2016 is the year true wireless earbuds have finally hit the mass market. From the Jabra Elite Sport to Apple's much-discussed AirPods, there's no shortage of earbuds to pick from. But is true wireless a fleeting fad or the future of hearables? We think it's the latter. Here's why.
As the dust settles on the news that Apple's iPhone 7 comes without the headphone jack, let's take a closer look at the term "true wireless."
Many felt outraged by Apple's decision to drop the jack. Others praised it as a bold and courageous move toward embracing the wireless future. Who's right?
History is on Apple's side here. In 1998, the company was mocked for abandoning the floppy disk drive on the iMac G3. Now raise your hands: How many of you are weeping over that decision?
Apple often has a knack for spotting trends and acting on them before others do. With the new AirPods, Apple isn't just introducing yet another pair of wireless earbuds; it's bringing the very concept of "true wireless" to the mass market.
And Apple has done this before: Speech recognition has been around for decades, but it wasn't until Siri injected some personality into it in 2011 that people really began adopting the technology. Now the time has come for true wireless earbuds.
At Jabra, we welcome the move. We're no strangers to wireless tech. We've launched the world's first Bluetooth headset as far back as 2000. We've announced our own true wireless earbuds – Jabra Elite Sport – in early September. So, yes, we're betting on the true wireless future. With Apple's recent move, that future now seems closer than ever.
It's not just wishful thinking. It's where the market is heading. Wireless headphones already account for almost a quarter of all headphone units sold. By 2025, they're expected to account for well over a third.
Even if you accept that true wireless is going to stick around, you might have a concern or two (or ten). Let's tackle the most common ones.
Unlike wired headsets, there used to be no plug-and-play option with Bluetooth. You had to first connect the headphones to your smartphone via an inconvenient – even if not so complicated – "pairing" process.
Those days are virtually over. With technologies like NFC finding their way into more and more phones, connecting two Bluetooth devices is now literally as simple as briefly tapping them together. Soon, true wireless earbuds will be no more difficult to connect than their wired cousins.
By definition, true wireless earbuds don't have anything connecting them. They're also smaller than traditional wireless headphones. After all, they're typically designed to fit neatly into your ear canal. Should you be worried about losing them?
Guess what? Manufacturers take this into account and look for ways to minimize this risk. Every pair of true wireless earbuds comes with a carry case to store them in. If you're worried about them somehow slipping right out of your ears – don't be. True wireless earbuds, especially fitness ones like the Jabra Elite Sport, are specifically designed to stay snugly in your ears, no matter how much you shake your head. They're also far less likely to get yanked out of your ears than headphones with a wire.
You'll also see other innovations that reduce the risk of losing your true wireless earbuds. (For instance, GPS trackers that help you locate your earbuds if you misplace them.) In short, while it's a good idea to take extra care with tiny earbuds, it doesn't have to be a major issue.
Because of their smaller size, true wireless earbuds have limited space for battery. As such, most will last for about three hours before needing a charge. Typically, their carry case also doubles as a portable charger that helps top up the battery on the go. This extends the earbuds' total battery time to about nine hours or so. Is that a whole lot? Nope, but it's enough to get most people through the day.
Keep in mind that battery tech isn't standing still. We'll undoubtedly see dramatic increases in battery life for true wireless earbuds in the future. But you'll have to decide just how much battery you're happy with.
Any true audiophile will tell you that wireless headphones "just don't sound the same, man." They're right. You have to compress the audio in order to transmit it wirelessly, leading to some loss of quality.
At least that's the case for now. That gap is becoming smaller every year, as wireless sound quality keeps improving. The Aptx codec already delivers "CD-like quality" to Bluetooth headphones. Is that good enough? You decide. But most non-audiophile music listeners have been pretty happy with the wireless sound quality for years. It will only get better.
With all that said, why go true wireless in the first place?
First, there are the obvious things: more discreet form factor, no tangled wires, better range of motion while exercising. But true wireless earbuds are also paving the way for how we interact with our technology going forward. We're using our voice to perform an ever-broader range of tasks, from asking Cortana to schedule our appointments to controlling things in our home via Amazon Echo.
True wireless earbuds put not only music but these voice-activated features at the forefront. They let us smoothly switch between calls and music, and their noise cancellation tech is helping smartphone assistants better understand what we're saying. Thanks to true wireless, we'll all be ready when the future depicted in movies like Her finally arrives.
So the question is not whether true wireless earbuds are here to stay. (They are.) The real question is how long will you wait until getting your first pair…and which one will it be?
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