Ah, the runner’s age-old question: music or traffic? To what shall I dedicate my auditory attention today? We weigh pleasure versus practicality – Daft Punk versus Darwin – and often opt to tune out near busy streets, becoming oblivious to our surroundings and frustrating drivers everywhere in the process.

Thanks to the Aftershokz and their new bone-conduction headphones, however, we may finally be able to put our sometimes-life-threatening ultimatum to rest.

Photo: Joel Vosburg

The Trekz Air (Aftershokz’ leading headset to date) is a superlight, titanium-built headset ergonomically designed to crown the upper neck and rest on top of the ears. The speakers nestle comfortably over the cochlea – just medial to the outer ear – leaving the ear canal bare and receptive to the sounds of the environment. That’s right – we can now run, jam out to the Jonas Brothers’ new single AND be aware of the semi-truck roaring at our heels, all at the same time.

So, how does this new technology work?

The sound from the headset is transmitted using bone conduction, a natural part of the hearing process – sound travels through our eardrums and bones simultaneously. Transducers in the speakers guide mini vibrations through the cheekbones to the inner ears, and sound is delivered and heard without plugging or covering the ear canal. In other words, Aftershokz are perhaps the first true “headphones” that are not necessarily “earphones”. They come in Forrest Green, Slate Grey, Midnight Blue and Canyon Red.

Undeniably, the Trekz Air’s technology is novel, cool and is sure to render a few gawkers ashamed of their classic iPod Shuffle and buds, but is it effective in practice?

Photo: Joel Vosburg

Fundamentally, yes. The wire keeps its position under the forces of running, and the sound – though not overly loud – parallels its top competitors (like the Jabra Elite Active 65t and the Bose Sound Sport Free) in clarity. The Bluetooth connection is sufficient (33 feet, or 10 metres) and the headset’s operations are easy to learn. Further, sound leakage and altering are minimal to none – despite the unusual distance between receptor and transmitter – thanks to PremiumPitch and LeakSlayer technologies.

What must be considered, however, is that freeing the ear canal brings forth a different listening experience and, thus, a new list of strengths and weaknesses dependent on environment.

The city and road runner will notice both a clear pro and con when venturing in the wild with the Trekz Air.

The pro: a much better awareness of surroundings. An exposed ear makes it possible to hear cars and other (potentially dangerous) external stimuli.

The con: compromised listening. Indeed, hearing is split between the transmissions of the Trekz Air and the sound coming from the environment. When running in loud areas, the headset’s noise can get crowded out – even when wearing earplugs (which are thoughtfully included). But, while sacrificing rocking out for enhanced awareness may fall on head-bangers’ deaf ears, it sounds like a worthwhile trade-off for everyone else.

The track runner – will appreciate how the headphones withstand the forces of a vigorous workout and stay in place. Headset stability may be the greatest challenge facing those wanting to run fast with sound on. The Aftershokz headset permits runners to tune in and forget they are even wearing it – perhaps the product’s greatest strength.

The Bluetooth range of the device, however, forces the runner to carry an often-bulky smartphone around the track (while the iPod shuffle gawker smiles vindictively).

The gym runner – is rarely hampered by Bluetooth range limitations or surrounded by excessive external sound. For those reasons, they may be the perfect crowd for this product. As well, the bone-conduction technology makes it possible to take in quality sound while being responsive to surrounding exercisers and workout partners (added bonus: clearly hearing your voice while playing music facilitates harmonizing with Joe Jonas – again, let them gawk).

Put simply, the Aftershokz Trekz Air provides a quality sound and an added degree of safety to your excursions, but if cacophony is what fuels you, best to look somewhere else. Perhaps it’s time, however, to reconsider our tendency to blast our ears with noise while pounding away at a tempo run. According to doctor of audiology Clifford Olson, sound amplifies when travelling the ear canal, and forcing powerful noise through those canals makes us more susceptible to hearing damage than when taking in sound via bone conduction.

And if long-term auditory capacity and protection against traffic are not enough to give the Aftershokz a try, consider the obvious: they are cool as heck.

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