Review: AfterShokz OpenComm bone conducting headphones
AfterShokz have long championed bone conduction technology. Can their new OpenComm headset with built-in noise cancelling microphone solve the new world problem of poor audio quality on video calls?
With more people than ever working from home and relying on video conferencing the need for good quality audio input and output has grown exponentially. Most people 'make do' with the microphone on their webcam or laptop and either their existing speakers or basic headphones, but a good quality headset can make all the difference. Not only will it help you to hear and be heard more clearly, but when you have to wear it for long periods of time a comfortable headset is more than worth the additional price premium.
Overview of the AfterShokz OpenComm headset
Other AfterShokz headsets were primarily aimed at sports enthusiasts. The bone conducting technology connects pads to the top of your cheek bone in front of your ear, meaning that your ears are left uncovered so can hear sounds around you - useful for runners or cyclists, for example. Rather than a band that runs over the top of your head, AfterShokz run behind it, towards the base of your skull. This new headset builds on that design, adding a DSP noise-cancelling microphone. At just 33 grams they are also extremely lightweight and designed for all-day use.
Battery life is impressive, with up to 16 hours of talk time and 14 days of standby. A 5-minute quick charge will give you 2 hours of usage should you run out of juice, with the unit charging to 100% in 60 minutes.
What's in the box
On opening the outer cardboard box you are presented with the zip around semi-hard carry case, which would protect your headphones from all but someone standing on the case. Inside you will find the headset and proprietary charging cable. Although it's a shame that it's not micro USB or USB C, it is magnetic, so easily connects to the headset. There's also moisture detection, with the headset warning you audibly if any is detected during connection. The IP55 waterproof rating means that it's splash-proof, but you certainly wouldn't want to swim with it. (Bluetooth does not work underwater anyway).
Underneath the case you will find the instruction booklet in several languages, the certification documentation and a small warranty card for the included 2-year warranty.
The AfterShokz OpenComm continues with the company's use of titanium, which is both lightweight and durable, covered with a neoprene soft rubberised material. Titanium us also used on the microphone boom, which can be rotated 250 degrees. It would have been nice if this could have been detatched altogether, but this probably would have impacted on the waterproofing, as well as reducing the functionality of the headset itself.
There are three buttons located on the right side of the unit - a play/pause/answer call button located in front of your ear and +/- buttons located to the rear, taking care of volume and skipping tracks. At the rear of the right side is the magnetic power connector.
Setup and Usage
Supporting both Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC pairing, setting up the AfterShokz is simple. You can either hold them close to your phone (assuming it supports NFC) or pair in the normal way. There was already some charge in the headset, so I was up and running in a matter of seconds. As with most electronic items with limited user interfaces, each button can perform multiple functions depending on how you use it. You switch it on by holding the + icon for two seconds, with a female voice announcing the headset is powered up. Hold it down for a further three seconds and it goes into Bluetooth pairing mode. Tapping the front button plays/pauses music or answers a call, but double-tapping will skip to the next track, and holding it down will call up Siri (on an iPhone).
Having come from another behind the head but over-ear headset I can firmly say that the AfterShokz OpenComm is by far the most comfortable headset I've ever worn for long periods of time. Even wearing ear buds for a session in the gym brings a (small) sense of relief when I remove them afterwards, the the OpenComm can truly be worn all day. They are lightweight and apply very little pressure to the side of your head, pressing slightly inwards with your ears taking most of the weight of the headset.
I was concerned that I might feel vibration from the bone-conducting 'speaker', and it was slightly apparent on some high bass tracks when played at full volume, but it was not the distraction I thought that it might be, and only happened rarely.
There's no two ways to say it - the audio quality is not as good when compared to on-ear or in-ear headphones. It's not bad by any stretch - mid range and treble are well-represented, with voices crisp and clear. In fact, I head sounds on tracks that I had not heard using other headphones. It's the bass that suffers, so if you are expecting all-encompassing sound that envelopes you then you may be a little disappointed. However, remember that the purpose of this headset is to allow the outside world in, and the price you pay for that lies towards the bottom end of the graphic equalizer. Placing your fingers in your ears increases both the bass and volume significantly, which of course defeats the objective of bone-conduction. Some AfterShokz headphones come with ear plugs to allow you that immersive experience if you what it, but not the OpenComm.
An interesting point to note - on my Windows 10 PC, when I went into audio properties (Control Panel | Hardware and Sound | Manage Audio Devices), under the enhancements tab there are options for bass boost and loudness equalization. These significantly improved the sound quality, especially with music, boosting both volume and musical depth. It's a shame that this was either not documented or enabled by default, as my impression of the headset went from 'it's just about OK' to 'it's good' after enabling them.
Microphone sound is very clear, with no background noise, but don't expect to use this for professional recordings - the resulting recordings sound somewhere midway between AM and FM radio. This is more than adequate for audio/video conferences, but I'll certainly continue to use my professional grade microphone for voiceovers. The DSP noise cancellation works well, and justifies the narrower audio quality of the microphone - it does what it needs to, and it does it well.
The AfterShokz OpenComm undoubtedly delivers what it promises, albeit with what I regard as a couple of relatively small compromises. Audio quality is well-defined but lacks the punch of its on/in-ear ounterparts, while the microphone will deliver clear audio with much of the background noise stripped out, or at least dampened considerably. Battery life and comfort, however, are exceptional. For those looking for an all-day headset that allows them to still hear the environment around them then there's nothing out there that comes close.