Sometimes, it needs what seems to be a small, tangential innovation to make a product successful. At the time, it may not seem much, but it can result in the product acquiring a life of its own. One product which is making its way along that trajectory is the humble earbud charging case.
The history of the charging case is quite interesting. Stereo wireless earbuds were a long time coming. It needed some serious technical innovation by a couple of chip companies to make them possible – new technology by Cambridge Silicon Radio (now part of Qualcomm) to let them receive and render separate left and right audio channels, and small near-field magnetic induction chips from another silicon company – NXP to send wireless signals through our heads. It then needed the brilliance of a German startup called Bragi to turn these concepts into working stereo earbuds, kickstarting the whole hearables market. It has become the fastest growing technology product ever, eclipsing even the iPhone in its growth.
Just before Christmas, the Bluetooth SIG published the final documents in the first release of Bluetooth LE Audio. It’s been the largest single development in the history of the Bluetooth specifications, taking around eight years and comprising 25 new or updated documents, with over 1,250 pages of specification. Its aim is ambitious, the intent being to provide the platform for the next twenty years of wireless audio development.
Today is World Hearing Day and the World Health Organisation has taken the opportunity to launch the first-ever “World Report on Hearing”. In it, they warn that more than 1 billion young people are at risk of avoidable hearing loss, with the total number of people predicted to develop hearing loss rising to around 2.5 billion by 2050. A key message is prevention, warning of the immense social and economic cost of hearing loss if this increase continues.
Yesterday, Apple pre-empted the report by releasing findings from the first year of their Hearing Study. Their report shows that the average weekly headphone exposure for one in ten participants was higher than the WHO recommended limit. They remind listeners that “while catchy tunes can be tempting, you should consider listening to music and other media at the lowest enjoyable volume”. It’s a useful piece of research, as it is collecting real data about usage, providing some of the most accurate information we have on what people actually do.
In contrast, Spotify is still urging users to turn up the volume. Last week, at its virtual “Stream On” event. Spotify announced “a new HiFi service, which will deliver music in a CD-quality, lossless audio format”. It claims that “fans will be able to experience more depth and clarity while enjoying their favorite tracks”. To promote the new service, they’ve commissioned a short YouTube video from Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, which contradicts almost everything that the WHO is trying to do promote hearing health. It appalls me that anyone at Spotify released it. Here’s a transcript and a brief analysis of the opening conversation.
In October 2020, the hearables industry acquired its first unicorn. Eargo, a startup making hearing aids, had a successful IPO, with its market valuation rising to $1.3 billion. It’s been on a roller-coaster ever since, nudging $3 billion last month before sliding back to $2.3 billion. Some might argue that it’s not the first hearables unicorn, as Apple acquired Beats for $3 billion back in 2014, but Beats was never really a unicorn. Beats had received a $500 million investment from Carlyle the year before, which gave it a valuation at just over $1 billion, but a large chunk of that valuation was based on their music service, not their hardware. Ironically, the success of Airpods means that Apple now almost certainly outsells its acquisition, making Beats the junior hearables partner. We’ll probably never know whether Beats played any part in the Airpod’s development, or whether it was a purely internal Apple development, but that’s history. The question on everybody’s lips in the hearables industry is “Who will be the next unicorn?”
With the meteoric rise in the sale of earbuds, there’s an increasing amount of speculation about what this means for the hearing aid market. Most miss the fundamental difference, which is that earbuds are selling in the hundreds of millions because consumers like them, whereas hearing aids are still seen by many as a product of last resort, because there is a stigma attached to them. That means that most people with hearing loss don’t go for a hearing test until around ten years after they should. If we could get rid of that stigma, and make hearing aids as popular as earbuds, life would be very much better for hundreds of millions of people.
Hearing aids are not the first products to have a stigma. I’m old enough to remember a similar situation with glasses. A child with a sight impairment would do everything they could not to admit it, lest they were labelled “four-eyes” or “speccy” by their classmates. Most children’s books up to the 1960s had a glasses-wearing child as the scapegoat of the story. Then John Lennon came along and all of a sudden, glasses were cool. Nobody could quite explain why, but glasses changed from being something you tried not to wear to being a multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which conveniently managed to restore your sight at the same time. Whilst the arrival of contact lenses threated their existence, glasses resisted the competition and remain immensely popular. You no longer make a spectacle of yourself by wearing them, and nobody would consider them as a “seeing-aid”. So how is that changing for hearing aids?
“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.