The Earbuds Are Coming for You

There are suddenly a lot of exciting wireless earbud choices, but why?

Ears running up an incline plane with various wireless earbuds above them
They're coming for you.

 Lifewire /  Hilary Allison

Your ears are a hot commodity. Everyone wants to be in them, on them, around them, hanging off them. It’s a sort of ear mania, triggered by the explosion of wireless Bluetooth earbuds and led, for the most part, by the explosive success of Apple’s AirPods.

On the train this morning, I heard the annoying and tinny sound of audio bouncing out of the unsealed air canal of the AirPod wearer sitting next to me. He bobbed his head and smiled to himself, oblivious to my slightly annoyed stare. Seated in front of him was a woman, her two hands wrapped around an iPhone playing a classic Arrested Development episode. In her ears, another pair of AirPods.

Google Pixel Bud
The Google Pixel Bud is a one-size-fits-all device.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It's not your imagination: AirPods are everywhere. No one cares if they look ridiculous, people love wearing Apple’s surprise accessory hit.

You’re not the only one noticing. In recent months I’ve seen multiple hardware companies jump into the earbud game. While not all are in-market, we have quite the ear-gear lineup to consider:

  • Microsoft Surface Earbuds
  • Amazon Echo Buds
  • Samsung Galaxy Buds
  • Powerbeats Pro
  • Google Pixel Buds

Google’s entry is only the most recent, but it shares many of the same features ear-wear aficionados have come to demand form modern audio companions.

There’s touch sensitivity, hands-free access to a digital assistant, real-time translation, hours of battery life, and, usually, a charging companion case.

While AirPods basically hang in your ear holes like misplaced earrings, most of the “Bud” models offer a tighter ear hole fit and, though none actively cancel external noise, they may do a better job of managing it, and promise better audio quality (bass and high notes) because of the tighter seal. 

We’ve been trained by our phones and tablets to fill every idle minute with content consumption

When Apple first introduced AirPods, the company and early adopters were relentlessly dragged for the earbud's design. While it may now be accepted, consumers and industry watchers are no less critical of other slightly oddball designs. Microsoft Surface Earbuds’ large touch-sensitive circles, for instance, drew not-so-kind comparisons to earlobe-stretching gauges.

All of these buds will seek to eat a piece or grow new parts of the AirPod pie over the next six months. But I have to wonder, how did we get here?

How has the obsession with wireless Bluetooth earbuds become so great that there are no fewer than three fake AirPod 3 concepts videos, including one that might pass muster with Apple Chief Designer Jony Ive?

Airpod 3 Concept
Not a real product. (Render by Aziz Ghaus). Aziz Ghaus

 Our Changing Technology and Habits

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rise of AirPods has coincided with changing consumer habits.

Over the past five years—and probably starting with the break-out Podcast, Serial —podcast listening has become a national (if not international) obsession. There are over 700,000 active podcasts and roughly half of all Americans report listening to one. I’m one of those people. I used to sometimes listen to podcasts while gardening but hated how often I caught the wires of my old EarPods on my knees and, when I stood up, painfully yanked those EarPods out of my ears. Surely I’m not the only person who’s discovered the joys of wireless listening.

In the same time period, Bluetooth technology has advanced from version 4 to the even lower-power, longer-ranged Bluetooth 5. Plus, mobile broadband and standard definition streaming on services like T-Mobile have exploded. Remember that woman watching Arrested Development? She’s just one of dozens of people I spy every day watching mobile video and listening in on their AirPods or other Bluetooth headsets.

We’ve been trained by our phones and tablets to fill every idle minute with content consumption, and, in some cases, our idle time is growing.

Our commutes are getting longer and, according to one study, we spend at least a week (in total hours) per year commuting (those numbers are much higher in dense metropolitan areas).

Even if you’re not commuting, can you imagine spending a second exercising and not listening to or watching something? Sure, you could step on the treadmill at your local gym, bow to majority rule, and watch whatever’s on the screen above, but it’s more likely you’ll prop your phone up on the treadmill’s touch screen, put in your AirPods or Bluetooth buds, and consume your own favorite content.

Lance Ulanoff wearing Surface Earbuds
Okay, maybe the surface of that Surface Bud is a little big. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Serious Business

Our obsession with ear equipment technology is, I think, only matched by the attention manufacturers now pay to it.

Google put its Pixel Buds announcement near the top of its annual hour-long event and spent considerable time describing the design and engineering they poured into the audio devices. Google knew, one breathless video revealed, that they wanted to make something small like a “tiny little dot floating in your ear,” which sounds more “bug” than “bud” to me. Like Microsoft, Google went with the circle, though Pixel Buds are definitely smaller and more subtle.

No one seems to want to go head-to-head with Apple on design. From Samsung’s Galaxy Buds (which I’ve been wearing in recent weeks as I tested the Galaxy Fold) to Amazon’s Echo Buds to the Pixel Buds, very little hardware is visible outside the ear besides the usually round main chassis. Google noted how it built custom batteries that could fit inside the unit, adding that the battery is “usually what makes them stick so far out of your ears.” This was a dig at Apple and its AirPods, which have their cylindrical batteries in the tubes that hang off the in-ear portion of AirPods.

My Buds, My Ears

When it comes to in-ear technology, the obsession is not just about look, but about fit. Many people have told me they don’t wear AirPods because they slip right out of their ears. Most competing Bluetooth earbuds almost screw tightly into your ear canals. The first time I wore Galaxy Buds, I put them in incorrectly so that, after an hour of wear, I had what felt like a toothache. It subsided the second I removed the buds and seated them properly.

Companies are spending considerable time and money trying to understand and map the human ear.

Google Pixel Bud Product Manager Sandeep Waraich told me last week that Google scanned thousands of ears and then used a computer vision pipeline, trying “to come up with canonical ears.” The result, in Google’s case, is one-size-fits-all Pixel Buds that ship with three different soft-tip sizes to tighten the buds’ grips on your inner ears. In fact, all earbuds I’ve tried except AirPods come with soft rubber tip options.

So What

The thing is, your ears are now a valuable commodity. Companies are putting as much effort into winning your bio-microphones as they are your eyes, hands, and pockets. Smartphone sales are flat, and no one seems to know how to get anyone excited or at least curious (beyond folding) about the latest iPhone or Android device anymore. Yet there’s rabid interest in the next big thing for your ears.

There are, obviously, all these earbud contenders to consider and then there’s the crazy AirPod 3 rumor mill. I doubt anyone could have predicted there’d be this much interest in an accessory, something literally designed to augment and improve something else. The only thing that’s missing from all this is the inevitable backlash, when millions of Buds’ and AirPods’ rechargeable batteries die and everyone realizes the only way to fix them is to replace them. But that’s a podcast, I mean a tale, for another day.

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