Cutting the cord – the wireless headphone market

It’s been a year since Apple made the ‘brave’ decision to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack. Now in late 2017, Jonathan Easton takes a look at whether that gamble has paid off, and what’s next for headphones

THE COLUMN INCHES became feet last September when Apple boldly announced that the new iPhone would be the first to abandon headphone conventions and force wired headphone users to dongle up or go wireless. Conveniently, Apple launched its own pair of wireless ‘AirPods’ on the same day.

And that strategy seems to have been a success. Sales of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were solid, and – according to research firm NPD – 85 per cent of all ‘true’ wireless headphones (no cables whatsoever) sold in the US this year were Airpods. That, combined with the company’s ownership of Beats, puts Apple in a commanding position in the market.

The big question facing the industry right now is whether wireless headphones and earphones will ever entirely replace their wired counterparts. Apple, Samsung and other smartphone vendors seem to think so, but key figures in the Channel aren’t so convinced that the change will come quite as soon as the hype might suggest.

“Wired models still account for over 80 per cent of the units sold in the last 12 months,” notes Toby Jarvis, UK and Ireland account manager for Consumer Electronics at Gfk. “The story is a little different from a value-perspective, with Bluetooth conversion largely coming from high-spec models in the higher price bands. Price, as well as issues surrounding build, sound and Bluetooth connection quality, may explain the relatively limited adoption in the lower price points so far. For now, at least, the wired headphone is not dead.”

Dynamode boss Nick Beer however thinks that the headphone market is really split into three types of shopper. “One is the casual listener (general music, books, sports etc.), the next is the gamer and third is the audiophile perfectionist. The latter always strive for maximum sound resolution and I can see that even into the future wireless will never be good enough for them. High purity metal conduction (in their mind at least) will also beat the wireless which to them can be seen as a ‘compromise’ on performance for the headphones.”

And that compromise is certainly a consideration for a lot of consumers. While wireless headphones offer, as Optoma senior product manager Kishan Mistry puts it, ‘the beauty of freedom and convenience’, there are also setbacks. Mistry continues: “wired headphones, in the main, deliver better audio quality than their Bluetooth counterparts and you don’t have to worry about battery life.”

However, these are problems that in iterations will be evolved out of being issues. It just takes looking at the differences between the 2016 and 2017 AirPods in terms of battery life and practicablity. The 2016 buds had ‘up to five hours’ of juice but had to be plugged in to be charged. The 2017 edition, unveiled in September, can now be topped up on the go, via the new wireless charging case.

As previously mentioned, Apple is in many ways running away with the market as others scramble to catch up with the obscenely popular earbuds taking most people by surprise. Even CEO Tim Cook admitted in August that Apple is ‘still not able to meet the strong level of demand’ for AirPods. The first like-for-like cheaper alternative to the AirPods – the $30 HBQ i7 Twins – have only recently been released, with Google’s own versions (codenamed Bisto) set to launch soon.

At the other end of the scale, the more high-end brands such as Bose, Bowers and Wilkins and Sennheiser also have their own wireless solutions, albeit at a heftier price tag than the AirPods.

The market is moving wireless, and it seems like only a matter of when, rather than if, the majority of headphones do invariably end up wireless.

“Wireless already dominate wired in western markets,” says Mistry. “It is estimated that the majority of headphones sold in 2017 will be wireless and within the next few years the same will happen globally. The shift is slower in some parts of Asia, mainly due to lower income levels, strong presence or physical music (CDs etc) and overall slower adaption of new technology and streaming services.”

The audiophiles of the world may prefer wired headphones for a long while to come, but for the majority of consumers, to whom portability, convenience and style outweigh sound quality, wireless is an increasingly tempting option that they cannot ignore. And with an ever increasing number of flagship phones opting for no headphone port, those consumers aren’t left with much choice.

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