For the better part of the last decade, numerous startups and tech giants alike have raced to create the ultimate in-ear device. From sound quality to battery life to noise cancellation and more, manufacturers strive to pack an increasing number of features into smaller and smaller devices.
In the wake of the mass adoption of wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smart watches, a sub-segment of smart wireless earbuds has come to be known as “hearables.” According to 2020 report by Allied Market Research, “the global hearables market size was valued at $21.20 billion in 2018, and is projected to reach $93.90 billion by 2026.”
While there is widespread agreement that hearables represent a massive emerging market segment, there is less agreement when it comes to defining just what exactly is a hearable.
In a recent article for Forbes, hearing health expert David Cannington broke down the subsets of hearable devices within the more broadly defined sector:
- Commodity True Wireless Earbuds: Price-driven segment offering basic music streaming and phone call functionality.
- Sports True Wireless Earbuds: Focus on smaller size, comfort, high quality sound, strong Bluetooth connection, water resistance or water-proofing, and biometric tracking.
- Voice-focused True Wireless: Products like Amazon Echobuds, Google Pixel Buds and Apple Airpods Pro that integrate smartphone makers’ voice-assist technologies with in-ear devices.
- Hearing Enhancement: Over-the counter devices designed to enhance hearing with features that augment and/or personalize sound based on a user’s preferences and needs.
- Hearing Aid Hearables: With a price tag in the thousands of dollars, hearing aid manufacturers like Phonak are debuting hearing aids that look like wireless earbuds and stream music while also requiring an audiologist fitting and boasting full hearing aid functionality.
In 2019, Scotland’s NHS (National Health Service), offered the 1st formalized definition of hearables from a government organization. Their more narrow definition of the hearables category read as follows:
“Devices that are primarily intended to allow streaming of media to the device but that also offer a hearing enhancing function not dissimilar to a hearing aid.”
The Impact of Apple
When looking at the hearables market size of $21 billion in 2018, the largest contributor to that figure is surely Apple’s AirPods. First introduced in 2016, Apple sold over 60 million pairs of AirPods in 2019 alone. But despite relatively good sound, great battery life, and solid Bluetooth connection, AirPods are hard to define as a hearing enhancement device. Consequently, the true “hearables” market when defining the market segment as the NHS Scotland does, may still be in its infancy.
Following the introduction of AirPods Pro in late 2019, Apple now boasts a more legitimate entrant in the official hearables category of devices. With the addition of active noise cancellation and so-called “audio transparency” or augmented hearing functionality, AirPods Pro offer some actual hearing enhancement capabilities.
Exciting Emerging Contenders in the Hearables Sector
Looking beyond the massive influence of Apple in the hearables sector, there are numerous other intriguing products. One especially intriguing alternative to AirPods Pro is the new IQbuds2 MAX from Nuheara, a smart hearing device company based out of Australia.
Both devices offer active noise cancellation, a truly wireless form factor, Bluetooth 5.0 connection, and a strong battery life. However, the IQbuds2 MAX stand apart with functionality that truly bridges the gap between standard wireless earbuds and hearing aids. Starting with a built-in hearing assessment that comes with the companion smartphone app, these earbuds will then auto-calibrate based on personal hearing profile to compensate for any mild-to-moderate hearing deficiencies.
These earbuds also enable the user to focus sound by direction, enhancing conversations and speech directly in front of them while dulling ambient background noise. Another not insignificant difference between the products is that IQbuds2 MAX offer all features and functions on both iOS and Android systems while Android users experience some limitations with AirPods Pro.
The Outlook for Hearables in 2020
2020 will be a breakout year for hearables. With the on-going proliferation of wireless devices in addition to new legislation such as the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act in the United States, mainstream adoption of smart hearing devices has become more of a question of “when” rather than “if.”