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Panasonic's bone conduction headphones pump sound directly into your skull (hands-on)

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Gallery Photo: Panasonic bone conduction headphones photos
Gallery Photo: Panasonic bone conduction headphones photos

The CES show floor is rarely the best environment to test audio equipment, but a relatively quiet moment this morning was our first chance to try on Panasonic's new bone conduction headphones. The Bluetooth-based wraparound set doesn't actually fit into your ears — instead, two "speakers" sit just outside them and vibrate the sound directly into your skull. The general idea behind this and other bone conduction products is to create a low-power device that lets listeners hear both music and ambient noise, something that's ideally suited to the fitness market Panasonic looks to be targeting. Unfortunately for us, the fact that the headphones were prototypes made it difficult to test these claims.

I'd never used bone conduction before, and the sensation was fascinating: if normal headphones are like putting your ear very close to the speaker in a room, these are like listening to the noise in two rooms at once. Without anything blocking your ears, listening to either music or the noise around you is more a matter of concentration than anything. That said, though the sound felt nicely balanced and mellow, the headphone volume was low enough that you had to really focus to catch details. We were told that this could change later, since the final set won't be released until the fall.

The design was similarly hard to judge. An inside band will eventually provide adjustability and a snugger fit, but my set was loose enough that it shifted when I moved — not ideal for exercise. We're also not sure what kind of battery life it'll get. Right now, it runs on a single AAA battery, but that could be changed in the future. As for price, there's still no official word, but a representative told us they'll be roughly in the Beats headphone range, and wouldn't cost more than $300.