This year marks the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary Sony Walkman, the cassette player that made music truly portable for the first time. Some of us are old enough to remember the ridicule that was initially directed at its distinctive orange foam headphones, and the people who chose to block out the outside world by wearing them in public.
Similarly, When Apple launched its Air pods in 2016, there were countless online jokes, either by mocking the way they’re worn or poking fun at their resemblance to a toothbrush. But the tide is turning, if we look at current date 3 years down the line from the date the air pods where launched, Millions of earbuds are sold every month, almost all the hardware manufacturers are launching their own version of Ear buds.
David Cannington is well aware of the initial reaction to Air Pods and the increasingly positive reception that followed. He’s the cofounder of Nuheara, a company that has its own high-tech earbuds that look and act a little differently than your traditional in-ears. “On a flight to New York a month ago, I noticed more people wearing Air Pods,” he says. “I’m starting to see them more and more, and I noticed I’m now conscious of people who are wearing wired earbuds.”
We all had our fun with the strange design and troubled launch only to see Air Pods score a 98 percent customer satisfaction rate and dominate the market by end of 2017. At $159, they sold out over the holiday season and were projected to double in sales next year. It helps that they work well, too. Connecting via Bluetooth—a technology that should work better than it does given its age—is, by all accounts, actually smooth when pairing the iPhone and Air Pods. Apple has made sure that the onboarding and connectivity experience work better when you’re using its proprietary products, and for some users, that’s enough of a selling point to grab Air Pods when making the switch to wireless.
2017 was an experimental year for audio accessories, with Air Pods stoking and benefiting from the trend. “There were quite a number of competitors,” says Blau. “And so what sort of felt like a field of one—because [Air Pods were] such a unique-looking device—suddenly wasn’t.” The hearables craze, though small and burgeoning, was lauded at CES in 2017, setting a tone. Personal audio devices could be more than part of the throw-away accessory market; the simple earbud could be elevated. “You have to think maybe Apple was leading that charge and then people got used to it and thought, ‘You know, maybe the Air Pods thing wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.’”
“What Air Pods have done is help to create a category. They’ve taken a lion’s share of the market, 85 to 90 percent. “The Sony’s and Samsung, Boss almost every manufacturer —serious about this space. And then there’s lots of really crappy ones racing to the bottom.” Naturally, Cannington believes that Air Pods serve as a gateway to a much higher-tech product, like his. They hasten the crucial first step: buying into funny-looking wireless buds. “Our position about Air Pods is pretty simple: They’re a dumb bud,” he says. For another $150, you can enter an entirely new world of augmented hearing.
Google, Amazon and Microsoft get in on the action
Amazon’s Echo Buds, Microsoft’s Surface Buds and Google’s new pixel buds were released this month, would be shipping next month. This spate of launches, however, has little to do with creating a personal, music-filled bubble. These manufacturers, perhaps ironically, see earbuds as an interface with the world around us.
The current boom in popularity has much to do with their improvement in quality. The first buds, announced by German firm Bragi on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter back in 2014, were aesthetically remarkable and provoked huge interest, but ultimately promised too much: fitness data, 4GB of storage, voice calls and more.
Pioneering earbuds such as these received criticism for dropped connections and poor performance, but in 2019 those issues have largely been ironed out, while adding one crucial element: a strong link with virtual assistants.
Apple’s Air Pods may fulfil our dreams of listening to music wirelessly and unobtrusively, but it’s the link with Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, that the company is pushing. With its disembodied voice responding directly into our ears when we ask a question, Siri becomes a conversational partner and directly enters into real-world situations.
It’s no coincidence that Apple’s competitors in the earbud market are touting their own virtual assistants, too. Amazon’s Echo Buds feature hands-free connection with its Alexa, and hands-on with Google Assistant. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds join together with its Bixby software agent, with Google again offered as back-up. Microsoft’s Cortana assistant comes bundled with its Surface Buds – but again, in a unique atmosphere of co-operation between the tech giants, they work with all the assistants mentioned above, too.
The aim, it seems, is to normalize the behavior. After all, if we are all walking down the street with prominent bumps in our ears while murmuring sweet nothings to virtual assistants, there’ll be less stigma attached to doing so.
But are they still ugly?
Cramming this amount of technology into a small space, however, has made for some unusual form factors. Microsoft’s Surface Buds were described in one preview as looking like a “surgical implant”, and “downright huge”. From Bose’s grey and yellow Sound sport buds to the ear-encircling Power beats, the earbud market oscillates between discreet and bold conversation pieces. Apple’s Air Pods, while still on the receiving end of jokes, are now sufficiently established to be instantly recognizable – they may have become the most recognizable headphones since the Walkman.
One of the biggest signs of their use being normalized was the launch by fashion brand Asos of a pair of non-functioning earbuds, shaped like Air Pods, for £6. If people are buying fake Air Pods to look cool, the battle for earbud acceptance has surely been won.
With the market soon to be saturated with options, the fight is on between brands to differentiate. At the launch of its Echo Buds, Amazon proudly announced the incorporation of Bose technology in order to cut down on surrounding noise (although there’s an important question of how much earbuds should seal us off from the outside world, given that they’re being marketed as an always-on, indispensable gadget).
Battery life will always be a selling point: Google’s Pixel Buds, Amazon’s Echo Buds and Apple’s Air Pods all boast five hours, but Microsoft is claiming up to eight on a single charge for its Surface Buds. There’s also the question of how many years these devices will last, with their tiny irreplaceable batteries. Air Pods have been described as having one of the highest turnovers of any modern electronics device.
So what new features we can expect in the upcoming launches?
LG’s new Tone Free earbuds make a distinct pitch to the consumer: germ-free operation, with a UV light in the charging case disinfecting the earbuds between each use. Microsoft, meanwhile, is selling an eye-opening hook-up between Surface Buds and Microsoft Office, where they can be used to transcribe your voice, live, into a document. Google’s Pixel Buds boast translation skills, although we’re still a way off from reaching the capabilities of the mythical Babel fish, as featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A company called Neuvana is taking pre-orders of its stress-relief buds, which stimulate the vagus nerve, while Amazon is looking beyond Echo Buds at its new fitness earbud, currently codenamed Puget. They will measure speed, distance and calories burned, while Alexa guides you on your way.
The scale of ambition that caused problems with the first wireless earbuds four or five years ago is back with a vengeance. As with smart spectacles, earbuds are now tipped to fulfil several functions and to become an indispensable technological partner. But would we prefer spectacles on our nose, buds in our ears or a phone in our pocket? May the most functional, discreet device win.