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.
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.
Who could have guessed, back in 2014, that a Kickstarter campaign would lead to an $80 billion market segment in just over a decade? But that’s what is happening with hearables, where a new report predicts that it will reach that size in 2025.
The growth of earbuds, which are now the “must-have” hearable for around 80 million users, has turned into the fastest growing consumer electronics product sector ever, eclipsing even the iPhone. That growth is set to accelerate even more with the launch of a new Bluetooth LE Audio standard at CES 2020, which allows designers even more freedom, higher quality and new audio applications.
It all started when Bragi managed to raise almost $3.4m dollars for a new concept – a set of stereo earbuds which could stream music as well as measuring your vital signs. A raft of other startups managed to raise over $50 million in crowdfunding investment between them before Apple arrived with their AirPods, and the rest is history.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest in the world, with around 2,500 different performances taking place each day. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of three weeks, sells almost three million tickets and showcases some of the best performances from around the world. It also seems to attract the world’s worst sound technicians, who think that volume is the only thing that matters. So it was refreshing to find a couple of shows this year which highlighted the issues of hearing loss. Around a quarter of us will experience hearing loss during our lives, so it is important that people become more aware of how to protect their hearing, as well as understanding the consequences of hearing loss and for society to remove the stigma of wearing hearing aids.
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.