What Are Aftershokz?
Aftershokz makes headphones designed to rest in front of your ears, conducting sound through your cheekbones. This lets you turn them up without risking your hearing, and hear sounds around you since your headphones are not blocking your ears. The company offers two types, one wired, and one bluetooth. There are two generations of the bluetooth model. The first generation has been reviewed already, but the second generation is new and in limited supply for the moment. I have a set, though, and I want to tell you what I think of it.
Update on January 20, 2015: To my knowledge, the bluetooth Aftershokz are no longer in short supply.
Compared to the Previous Model
If you do not have a set of the first-generation Bluez, skip this section. If you do have them, here are some points comparing the two models.
- The sound transducers are a bit larger.
- The electronics are in the right arm of the headset, not the back headband, This lets the band flex a bit more with no problems, and improves the connection quality. The controls are also easier to reach.
- The left transducer still has its triangular button, but the right one has no buttons at all.
- Instead of an on/off switch, there is now a button you hold in for a few seconds to turn the unit on and off, placed on the underside of the right arm.
- Two equalizer options now exist, though I find it hard to tell the difference between the two. (Note: in the latest model, as of January 2015, these equalizer options appear to be gone.)
- Instead of holding down the volume buttons to skip forward or backward, you press the left-hand triangular button multiple times. This is similar to how other remotes, like Apple's own EarPods, work. However, the Bluez do not offer a "skip back" function; pressing the button three times will just skip forward, then pause.
- The sound has improved. It sounds a bit better to the user, and also leaks less, so people around you will not hear as much of your audio.
Bone conduction is perfect for hearing traffic and other ambient sounds while still hearing your book, GPS, podcast, phone call, or other audio. Having a wireless connection to your audio is even better, eliminating the bother of getting wires tangled up in your cane, coat, backpack, purse, or dog leash. The Aftershokz can go very loud if necessary, and they include a volume control, so you can adjust the volume without touching your iPhone or other device. This model also includes microphones, so you can talk to Siri, make phone calls, and so on.
The second-generation Bluez hold their connection very well. The previous model had a lot of problems in that area, disconnecting or playing broken audio much of the time. Now, though, they hold their connection just fine. I have little experience with other bluetooth headsets, but if I can have constant, high-quality audio with no breaks or drops, that's good enough for me.
As mentioned in the last section, the electronics have moved. They are in the sides of the device, leaving the headband in the back free to flex. Many users reported that they kept breaking their Bluez, and most of the time it was because the inflexible band in the back moved too much. This is no longer a problem. The band is meant to bend some, both when putting on or taking off the Bluez, and because people have different-size heads.
This generation added a second microphone, so that the quality of your voice on phone calls is improved. I am unsure exactly how well this works, as I am rarely on the receiving end of a call from a set of Bluez, but other people who use the Bluez say the quality is better. It is worth mentioning, however, that I am asked to repeat myself on phone calls with some frequency when I use the Bluez, yet I am never asked to do so when I use my iPhone on its own.
The Bluez can even talk. Notifications about the connection status (whether the headset is in pairing mode or has connected) are spoken, as is a message to "charge me" when you have only minutes of battery left. After the Bluez have not played any audio for a while, pressing a volume button will speak the battery level (in the previous generation, the battery level was spoken when you turned the unit off; that is no longer the case). There is also an LED indicator, but the spoken messages are a great feature I wish more headsets and other devices would incorporate. As of January 2015, the Bluez will even tell you "device 1 connected" when they connect to the first device with which they were paired. I am not certain, but I imagine "device 2", "device 3", and so on would be spoken, letting you know which of your devices the Bluez has connected with.
The charger is a standard micro USB, and works with wall chargers, car chargers, computers… Anything that can provide power to a USB device, essentially; I just use a spare iPhone charger, which works perfectly. On a charge, I can easily get a day of use, sometimes two days, depending on how much I use them.
I'll mention Siri access in this section, because the way it works has changed. In the first generation of the Bluez, Siri was access by holding in the left button for a couple seconds. In the first model of the second generation, you would have to wait twenty seconds after all sound stopped playing (VoiceOver speech included) to do this, as pressing and holding the button during or just after playback would switch between the two equalizer settings. Fortunately, in the latest revision of the Bluez (january 2015), the company seems to have done away with the equalizer. I can once again hold in the left button for two seconds to access Siri, no matter how recently media was playing. To test this, I even used the button during playback, and siri interrupted the music, just as I hoped it would.
