It’s almost four years since I coined the word “hearables”, so it was pleasant to see it displayed as a headline product category on NXP’s stand at the Mobile World Congress last week, confirming that hearables are taking off as a serious market sector. It was also encouraging to see the range of products that they had on display which are already available, or close to being available to buy, including models from Bragi, Doppler, Earin, Nuheara, MyManu and Jabra.
Most of these still come from start-up companies. With the exception of Jabra and Apple, the majority of companies shipping hearable products started off life through crowdfunding campaigns. I’ve been tracking many of these, and was fascinated to see that at the end of February, the overall total that has been raised for hearable devices passed the $50 million dollar mark, with backers placing orders for over 300,000 products. With major headphone brands starting to weigh in, it’s a good indication that hearables are topping the list of wearable products that consumers want to buy. That’s in stark contrast to other wearable products, where the demise of Pebble and continuing layoffs at Fitbit and GoPro suggest that the initial customer enthusiasm has not translated into a compelling desire to continue wearing them.
Back in 2014, when I reviewed the emerging wearables market, I suggested that the sector with the greatest potential would be hearables. Over the intervening two years it has seen intense activity. Over $45 million has been pledged in crowdfunding campaigns for earbuds and stereo headphones from almost a quarter a million backers. The value of sales of wireless headsets has overtaken that of wired headsets and now Apple has added momentum by removing the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7, as well as launching their own earbud – the Airpod.
One of the key reasons hearables are doing so well compared to other wearable sectors is because they don’t need to work out what to do with the data they generate. Every other wearable is a slave to the treadmill of quantitative feedback, where it needs to make the data it produces compelling, or else risk being consigned to the drawer of doom. Hearables are bought for consuming existing content in the form of music or videos, giving apps developers much more time and freedom to play with the accompanying data. That is a massive advantage over anything that you wear on your wrist.
On 7th September, Apple announced the demise of the 3.5mm audio jack. Alongside that, they introduced their Airpods, helping to stoke the momentum for a new world of hearable devices, The loss of the jack was a move which generated howls of anguish from the wireophile community, along with a flurry of speculation about how Airpods worked as well as what Apple’s new W1 wireless chip was doing.
Having been working with wireless standards and hearables for several years, much of that speculation seemed ill-informed. Once Airpods come to market in October, companies like iFixit and Chipworks will take them to pieces and we’ll have a better idea of exactly what Apple have done. But those first tear-downs are still a few months away. So I thought it would be interesting to try a speculative teardown, based on how I might have designed them, and on the limited information which is in the public domain. I also think I know what Apple’s second wireless chip will be, and it’s not the W2.
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.
The twentieth century has seen many revolutions in the way we live our lives. One of the less discussed is that it has given us the mass ability to actively injure our health. Over the last fifty years, the miracles of modern science have turned the medical profession 180 degrees, sending maladies to the grave rather than its patients. To compensate, we’ve taken the opportunity to find highly successful ways of throwing that newly found health and longevity away. Throughout the twentieth century we have developed generational and lifestyle diseases on a massive scale as we live longer and indulge our addictions. From smoking and lung cancer, alcohol and cirrhosis, to fast food, obesity and type 2 diabetes, humanity has shown its unerring ability to put short term pleasure ahead of long term health. Each of these diseases impact society, not least because of the cost of supporting a population which is avidly collecting a growing range of self-inflicted, long term chronic conditions.
Another one, which we don’t talk about and generally don’t want to hear about is quietly joining the list of widespread chronic conditions – hearing loss.
It’s been a good month for hearables, at least if you look at the $17 million that Doppler Labs has just raised. But it asks the question of where hearables are going, as well as what consumers think they’re getting?
Doppler Labs started off life a few years ago with DUBS – a high tech earplug aimed predominantly at concert fans to help protect their hearing. Unlike conventional foam earplugs, the DUBS are designed to attenuate fairly evenly across the audible spectrum, so they reduce the volume without distorting the music. They appear to have gone down well, with the Coachella Valley music festival buying 135,000 pairs to hand out to attendees.
However, what has got everyone talking is Doppler’s recent Kickstarter campaign for their Here active listening earbuds. 2,855 backers pledged $635k to help bring them to life (and presumably to help close the external funding). The questions are what those backers think they’ve bought and why?
I ask that because the Here is an interesting device. If you’ve not seen it, click Here. It’s not a music player. If you’re wearing it you can’t stream music via Bluetooth or a conventional wire. What it does, some may say all it does, is act as a volume control to attenuate or manage what you hear. It’s almost like a reverse hearing aid, which helps you hear less rather than hear more. Much of the internal technology is very like that a hearing aid, but its application and customer base are very different. That makes it a very interesting product in the hearables spectrum. I suspect it may have an important impact on the hearing aid industry, but not in the way many might imagine.