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: firstname.lastname@example.org.