Apple’s AirPods, first released in late 2016, have become a cultural phenomenon. Spurring countless knock-offs, AirPods currently account for roughly 60% of the wireless earbuds market. But Apple’s surprise hit is about to face some formidable competition.
Microsoft last week announced its Surface Earbuds, which will cost roughly $100 more than the starting price for AirPods 2, but includes features like live-transcription and integration with Office 365. Amazon also recently announced its Alexa-compatible Echo Buds, which are less costly than Apple and Microsoft’s offerings and include noise reduction technology from Bose. And there are other impressive devices that have joined the market recently.
It’s not a surprise that other tech giants are vying for their own chunk of the “hearables” market. The AirPods 2, introduced back in March, cost about $50 more than the original models, as they included wireless charging and the ability to call upon Siri. But the AirPods have continued to sell. Apple’s wearables category, which includes AirPods and the Apple Watch, is now at a $16 billion annual run rate and is expected to surpass the iPad and the Mac in sales by 2020, estimated Apple analyst Neil Cybart. The business segment generated $5.53 billion in revenue in Apple’s most recent earnings, a jump of nearly 50% over the same period the year before.
Do any devices have what it takes to snatch Apple’s earbud crown? Here are some of the biggest competitors AirPods face today.
Microsoft Surface Earbuds
Microsoft’s buds may be too pricey for the average recreational music listener, but the button-shaped Earbuds could prove promising as a productivity tool for office workers. They can live-transcribe what users are saying into captions that can be fed directly into apps like PowerPoint. The company said the buds will be able to translate that text into 60 different languages. The Earbuds have eight hours of battery life, which puts them at an advantage over the 5 hours of listening time offered by AirPods 2. Each set comes with its own charging case, which holds three additional full charges onboard. The Earbuds also includes fixtures in three different sizes that the company hopes will help the buds fit into a wide variety of ears. You can also select to use Cortana, Alexa, or Siri as your voice assistant, which will likely appeal to non-Apple users. The Earbuds will go on sale later this year.
Amazon Echo Buds
Amazon’s new earphones are a great option for the bargain-conscious shopper looking for a pair of noise-canceling earbuds. They’re considerably cheaper than much of the competition. The battery life is on par with AirPods at five hours, but have another 20 hours of charge stored in the case. The buds pair with your phone, and using its data connection, allow you to talk directly to Alexa, which can do just about everything the assistant could on an Amazon Echo device. If you’re not a fan of Alexa, the buds can also integrate with Siri or Google Assistant. And if you’re worried about being too disconnected from the world, you can turn the Echo Buds’ noise cancellation feature off.
What a catchy name. At $230, Sony’s latest wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM3, are pricier than AirPods. But the Bluetooth headphones offer noise-cancellation, two types of ear buds in a range of sizes, and a choice of colors for the case. It offers six hours of battery life, which also gives them a slight edge over AirPods. Its fast charge capabilities are a bit lacking, though. You’ll only get 90 minutes of listening time after charging for 10 minutes, compared to the AirPods’ three hours in 15 minutes.
Samsung Galaxy Buds
Not only are Galaxy Buds more less pricey than other major brands of wireless earbuds, Samsung is throwing them in gratis for anyone who pre-orders a Galaxy Fold, or buys a Galaxy Note 10 or Galaxy S10 (in some regions). The in-ear headphones are available in three colors, including a rather eye-catching highlighter yellow. For joggers and other active individuals, the Galaxy Buds come with secure fit tips so you won’t risk losing them during a particularly grueling workout. Samsung’s buds work with its own voice assistant, Bixby, found on its phones, or can be configured to connect to Google Assistant or Siri.
Whatever Apple has next
Apple is expected to release another update to its AirPods in the near future. While details about the third versions are sparse, it’s possible we could see them soon, if Apple chooses to have another product launch event later this month. There have been rumors of a new design, noise cancellation features, and integration with Apple Health -specifically fitness tracking. The company recently filed a patent for a model for ear buds that include biometric sensors, which could measure things like blood volume, respiratory rate, and heart rate.
All told, if you’re hunting for wireless earbuds this holiday season, it will likely be a tough choice between AirPods and the offerings from Apple’s rivals. But, for now, it’s unlikely that any of the newer contenders will overtake Apple’s lead in the market, according to industry analysts.
The future of smart earbuds
The fact that AirPods have become a status symbol, much like the iPhone and iPod before them, creates a challenge for other companies. People who already own an Apple Watch and an iPhone are unlikely to spring for a different brand of ear buds. Instead, it’s likely that alternative products will have to corner a different kind of consumer entirely.
“I am not confident that companies like Amazon and Microsoft have the needed skill sets to ship credible alternatives to AirPods,” Cybart told Quartz over email. “Instead, the most likely path is that companies will target niche segments of the wireless headphone market.”
Smart wireless earbuds–and wearables more generally–are becoming ways for tech companies to tie their ecosystems together. “Microsoft sees the value of Surface Buds being tied to productivity and linked to Windows,” Ben Arnold, a consumer-technology industry analyst at The NPD Group, said. “Similarly, the Echo Buds are linked to the Alexa app and while they’ll work with any device and assistant it seems, I would say the plan is for the Echo Buds to be an extension of Alexa and a link to Amazon’s devices and services.”
It’s unlikely we’ll see a scenario where one brand of wireless earbuds rules the roost. Instead, different products will appeal to specific audiences, potentially like Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds and office workers. There’s the possibility that we’ll see a market mature much like the smartphone industry has, where the iPhone remains a sizable but contained section of the market, competing with myriad options running Android that run the gamut of prices and functionalities.