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New Headphones Help You Really Feel Music

Now that Apple has sold 160 million iPods, reshaped the music business and inspired dozens of competitors, maybe it’s time to admit it: this music player thing might be more than a fad.

Yet in all this time, almost nobody has brought up the screaming flaw that’s built into every one of those things: the earbuds.

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That’s right. Hundreds of millions of times a day, music player owners jam little white discs into their ears without a thought, rendering themselves both deaf and rude to the outside world.

And that’s if you can even get them to stay in. A sizable chunk of the population lacks the proper cartilage formation to hold earbuds in place. (I’m among them. Don’t tell anyone.) How about a little sympathy for these long-time sufferers? Where are the self-help groups? Where’s the telethon?

Well, technology created these problems, and now it has solved them. Two alternative earbuds are now available in the United States; both neatly solve all of the hearing, safety and fit problems of the traditional disc-style earbuds. Instead of going in your ear, they pass the audio signal through your bones or cartilage. They’d be perfect, if they weren’t so flawed in their own ways.

The most promising are the Audio Bones, which come in orange, blue, black or white for $190 — or, for $30 more (go figure), pink, lime, tan or purple.

These are bone-conduction headphones, meaning that they pass sound directly through your skull to your inner ear, bypassing the eardrum. The sculpted plastic headband goes behind your head, hooking over your ears, so that the earbuds, if that’s what you call them, rest just forward of your ears.

In other words, your ears are left completely open. You can hear the music from your player, but you can also still hear everything around you.

There’s an immense cleverness to this design, and a long list of advantages. For example, these earbuds neatly solve the rudeness problem, because you’re not shutting yourself off from conversation. It’s no more rude than having a bookshelf stereo system playing in the background — a really, really tiny one that only you can hear.

These devices also stay put, because no cartilage-wedging is involved. Hooking them over your ears holds the Audio Bones in place. Not everyone has iPod-compatible cartilage pockets, but almost everyone has ears.

As a bonus, Audio Bones are less tangly than standard earbuds. A single cord emerges from the back of the headband — not one per earpiece.

Now, this is probably going to sound alarming and controversial. But when you really think about it, these earphones are also perfectly safe to wear while you’re driving. After all, how are wearing these headphones any more dangerous than listening to your car radio? The only difference is that the speakers are much smaller and much closer to your head.

Surprisingly enough, you can even listen to Audio Bones music while you’re wearing earplugs, which could come in handy if you work someplace noisy. Don’t try that with regular iPod earbuds.

They’re waterproof, too. If you can keep the player itself dry (buy a waterproof case, for example), then you can listen to Handel’s “Water Music” while you’re swimming laps.

It’s a small point, but it’s also worth mentioning that Audio Bones make it much less disgusting when you want to share your music player’s output. Admit it: when someone digs regular earbud discs out of their ear canals and hands them to you, there’s at least a brief moment of personal hygiene assessment as you prepare to insert them into your own.

The makers of Audio Bones also assert that bone conduction is less likely to contribute to hearing loss over the years, and that this technology permits some people with eardrum damage to enjoy music once again. (Bone conduction is already available in certain hearing aids.)

That’s quite a list of virtues. And besides the steep price, there’s really only one significant drawback to the Audio Bones — but it’s a doozy: the sound quality isn’t great.

Compared with regular earbuds, the Audio Bones sound muffled, with less presence. They’re also much quieter; you have to crank an iPod to its very top volume to hear what’s going on. Serious audiophiles who already complain about the iPod’s audio quality will be aghast.

Vibrating headphones

Nonetheless, Audio Bones are perfectly adequate for audio books, workout music and background music. And they do come with that long list of advantages. Let’s put it this way: if drivers, bikers or joggers wind up in just one less accident by wearing Audio Bones — well, that would be a good start.

But bone structure isn’t the only way to a music lover’s heart. A company called Zelco offers an out-of-ear experience all its own: the Outi earbuds ($110). These bizarre earphones clip onto the outside of your ear, making them what must be the world’s first cartilage-conduction earphones.

Finding the sweet spot can take some time; the sound changes a lot depending on where you park them on your ear. They’re not especially comfortable, either, since they remain in place essentially by chomping down on your flesh. (Fortunately, ear cartilage isn’t especially sensitive.)

But the weirdest part is the Outis’s stealth feature, which becomes apparent only once you start playing music: they vibrate.

In an effort to simulate the bone-jarring pulses of a subwoofer in a surround-sound system, Zelco has fitted each earbud with what must be a cousin to the tiny vibrating mechanism in a cellphone. With each drumbeat or guitar pulse, you feel a tiny, audible, vibrating drrrrrr on your ears. Yes, you truly feel the music, although the sensation is not so much a bone rattle as it is a rhythmic tickle.

The effect is utterly polarizing. Some people think that the vibrations make music listening more interesting. Others can’t wait to rip the things off their heads.

Unfortunately, the Outis also require their own battery pack, a white plastic box that you must clip to your clothing — and remember to recharge (by plugging into a wall or a U.S.B. jack) after every six or eight hours of playback. It’s a huge hassle.

The battery unit has a tiny button that’s supposed to cycle among four levels of vibration effect. What it actually does is cycle through four volume levels. In other words, you can’t lose the vibrating without also losing audibility.

It’s a shame, really, because there’s promise here. Take away that vibrating gimmick, and you’re left with earbuds that deliver rich bass and crisp highs (even to innocent bystanders; audio bleed from these earbuds is fairly pronounced).

Still, no redesign would prevent you from looking strange wearing them. People will think you’re wearing Chap-Stick tube caps on the backs of your ears.

But look on the bright side: at least some ingenuity is being applied to the problems of in-ear headphones. (The most brilliant yet is the Arriva headphones, arriva.com. They have a built-in jack for an iPod Shuffle right in the middle of the bendable headband, which goes behind your head. The result: a one-piece, no-wires, nondislodgeable, easily reachable personal music system. If you have long hair, you can hide the thing completely, which completely changes the experience of attending long staff meetings. But I digress.)

If you don’t mind trading away a little audio volume and clarity for a lot of safety and convenience, then the Audio Bones might have your name on them. As for the Outis: for the moment, they’re best considered an experiment for — here comes the pun — ear-ly adopters.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.