For most people these days, personal music means phones. Although our love for personal music started with Sony’s Walkman, it was transformed by Apple’s iPod, launching the iconic images of wires trailing from our ears. Since then, billions of users have moved to smartphones as the device of choice for personal music, increasingly using streaming services like Spotify. So the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is a useful touchstone to gauge how that industry is taking note of the way we listen to audio.
For much of the last decade what we put in or on our ears has changed little. Dr Dre voiced his frustration at the “sub-dollar earbuds” that most people use, as a prime reason for manufacturing his range of Beats headsets. But it’s only in the last year that we’ve seen the emergence of real changes. The first is a sudden growth in wireless headsets, thought to be linked to the rise in mobile video and the inconvenience of cables when holding a handset. The second is the shipment of the first hearables in the form of wireless earbuds, which fit into each ear. They started with two successful crowdfunded campaigns, one from Earin in Sweden, the other from Bragi in Munich with their Dash earbuds, adds the further refinement of health and fitness sensors. Both are now shipping, along with Doppler’s Here. In their wake, over twenty other hearable devices have been successfully funded and a growing number of established manufacturers are joining in. So I was fascinated to see what the industry would be showcasing in Barcelona.
On the surface, there wasn’t much to see. Whilst you couldn’t move for stand after stand packed with smartphones in every conceivable shape and colour (actually, if I’m honest they were mostly all the same shape and colour), the one common feature around the show was the continuing presence of a headphone jack and cheap wired earbuds. It gave the impression that phone vendors really didn’t care about audio quality, or rather, assumed that their customers don’t. LG broke the mould with its flagship G5 phone, featuring an interchangeable high quality audio module from Bang and Olufsen. Around the stand they were displaying a range of wired B&O headsets, indicating the same type of relationship that HTC forged with Beats a few years ago, before that fell apart. Perhaps because of that, LG are hedging their bets. As well as the B&O relationship, they’ve been working with Harman and Kardon for their own brand of Tone Platinum wireless headsets. These use Qualcomm’s (formerly CSR’s) AptX codec and Bluetooth chips for superior audio quality and have retractable earbuds on tiny cables, so that you wear the main device around your neck like a torc, which would probably have been a better name for the product, had Celtic marketing reached Korea.
I’d expected to see a lot of Dash lookalikes, but didn’t. Dash were there in passing with the presence of their CEO Nikolaj Hviid, giving a brief talk on NXP’s stand, as one in a set of innovative product company presentations that use NXP chips or sensors. I’ve been playing with the Dash earbuds since just before Christmas and they’re an impressive product, setting the bar for the many others which are following. At MWC the only others I saw were from Motorola and Erato Audio.
The starting question I ask any company offering wireless earbuds is what do they use to send the audio stream from left to right earbud? The reason I ask it is that this is one of the most difficult tasks for separate earbuds, as Bluetooth and any other 2.4GHz signals are heavily attenuated by the head. If you have a large enough antenna sticking out of the ear you can make it work, but it’s difficult. Bragi eventually gave up with the Dash and resorted to a different technique called Near Field Magnetic Induction, using an NXP chip, which is why they were on the NXP stand at MWC. Earin stayed with Bluetooth, relying on reflections from surrounding walls. That works well within a building, but can cause problems when you’re outside and there’s nothing to reflect the signal. The smaller the earbuds, the more difficult it is to get the wireless signal out, as the antenna moves further inside the ear. Companies who understand the implications of this question are probably further down the development route towards a commercial product, or have worked in the hearing aid industry, accumulating a sufficiently high level of expertise.
I’ll start with the Motorola offering, which was also branded as Verve Ones on the Hubble stand. If that’s confusing, join the club. Apparently Hubble is the controlling App, Verve is the lifestyle brand and Motorola is the manufacturer, although if you read the small print, they are designed and manufactured by Binatone. They also look as if they’ve been copied from Bragi, as they look remarkably similar to the Dash, but without the benefit of the Dash’s additional sensors. Or the Near Field Magnetic Induction. When I asked my question I was told that they use Bluetooth for the left to right transfer, so my guess is they’re not going to work that well. But for someone like Motorola to jump on the hearables bandwagon at this stage, suggests the underlying principle has legs. Or that they’re desperate.
