The headphones landscape has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade and as a result, headphones are becoming the fastest-selling personal electronic device on the market. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated this adoption due to the increase in remote working, the growth of gaming and further potential in use cases, such as health and hearing augmentation. As a result, headphones and true wireless devices are expected to grow to over 700 million in 5 years’ time.
At Audio Collaborative 2020, Research Analyst Luke Pearce discussed the overlapping and converging applications across the headphones market and how this could impact the developing landscape moving forward. Joining him for the discussion was Bernice Cramer, Director of Product Management and Global Marketing at Bose, Tim Johnston PE, Vice President of Engineering at Starkey Hearing, Stuart George, Managing Director at Cambridge Audio and Chris Havell, Senior Director of Product Marketing, Voice & Music at Qualcomm Technologies.
Stuart George at Cambridge Audio commented that headphones are no longer just used for work purposes but for leisure and relaxation – people have chosen to use audio as a place to find private space and personal isolation. In many ways, seeking solace to escape the stress and strains of COVID-19 has been a key reason to utilise headphones within the home environment.
Bernice Cramer added that headphones are no longer for passive listening alone but for multi-tasking. As we get used to juggling remote working with other personal commitments and family time, Bernice stated that, “COVID-19 has accelerated this need to move between different spaces; headphone devices are now being used as an interface with the world.”
Tim Johnston commented that while headsets and headphones are providing wonderful solutions for improving communication and providing a form of escapism, the challenge is that people are now being exposed to more sound than ever before, which ultimately comes at a cost. The total exposure over one day since lockdown has increased phenomenally, and it is this sound exposure that ultimately could risk our hearing health.
“1 in 6 teens are now experiencing hearing loss through sound exposure, while 5.2 million children now have hearing loss,” explained Tim. “People are also living longer lives and so are living with hearing loss for longer.”
It is certainly more of a multiple-product ownership, Chris Havell suggests. “There are very significant differences between certain use cases and therefore where a product has its focus. Our requirements differ for work purposes, for fitness and for entertainment.”
Bernice Cramer also added that, “the single most reliable predicter about whether consumers will buy a pair of premium headphones, is whether they already own another pair of premium headphones.” People are interested in custom-built devices for many different activities and so it’s not a ‘one-size fits all’ solution.
Stuart George agreed that the headphones market and the rate of innovation for new products certainly fuels this addictive need for seeking premium audio quality, time and time again. Interestingly, while consumer preferences for audio devices will differ, Tim Johnston stated that there will certainly be an overlap between what consumers are seeking with headphones products and what is requested from the hearing aid market.
“Sound quality is a universal requirement,” comments Stuart. “First and foremost, it’s purely about the listening experience and the ability to listen to music in better quality.”
However, as all headphones products are becoming more specialised, Bernice believes that audio quality is no longer sufficient on its own. Microphone quality is also crucial, with the implementation of AI allowing you to distinguish voices from anything in the background. This is particularly crucial given the amount of time now spent attending virtual meetings remotely.
“Situational hearing enhancement is invaluable,” comments Bernice. “It’s harder to distinguish peoples voices during COVID and so that hearing enhancement becomes wrapped into the audio quality of devices.”
Chris Havell believes that there are still numerous improvements to be made, with immersive audio quality, microphone audio quality and protecting our health being of key importance. In addition to this, consumers are now gaming and watching movies more using headsets, as commented on by Tim Johnston. This means that audio quality is also taking on another meaning, due to the fact it’s got to be low latency. Chris added that it is now about implementing these features moving forward into standard headphone products for consumers.
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