Walk into any electronics store and you'll see a wide variety of headphones. From tiny earbuds to high-end cans, they come in all shapes and sizes. They all have one thing in common though: they deliver sound directly to your ears. "Duh," right? But bone conduction goes in another direction, skipping the outer ear and taking the scenic route into your inner ear. Let's take a look at an accessory that plays your skull like an instrument, Max Virtual's Cynaps bone conduction hat.
What is it?
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To the casual observer, Cynaps might look like an ordinary baseball cap. But flip it over, and you'll see bone conduction wiring threaded through its band. Tucked into the bill is a larger control panel with three buttons. Attached to it is another wire with a microphone.
Pair the hat via Bluetooth with your phone, and you can listen to music, make phone calls, or talk to Siri or Google Now. Hands-free audio accessories are nothing new, but you've probably never seen one that's ear-free.
How does bone conduction audio work? Well, the hat's tiny transducers transmit vibrations into your skull, those vibrations make their way into your inner ear, and you interpret it as sound, in much the same way as the eardrum transmits vibrations that pass through the air. It's audio that Vincent Van Gogh could enjoy.
What's it like?
The hat itself is standard enough. It's made of a thin, machine-washable fabric and has a Velcro strap in the back that lets you adjust the fit (making it tighter helps with the sound).
The controller that lives in the bill (it's also where the 1,000 mAh battery is housed) has three buttons on it. You can quickly learn their functions to pause/play music, answer or end phone calls, and adjust volume. It's in a convenient spot to reach up and push the buttons, though it's also big enough to feel a bit obtrusive hiding under the bill.
At first, listening to music on Cynaps seems very ordinary. This is because it sounds like there's a tiny speaker in the hat, which everyone around you can hear. But take the hat off, or give it to a friend to use, and you can barely hear anything. You hear about as much as you would from a friend wearing headphones. That's when it really sinks in that the sounds you were hearing were transmitted through your skull.
The audio itself is nothing special. It's kinda like listening to AM radio over a pair of old headphones. Okay, it actually sounds a little better than that, but you get the picture. Audiophiles need not apply.
Sound is a bit muddy, without a lot of crisp separation between trebles, mid-range, and bass. You can make it sound better by tightening the Velcro strap (as much as is comfortably possible) and adjusting the angle of the rim. You can also improve the audio by covering your ears, or wearing earplugs – though that basically defeats the entire purpose.
Who is it for?
On the other hand, we can only be so picky here. I mean, you're hearing sound transmitted through your head. The human skull wasn't made by Sennheiser, and it didn't evolve with Beats Audio. You aren't buying bone conduction devices like Cynaps for their high fidelity. You're buying them to experience sound without inviting your outer ears to the party.
This can have its applications. Like riding a bicycle or motorcycle, or other times when you want to hear the audio and your surroundings. Since the audio is traveling through your head rather than air, it's also a little less prone to getting drowned out when there's a lot of background noise.
Some people who are hard of hearing can also benefit from bone conduction audio. There are more specialized products for those uses, including an upcoming one from Max Virtual.
Wrap-upI'm not sure how much potential there is for improved audio in bone conduction devices. You can improve on the transducers, but your skull is always going to transmit lower frequencies more than the air does. That's probably going to put a ceiling on the audio quality of devices like this.
The area where future Cynaps hats (or similar devices) can improve is in making the technology disappear more into the clothing. Right now, it's a little like trying on an absurd invention in Doc Brown's garage. It isn't too obtrusive, but it's also hard to completely forget that there's a heavy controller under the bill, and wires wrapping around your head. I imagine future versions with smaller components could help accessories like this to find a much wider audience.
With that said, Cynaps is an intriguing accessory that should find a niche audience. It isn't the most elegantly-constructed product you'll ever use. It feels like something that got its start on Indiegogo (it did). But, to Max Virtual's credit, it does what it promises, while looking mostly like an ordinary hat (if you can ignore that bulge underneath the bill).
It isn't clear whether bone conduction accessories like this will ever hit the mainstream. But this definitely isn't the last you'll hear about it. After all, a certain upcoming Google product will use the same approach to deliver audio.
Cynaps is available now in several different models, including standard hat (US$70), sweat-free hat ($79), and bare bones self-install modules ($60).
Product page: Max VirtualView gallery - 7 images