i3 | December 04, 2017

Smart Hearable Technology

Bobby Baulmer

The pursuit for music portability began nearly four decades ago with Sony’s iconic Walkman, but it was not until the mass adoption of MP3 players and smartphones that headphones became a must-have accessory for consumers. Headphones represent a $2.5 billion (wholesale) product category within the consumer technology industry. Since 2007, U.S. headphone shipments have increased by 261 percent, climbing from roughly 38 million sets to more than 137 million in 2017.

Manufacturers have responded with new form factors and features as consumers forgo what’s “in the box.” Today, consumers can opt for a product to match their lifestyle from wireless earbuds for jogging to noise isolation headphones for air travel.

Though the entire market for headphones has experienced tremendous growth, the popularity of earbuds is most pronounced. While a decade ago earbuds accounted for four in 10 headphone shipments, they now represent nearly eight in 10 shipments. This trend should come as no surprise as the latest earbuds provide both outstanding sound quality and a lightweight portable design.

The next 10 years will bring an increasing assortment of hearables and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs).

CTA forecasts 2018 unit growth of 22 percent for hearables, following a 110 percent increase in 2017. CTA projects PSAPs to grow by 53 percent in 2018, following 40 percent growth in 2017. By 2020, CTA forecasts that combined shipments for hearables and PSAPs will total nearly 10 million units.

Hearables represent an evolution beyond wireless earbuds, with the integration of smart capabilities and controls and instant pairing between mobile devices with the use of near-field communication. First generation hearables include features like digital assistant compatibility (i.e. Alexa, Bixby, Google Assistant, Siri), built-in fitness tracking/health biometric capabilities, and in some cases the ability to translate spoken languages.

Apple, Philips, Samsung and Sony have either announced or released hearables in the last year. Hearables such as Samsung’s Gear IconX serves as a running coach with an in-ear assistant to provide details of the user’s fitness activity. Sony’s WF-1000X offers sound isolation/noise cancellation with the ability to disengage the feature while walking to allow ambient sound to be heard for safety.

PSAPs embody the future of the headphone industry. PSAP capabilities extend well beyond music playback and function as over-the-counter hearing aids by offering customizable digital sound processing and feedback cancellation to improve accessibility for consumers. Popular models, including the Bose Hearphones, are nearly identical to the brand’s conventional headphones, yet provide sophisticated noise filtering to enhance conversations and music for individuals suffering from low to moderate hearing loss.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), hearing loss affects 30 million Americans. However, only one-fifth of individuals with hearing loss seek assistance. President Trump signed the bipartisan Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act into law as a part of the FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017. PSAPs encourage more Americans to purchase hearing devices by increasing access and improving affordability relative to professionally fitted hearing aids. With innovations like hearables and PSAPs, the future for headphone technology is bright.

November/December 2017 i3 Cover Issue

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