The Role of Smart Headphones Is Yet to Be Determined


Smart headphones are typically known as “true wireless” devices, as they bring full-wireless flexibility to a largely wired product category. However, their value proposition extends much beyond being just a wireless headphone device.

Apple AirPods have been largely responsible for ushering in the era of smart headphones and making them a mainstream device category. But AirPods do not necessarily represent the full capabilities of smart headphones. Apple’s controversial entry into smart headphones was largely centered on the elimination of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, focusing the discussion on the virtues of having a pair of headphones without wires, and optimizing space on the smartphone circuit board. Apple’s support for Siri, touch, and tap gestures for control, and the fact that Apple introduced a dedicated W1 chipset for the AirPods, was largely overlooked. Being Apple, it took the usual approach of positioning the AirPods as a fashion accessory, rather than an innovative technology.

Specialist Vendors Are Showcasing Value Propositions and Innovations

If one wants to really understand the capabilities and probable future directions for smart headphones, just look at smaller, specialist vendors like Bragi, Doppler Labs, LifeBEAM, and Jabra. While the market is growing, as we have seen with the recent announcement by Google about the launch of its Google Pixel Bud headphones, below are four companies that showcase the varied value propositions and innovations that we see coming to smart headphones.

Bragi can be considered one of the pioneers of the smart headphones market, launching its Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 for its Dash Pro headphones. The Dash Pro is one of the most advanced smart headphones in the market, with 27 sensors and an embedded neural network on the device that is modeled after a fly’s brain, making it one of the closest things to a computer in the ear. Its built-in features include a wide range of activity tracking for heart rate, step count, calories, cadence, speed, breaths, and swimming lengths, as well as 4G of built-in memory for music.

LifeBEAM is an artificial intelligence (AI) wearables company that started off developing in-ear biosensors for the aerospace and military sector. The Vi is its voice-activated AI-based personal trainer headphones, which includes LifeBEAM’s biosensing technology, along with Harman Kardon’s audio expertise. Vi is one of the first commercially available smart headphones to come with a live, voice-activated personal coach that listens and interacts with you while you are running. The Vi also comes in a form factor that is different from a true wireless form factor, sporting a neckband that connects the left and right earbuds, allowing the user to take off the headphones and hang them off the neckband.

(Source: Jabra)

Jabra’s Elite Sport are wireless sport smart headphones that can track heart rate, includes a motion sensor, and provides enhanced audio features, such as noise canceling and hear-through sounds, providing external ambient noise into the earbuds. Elite Sport comes with a well-designed mobile application that provides detailed statistics on workouts and activity levels, including support for multiple activities, such as running, cycling, swimming, skiing, skating, spinning, etc. Elite Sport is great for someone who is a gym or fitness aficionado, providing detailed step-by-step guidance for workouts, determining your fitness level based on a VO2 max test and recovery levels. Elite Sport is positioned as a virtual coach that sits in your ears and guides you through workouts, but goes a step further by giving you specific indicators about your body condition. The ability to track activity metrics like steps and heart rate through the ear, and do it consistently and accurately, for the most part, along with detailed metrics, is something that puts the Jabra Elite Sport in a league apart in the smart headphones space. For someone like me who is an occasional runner and gym visitor, the pair of Elite Sports that Jabra kindly provided seemed like overkill in terms of the statistics and metrics that it presented to me.

(Source: Doppler Labs)

Doppler Labs’ Here One smart headphones bring a different value proposition compared to those from Bragi, LifeBEAM, or Jabra. Here One headphones are true wireless and meant for the audiophile, who is not just interested in having a personal profile created for enhancing the bass or treble, but also experiments with sophisticated noise filtering or audio enhancement capabilities. Doppler Labs brings AI-enabled machine learning algorithms and software-controlled filtering techniques that can distinguish between the noise of a city, restaurant, workspace, or airplane. As opposed to generic noise canceling headphones, Here One constantly looks out for specific frequencies that make environments unique. I found the Hear One headphones that Doppler Labs generously provided me with to be very effective in blocking out noise in airplanes, noisy cafes, open workspaces, and busy streets. It comes with a very intuitive smartphone app that allows you to control the level of filtering that you want. The Here One headphones can also be very good at gathering sounds in both forward and backward directions, making them fun, but somewhat creepy eavesdropping devices, something that I would imagine a spy or secret service agent would use.

A Wireless Future without Clear Societal Rules or Features that Wow Us

Having tried and tested some of the smart headphones that are available in the market offers an interesting glimpse into the future of headphones. The future is clearly going wireless, although it is not very clear which smart capabilities will be popular or sticky enough for the general headphone user. There is clearly an in-ear digital voice assistant aspect, but personally, I hardly used the voice assistant capabilities. In general, I am a light user of voice-based assistants and largely prefer to use them in a personal home setting like with Amazon Alexa, rather than out on the street or on a crowded train. I am not convinced that the transition to an era of voice-based computing, something that is being heralded by smart headphones today, is going to happen without some form of societal backlash, as we saw with Google Glass. If we are to assume that a large population of users will one day be wearing mostly well-concealed smart headphones all day long, how does that impact social interaction? We already encounter some social awkwardness with wired headphones, but it is likely to become worse with smart headphones. For example, does one remove the headphones if you want to order a coffee at the register? Or do you simply keep them in your ear, turn on the hear-through feature, and continue with your order? In my own experience, I had to continuously take my headphones out of my ears as I went about my day and had conversations with people, putting them back in afterwards. It just seemed plain rude to keep my smart headphones in my ears as I was speaking with a live person. That really defeats the purpose of smart headphones, which are meant to be your digital companion that you wear for extended periods of the day.

In addition to the social rules that have yet to be determined for smart headphones, they do suffer from poor battery life and most have comfort issues. Smart headphones start to feel uncomfortable after extended periods of use, largely because they pack in a lot of hardware in a small form factor. This is despite having been provided six distinct types of ear tips, foam and gel versions, to help find the ideal configuration. For me, in-ear-canal headphones seemed to fit better than any of the earbud-style headphones, although after a few hours, you really want to get them out. Most smart headphones come with a portable charging case, which does a quick recharge, and for most smart headphones today, you can go about your full day or even 2 days with recharging every 3 to 5 hours. It is not the most convenient solution, but at least it gives you flexibility to use your headphones for extended periods of time.

More Details Presented in Tractica’s New Report

It is clear to me that smart headphones are where the headphone industry is headed in the long run; however, it is less evident how soon we will get there, or what features will really stick out. For more details about the market drivers and challenges, key industry players and market forecasts, watch for our upcoming Smart Headphones report.

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