I find this generation to be horribly uncomfortable. I realize that the comfort level of any headset is very subjective, but when I can wear the first generation Bluez for hours and forget I have them on, yet cannot wear this new model for more than an hour at a time, that is a problem. The main issue seems to be the arms that extend forward along the sides of the device, connecting the rear headband to the sound transducers. I find that these arms press very hard into the sides of my head, just above and behind my ears. I recently got a new pair of Aftershokz, and the part of my head where the rear of each arm rests feels bruised.
The transducers themselves do not sit flat, but rather angle outward at the front. It is almost as though the band along the back of the Bluez is a bit too small, causing the whole headset to angle outward at the front instead of resting flat or angling slightly inward as I believe it should. Again, the fit and comfort of any headset will vary from person to person. Still, if you are thinking of buying these, see if you can get an in-person demo first to check how well they fit you.
I also find that the Siri interface disappears. For instance, I tell Siri to text someone, then do a two-finger double tap after it asks me if I want to send, so I can review the message. Seconds after I do this, Siri vanishes, as does my message. I have not yet found this problem to occur when I do not have the Bluez connected, but it is likely an iOS problem that could happen with any headset. Again, I have no other bluetooth headsets to use for comparison.
Siri's audio will switch to phone-quality, instead of using A2DP like most audio does. I have no idea why; I asked Aftershokz about this way back in December of 2013, but have yet to hear an answer. Dictation will do a similar thing, dropping back to the low-quality audio you get with phone calls. While I don't find that speech recognition is less accurate, environmental noise notwithstanding, I do find that listening to Siri's responses is a bit annoying at such a low quality.
Update: December 2014
After more use, I have found Siri commands to be understood far less frequently while the Bluez are the audio source, and I find myself rarely using Siri unless I don't have the Bluez on.
The bigger problem is that, only eight months after I got my headset, it is already broken. The fit was never great, as I not only said here but also told Aftershokz, and now I'm seeing the results. The right arm has come loose from the plastic band; it is not yet swinging on its wires, but I think it would be if I used the Bluez much more. I'm not surprised, and Aftershokz is replacing my unit, but I did warn them that the fit was extremely snug and that I needed a larger size. If they still lack different sizes, I have a feeling my replacement set will go the way of my current one within months, simply because I don't have a tiny head.
Update: January 2015
My replacement has arrived. It is nice to have the updated firmware, but the fit is even tighter than my last set. I'll use this set as long as I can, but unless something changes, I might just seek a refund once these break (and with how tight they are, they will break).
The Bottom Line
As a concept, the Aftershokz technology is wonderful. Headphones that don't cover your ears at all, and that are wireless to boot. The first generation was plagued with connection problems and structural failures, leading to the re-designed current generation. While this new model does a great job of addressing the faults of its predecessor, it introduces problems of its own. If Aftershokz could somehow put the controls and comfort of the old model into the form factor of the new, we'd have a real winner.
Do I recommend these headphones? If you are not going to wear them for a long time and don't need constant access to Siri, and you want a stereo bluetooth headset that still lets you hear your environment, yes. At around $100, though, think carefully about your particular use case and be sure this headset is best. If you will be using it for an extended period and have a head that is even slightly larger than average, or need to be sure no one can overhear you (even the new model leaks some sound), or if you will be somewhere where hearing your surroundings doesn't matter much, you might not benefit from the Bluez enough to justify the cost.
One thing I do have to say is that the customer service is great. I've emailed Aftershokz several times, and they are always quick to respond. They also monitor their Twitter account, @Aftershokz. When I got my first generation Bluez in December of 2013, I emailed them about all the problems I was having (mostly the poor connection and sound leaking). They promptly added me to the list of people who would receive a second-generation Bluez, free of charge, and even let me keep my original model. When I had to request a replacement in December of 2014, they responded the same day I sent the email, and I had my replacement set within three weeks.
They are also aware of the blindness community. Originally, they offered the manuals for their devices in PDF format only, but once they were informed that PDFs are difficult to read with screen readers, they responded. You can now find text-only manuals for their products on their website (there's a link on that page that specifically says "Bluez II Accessible User Guide"). They also made the controls on some of their headphone models easier to feel based on user feedback. Aftershokz seems to be a great company, and I am happy doing business with them. I just wish they would put more thought into their design and ergonomics. No matter how good your product is, if it hurts to wear and breaks every year because the fit is far too tight, that's a problem. Obviously, the fit will be different for everyone, but I can't be the only one having this particular issue.