust the headphones once — which was a bit of a downer, as I could have used the excuse to take a break. They are stretchy too, which not only helps them sit on my head but also suggests they’re less likely to break at the bottom of my backpack.
Still, I’m keenly aware of the trade-off I’m making by using lightweight headphones like the OpenRun Pro. The smaller the headphones, the less likely that people can see I’m wearing them — and leave me alone. In our constant attempt to make technology smaller, we forget that sometimes there is something to be said for enlarging it. It’s asking a lot for headphones to convince leering men to be polite, but enormous ones sometimes do.
Over-ear headphones are definitely desirable in some circumstances too, such as listening to music in your own home or office. When you’re already in a secure place, they can quietly communicate to your family or coworkers that now is not the time to bug you. But when you’re out on the streets, bone conduction is the way to go.
So while these headphones did nothing to fend off the catcallers, I was able to hear both my music and everything going on around me. The OpenRun Pro won’t tell people to leave you alone, but it offers a comfortable, safe, and high-quality experience — even for those of us who aren’t runners.