“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dickens’ could have written that opening line to preface an account of the Covid year for the hearables industry. Over the last six months consumer demand for earbuds has risen to an unprecedented level. In contrast, hearing aid manufacturers have been dealt a body blow, with sales tumbling by up to 75%. As one industry executive put it “we’d have done better if we were an airline”. Covid has also had unexpected effects on the service industries which have been traditional drivers of hearables growth. Audio streaming services like Spotify have seen listening times go down, while video streaming and video conferencing have experienced unprecedented demand.
As countries came out of lockdown during the summer, we saw further shifts in usage, but it’s apparent that overall, hearables have done well out of the crisis. That trend looks set to continue as we face a second wave of the pandemic and further lockdowns.
In the five and a half years since I coined the term
“Hearables” the market has grown at an amazing rate. At the time I estimated that the market for
the things we put in our ears might grow to $7.6 billion in 2018. I think it just nudged over that to reach $7.8
billion. What I hadn’t anticipated was
the success of Apple’s Airpods, which are driving adoption even faster, more or
less doubling their sales volume every year.
With the recent launch of Amazon’s Echo Buds, which could attract a new
audience with the promise of a life which is “Always Alexa”, as well as the
availability of a growing number of Bluetooth enabled hearing aids, the market
looks as if it could reach $22 billion in 2020.
Hearables had a slow start.
Although Apple probably started its Airpod design project as far back as
2013, the first thing that the public saw was Bragi’s Kickstarter campaign for
their Dash earbuds. In March 2014, the
Dash became famous as the most heavily funded Kickstarter project, raising $3.4
million. Another crowdfunded startup –
Earin, beat them to market by a few months, but Bragi eventually got the Dash
out in February 2016. In that first year
of hearables, (or the first fifty-one weeks, as Apple finally started shipping
Airpods in the last week of the year), global shipments from all manufacturers were
probably not much more than 100,000 units, most of which were the early MFI
compliant Bluetooth hearing aids. In
that last week of 2016, Apple probably sold more Airpods than the rest of the
industry had shipped through the course of the year. Four years on from that humble start, 2019
will probably see 75 million sets of hearables shipped. That makes hearables the fastest growing tech
There’s growing speculation that Apple will be launching their next generation of AirPods sometime this year, so I thought it would be interesting to try to predict what might be in their next generation of earbuds. The hearables market is moving very quickly and there’s no shortage of technology for Apple to choose from. But the AirPods are a little different to anything else that Apple has ever brought to market.
The biggest difference is the way it has changed their development model. Historically, Apple is a follower. They don’t invent product categories – they wait for other major companies to create the market, then come in with a slicker product which delights customers. They concentrate on everything which is needed for people to feel that Apple invented the experience. After that, they create clear water between themselves and their competitors by constantly increasing the level of delight. The AirPod is arguably the first product where Apple have made the market themselves. There was a smattering of crowdfunded earbuds before the AirPods were announced, but they were only shipping in tens of thousands. In contrast, AirPods are shipping in the millions. For once, Apple wasn’t competing with established industry giants, but small, often poorly funded startups. That’s what makes the question of what might be in an AirPod 2 or AirPod 3 so interesting.
And lo, they spake in many tongues. And verily, some of them even began to ship.
So beginneth the first chapter in the Book of Hearables. We have reached the point where you can buy a device that you put in your ear, which can translate what someone is saying to you in another language in real time. After several years of marketing and hype, consumers are suddenly spoilt for choice, with Waverly’s Pilot, Mymanu’s Clik and Google’s Pixel Buds all appearing within a few weeks of each other. It’s Google recent announcement which has caught the public imagination, but that’s mainly a result of the scale of their marketing machine. With less media attention, other startup companies have been quietly beavering away, mostly in the crowdfunded arena.
Anyone who’s been following the evolution of earbuds over the last few years will have been aware of the trend. After Bragi invented the hearable category with their Dash earbuds, others started to experiment with different features and applications, looking for ways to make the things we stick in our ears do more exciting things than just play music. A startup called Waverly Labs was the first to concentrate on translation, back in June 2016, when they launched a campaign on Indiegogo for their Pilot earpieces, which promised to translate between five languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Others weren’t far behind, with Doppler (sadly deceased), Mymanu, Human, Inspear, Bragi, Lingmo, TimeKettle and a host of others joining in the race to wean us off Spotify and Pandora and start us talking to our fellow mortals. (Although if we’d rather listen to music than talk to people who speak the same language, it’s questionable whether there’s a massive market in wanting to talk to those who don’t.)