This year marks the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary Sony Walkman, the cassette player that made music truly portable for the first time. Some of us are old enough to remember the ridicule that was initially directed at its distinctive orange foam headphones, and the people who chose to block out the outside world by wearing them in public.
Today, the latest iteration of that technology – wireless earbuds – have provoked similar derision. Apple's AirPods have been the butt of countless online jokes, either mocking the ostentatious way they're worn or poking fun at their resemblance to a toothbrush. But the tide is turning. Millions of pairs of earbuds are being sold every month, and the biggest names in technology are getting in on the action.
Google, Amazon and Microsoft get in on the action
Amazon's Echo Buds will be released on Wednesday, Microsoft's Surface Buds are due out before the end of the year, and last week it was revealed that Google's new Pixel Buds would be shipping in the spring. This spate of launches, however, has little to do with creating a personal, music-filled bubble. These manufacturers, perhaps ironically, see earbuds as an interface with the world around us.
The current boom in popularity has much to do with their improvement in quality. The first buds, announced by German firm Bragi on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter back in 2014, were aesthetically remarkable and provoked huge interest, but ultimately promised too much: fitness data, 4GB of storage, voice calls and more.
Pioneering earbuds such as these received criticism for dropped connections and poor performance, but in 2019 those issues have largely been ironed out, while adding one crucial element: a strong link with virtual assistants.
Apple's AirPods may fulfil our dreams of listening to music wirelessly and unobtrusively, but it's the link with Siri, Apple's virtual assistant, that the company is pushing. With its disembodied voice responding directly into our ears when we ask a question, Siri becomes a conversational partner and directly enters into real-world situations.
It's no coincidence that Apple's competitors in the earbud market are touting their own virtual assistants, too. Amazon's Echo Buds feature hands-free connection with its Alexa, and hands-on with Google Assistant. Samsung's Galaxy Buds join together with its Bixby software agent, with Google again offered as back-up. Microsoft's Cortana assistant comes bundled with its Surface Buds – but again, in a unique atmosphere of co-operation between the tech giants, they work with all the assistants mentioned above, too.
The aim, it seems, is to normalise the behaviour. After all, if we are all walking down the street with prominent bumps in our ears while murmuring sweet nothings to virtual assistants, there’ll be less stigma attached to doing so.
Google’s first attempt at such a product, Pixel Buds, suffered from poor reviews when launched in 2017 – and also from not being entirely wireless, with a cord connecting left with right. Google has attempted to rectify those problems with its successor, announced last week during the launch of the Pixel 4 phone.
Pixel Buds are now untethered from each other; hands-free access to Google Assistant comes as standard, allowing you to send texts, ask for directions and much more; voice calls and music volume automatically compensate for any noise in the environment. Expectations are high.
But are they still ugly?
Cramming this amount of technology into a small space, however, has made for some unusual form factors. Microsoft's Surface Buds were described in one preview as looking like a "surgical implant", and "downright huge". From Bose's grey and yellow Soundsport buds to the ear-encircling Powerbeats, the earbud market oscillates between discreet and bold conversation pieces. Apple's AirPods, while still on the receiving end of jokes, are now sufficiently established to be instantly recognisable – they may have become the most recognisable headphones since the Walkman.
One of the biggest signs of their use being normalised was the launch by fashion brand Asos of a pair of non-functioning earbuds, shaped like AirPods, for £6 (Dh28). If people are buying fake AirPods to look cool, the battle for earbud acceptance has surely been won.
With the market soon to be saturated with options, the fight is on between brands to differentiate. At the launch of its Echo Buds, Amazon proudly announced the incorporation of Bose technology in order to cut down on surrounding noise (although there's an important question of how much earbuds should seal us off from the outside world, given that they're being marketed as an always-on, indispensable gadget).
Battery life will always be a selling point: Google's Pixel Buds, Amazon's Echo Buds and Apple's AirPods all boast five hours, but Microsoft is claiming up to eight on a single charge for its Surface Buds. There's also the question of how many years these devices will last, with their tiny irreplaceable batteries. AirPods have been described as having one of the highest turnovers of any modern electronics device.
Self-cleaning and stimulating the vagus nerve: the features these buds now have
LG's new Tone+Free earbuds make a distinct pitch to the consumer: germ-free operation, with a UV light in the charging case disinfecting the earbuds between each use. Microsoft, meanwhile, is selling an eye-opening hook-up between Surface Buds and Microsoft Office, where they can be used to transcribe your voice, live, into a document. Google's Pixel Buds boast translation skills, although we're still a way off from reaching the capabilities of the mythical Babelfish, as featured in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A company called Neuvana is taking pre-orders of its stress-relief buds, which stimulate the vagus nerve, while Amazon is looking beyond Echo Buds at its new fitness earbud, currently codenamed Puget. They will measure speed, distance and calories burned, while Alexa guides you on your way.
The scale of ambition that caused problems with the first wireless earbuds four or five years ago is back with a vengeance. As with smart spectacles, earbuds are now tipped to fulfil several functions and to become an indispensable technological partner. But would we prefer spectacles on our nose, buds in our ears or a phone in our pocket? May the most functional, discreet device win.