21 May

One Year Review: Shokz OpenComm UC Bluetooth Headsets Holding Up Well

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I picked up a pair of AfterShokz Opencomm Unified Communications Bluetooth headsets at the 2021 Infocomm industry event in Orlando, Florida. While most headsets are in-ear or over-ear designs, these are a more exotic bone-conduction design.

Bone-conduction headsets work by vibrating the skull in front of the ear through the skin, using the wearer’s bone as a sound conductor. They must be equalized differently than traditional headsets, but when properly engineered, work surprisingly well.

Aftershokz—the company renamed itself “Shokz” in December—markets the Opencomm headsets as unified communications devices suitable for business or retail environments. On their website, they also offer other models: a sports line and a model for swimmers. One advantage of bone conduction designs is that an opening or orifice is not required, meaning the unit can be completely sealed. Because of this, even the units made for business are surprisingly weatherproof.

During testing, I purposefully abused the Opencomm by wearing it for a week in the shower. They specify the Swimming and Sports models as water resistant, but not the basic unified communications unit…still, the base unit held up fine, and a year later is working…swimmingly.

The base model connects with Bluetooth, and for ten dollars more, a Bluetooth adapter is provided for office environments, or for connection to devices that don’t include Bluetooth connectivity.

The back of the head design is comfortable, and can be worn all day, though after several hours, the pressure on the head can become slightly annoying—like most headsets. This is compensated by not having anything inside or over the ear canal.

That brings up another factor, safety. There are plenty of situations where headsets simply should not be worn. On the other hand, these leave the ear completely open, so when situational awareness is required, these are superior to those that reduce perception of outside noise. This editor enjoys audiobooks and podcasts when out for a jog or a walk, and these allow monitoring of outside sounds such as cars, motorcycles, bicyclists, etc.

This brings up another issue, sound levels. I have tested other “me too” bone conduction designed, but found that they lacked the volume, sound quality, and positional stability of the Aftershokz Opencomm models. Competing models simply didn’t have the volume to be useful in an environment with any substantial ambient noise, such as a contact center, restaurant, or riding as a passenger in a car.

The only potential downside is the Opencomm uses a proprietary charging connector with magnetic coupling. This allows them to create a watertight design that would not be possible with a USB or Thunderbolt connector, but traveling with the Opencomm can create a fear of losing or damaging the charging cable. It isn’t something that can be picked up at a pharmacy check-out counter. Replacement cables aren’t marketed on their website, and for some strange reason, their “find a reseller” function on their website only shows vendors near St. Lous, Missouri. More than once, the editor has traveled, leaving while wearing the headsets, but accidentally leaving the charging cable back at his desk connected to the USB. This is the weakest link in the system, though the cable still functions like new. Note: The replacement charging cable does appear to be available from Amazon.com.

Sound quality for voice communication and the spoken word is excellent. Surprisingly so for an audio device that stays completely away from the ear canal. It is fully stereo, however is not ideal for listening to music, as it has a limited frequency range. It cannot produce deep bass or crisp highs like an audiophile headset designed for music. It is ok for background music. Consider the musical quality on par with a cheap rental car, while remembering that these are marketed as unified communications headsets, not high-fidelity musical gear.

Battery life is good. The unit can withstand 6-8 hours of constant use, depending upon volume, and standby time seems to be several days. I were only able to discharge it completely on a transatlantic flight, and then it fully recharged from a USB battery pack (don’t forget the cable!) in less than 90 minutes.

At less than $200, the Opencomm by Aftershokz are a good deal, and after a year of use and abuse, they are still in practically like-new condition. They are flexible, and the rubberized design holds up well after being stuffed in backpacks, suit jackets, and countless airport security bins.

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