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The Scene for the Battle of the Ear in 2021 and Beyond

The headphones category has experienced phenomenal development over the last decade. Headphones are one of the fastest-selling personal electronics devices in the market, and the growth shows no signs of stopping.

Although headphones were already trending upwards, COVID-19 (C-19) has accelerated the adoption. The rise of remote working, remote schooling and the growth of gaming have all made their positive contributions. What’s more, there’s further potential from health and hearing augmentation use cases.

As a result, headphones and true wireless devices are expected to grow to over 700 million shipments in five years’ time. This dynamic market has many overlapping and converging applications that will certainly impact upon the wider landscape moving forward.

How Has COVID-19 Impacted Headphone Usage?

Headphones pervade lives. They are used for work purposes, leisure and relaxation. They are an ideal sound solution for a wide range of situations, allowing consumers to create a personal space where they can listen to their audio content of choice and escape the stresses and strains of C-19.

And headphones are no longer just for passive listening in isolation, they also accommodate multi-tasking. As we get used to juggling remote working with other personal commitments and family time, C-19 has accelerated the need to move between different spaces. Headphone devices are now being used as an adaptable interface that connects with the world.

However, there is a drawback. While headsets and headphones are improving communication and providing a valuable form of escapism, 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 could risk our hearing health.

According to Tim Johnston, Vice President of Engineering at Starkey Hearing, one in six teens are now experiencing hearing loss through sound exposure, an affliction that currently affects 5.2 million children. People are living longer lives too, so they are also enduring hearing loss for longer.

As the Use Cases for Headphones Intensifies, Will One ‘Super Product’ Take Over?

Multiple-product ownership is the norm within the headphones market, as there are very significant differences between use cases. Consumer requirements differ widely for work purposes, for fitness and for entertainment. When it comes to headphones, less is definitely not more.

People are interested in custom-built devices for many different activities. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and it’s likely to stay that way.

Above all, while preferences for audio devices differ, the rate of innovation in new products is fuelling the consumer’s need for premium audio quality married with convenience.

Does Sound Quality Ever Just Become ‘Good Enough’?

High quality sound is a predominant consumer requirement. It’s all about the listening experience and being able to hear music with better fidelity. However, as headphone products become more specialised, audio quality is no longer a sufficient selling point on its own. Microphone quality is also important, with the implementation of AI allowing users to distinguish foreground voices from background noise. This is particularly crucial given the amount of time now spent attending virtual meetings.

Situational hearing enhancement is also an invaluable feature which is making great inroads. Due to C-19 suppression measures, like social distancing and face coverings, it can be harder to distinguish people’s voices. This is presenting an opportunity to push hearing enhancement to the forefront of the headphone revolution.

In the shifting landscape of headphone technology, there are still many improvements to be made, with immersive audio quality, microphone audio quality and protecting ear health being of key importance. In addition to this, consumers are now gaming more and watching more movies using their headsets. This means that audio quality is also taking on another meaning. It has got to be low latency.

The new industry goal is focused around cascading these features into standard headphone products for consumers and moving on to the next round of innovation.

Date Published:

Luke Pearce

About the author

Luke Pearce

Luke Pearce is a Market Analyst in the Consumer Audio team at Futuresource Consulting. His focus is tracking and forecasting the latest market trends and technology developments in headphones and true wireless (TWS) markets worldwide.

His work has also led him into additional areas including extensive research for gaming headsets, luxury audio, hearing augmentation and audio-technology consumer survey reports. Luke joined Futuresource in 2018 and holds a BSc in Industrial Economics from the University of Nottingham.

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