I had a far more interesting conversation with the people from Erato Audio, who were promoting the forthcoming Apollo 7 earbuds. They’re also using Bluetooth for ear to ear, but claimed that they had a patented antenna technology which overcame the problem. I’m sceptical until I get a chance to try them, but they talked intelligently about the problems, particularly for outside use. They were also well aware of the need to synchronise left and right audio streams to within 20 microseconds of each other, pre-empting my second question, so I’m hoping the performance lives up the hype when they get to market. Unlike their namesake, it would be nice if they turn out to be more than just a proving mission for the real thing.
Of course, hearables aren’t just about music, as Sony demonstrated with their Xperia Ear. Rather than design a music earbud, the Xperia Ear is an in-ear assistant. The small devices fits into one of your ears, listening to what you say, basically letting you have a conversation with your phone and apps. Sony say that it’s all about never having to look down at your phone again. It’s interesting to see an approach which has less to do with music and more to do with not walking into things. The question is whether enough people are happy to lose stereo music?
A small Korean tech startup on one of the tiny booths was promoting a similar idea, called Ripple buds. They’re a pair of deep ear fitting buds that allegedly pick up your voice from a microphone deep inside the ear. They’re claiming they’re so sensitive that you can even use Siri even at a rock concert. Perhaps they should add support for Amazon Echo so you can order a pair of hearing aids for when you return home? The Ripple buds also support stereo music, although no-one on the stand could answer the questions about how to get the wireless signal through the head. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign on March 21st, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on them.
Ever since I coined the word hearables, I’ve been pointing out that the ear is a better place than the wrist for many physiological measurements. This is something which Bragi has also recognised and taken on board with the Dash. Up until this point, many of the sensors I’ve seen in wearables have been products which were initially developed for mobile phones. At MWC there was evidence that is changing as companies begin to see the market for sensors specifically for hearables. Goodix, a Chinese company with a track record of touch and fingerprint sensors, were exhibiting a new design of heart rate sensor for earbuds. Over on the GSMA stand a competing company – Well Being Digital Ltd, walked off with the prestigious GLOMO Award for Best Wearable Mobile Technology. They’ve been developing algorithms that work to convert the outputs of these types of sensor to add value to hearables and other wearable products. The judges selected them as a “really interesting application from a very credible provider, targeting a promising market. Products like this, with a sensible business plan, are important to move the hearables concept forward.”
Earlier in the awards ceremony, SK telecom had been selected as one of the finalists for the GLOMO Best Use of Mobile for Accessibility & Inclusion Award. They’d been nominated for their Bluetooth-powered Smart Hearing Aid. Looking remarkably like the LG Tone, their device, made by BioSoundLab Company in Korea, combines the function of music ear buds with that of a hearing aid. Unlike similar Personal Sound Amplification Products, these have received certifications from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety as a medical device – a first for a mobile operator.
I’d hoped the Inclusion session in the main conference might cover some aspects of hearing loss, but it largely confined itself to working out how to get smartphone and more internet connections to the rest of the world. Keeping on the hearing aid agenda, Samsung confirmed that the latest Galaxy S7 would support their hearing aids and Earcle devices, along with existing Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge phones, but the world is still waiting for them to appear on the market.
All in all, fewer products that I’d expected to see, but some strong and interesting contenders. Unlike smart watches, hearables haven’t become a commodity yet (every man and their dog had a smart watch or ten this year on their stand, although virtually none on wrists). That’s probably because it’s still very difficult to make hearables which work well; there is a reason that hearing aids are not cheap consumer products – they’re difficult. The good news is that hearables are coming and that there is a remarkable diversity in design ideas and applications. We will definitely see others join Bragi, Earin and Doppler shipping products this year, providing consumers with new choices for listening, or in the case of some, not listening, as noise cancellation gives users the option of a quieter world. I still believe that we are on track for hearables to become the largest and most popular segment of the wearables market.