The headphone market is expanding at the speed of sound, driven by new ways to listen to audio and interact with the world around us. Whether video chatting with loved ones or eliminating distractions while working from home, headphones allow us to tune in to what matters while tuning out the rest. The coronavirus pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over the economy, while dramatically changing how we work, learn, and unwind in our daily lives. This shifting landscape is leading to the rapid rise of new use cases for popular products such as headphones, giving manufacturers with a keen ear for market trends, an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition.
What to Listen For
Sometimes even the best crystal balls are cloudy, just ask anyone who was in the fortune telling business at the end of 2019. However, the forces acting on the headphone industry are already in motion, leaving predictable clues about the road ahead. The emergence of the following trends coincides with one of the largest shocks to consumer behavior in recent history, compounding their importance to successfully navigating the current climate.
The rise of connectivity. As people spend more time indoors, they are investing in connected devices to conveniently control their homes with voice commands. Headphones and their onboard voice assistants are an easy way to interact with a smart home without needing to be in close proximity to the needed device, allowing the user to save time by doing things like turning on the oven without getting out of bed. Headphones’ role as a central node for all smart devices is poised to grow stronger as more consumers migrate towards a connected home.
More cross-category bundles. As long commutes to work and school are substituted for drowsy walks to the kitchen table doubling as a desk, the types of technology needed for a productive day look different than they have historically. Students previously taking in-person classes are now in need of a laptop to see their teachers and a pair of headphones to hear them. Nimble manufacturers like Jabra and Sony have already begun bundling noise-cancelling headphones with student-favorite Chromebooks as a frequent promotion on BestBuy.com, and any work-from-home technology is a prime candidate for a headphone bundle as shoppers look to maximize productivity with a single purchase.
Personalized products and messaging. The growth in online shopping makes it easier than ever for consumers to explore new products and switch to a just-discovered brand. Capturing loyalty requires an ever-increasing level of connection between the manufacturer and the end user, with personalization representing one of the best (and most underexplored) ways to add a human element to a purchase. A great example of a manufacturer excelling in this area is Skullcandy’s monthly rotating Mood Boost webpage, offering a limited edition color variant of one of its products and a celebrity spotlight raising awareness for mental health. This authentic closeness, well-curated for a target audience, is a powerful tool in an age of social distancing.
The Next Generation of Headphones
The headphone market’s recent rise has been an impressive testament to the abilities of the manufacturers developing the products, and it is hard to make an argument against the momentum sustaining on a positive trajectory. Current product lines are enjoying support from Bluetooth 5.0 and the removal of the audio jack from many flagship smartphones, features that have untethered our headphones from our phones and eliminated the need to untangle a handful of wire spaghetti ever again.
This raises the question: What will the next generation of headphones look like?
Bose – The well-respected manufacturer arrived early to the true wireless market with the debut of the SoundSport Free in 2017, which raised the bar for fitness earbuds, but have since begun to show their age. In early 2019, Bose announced a refresh in the form of the Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700, a yet-unreleased product more than a year later due to a “longer than expected” development cycle. Accompanying a sketch of the headphones on the manufacturer’s website are hints at features such as “truly astonishing noise cancelling” in a “category-defining earbud” with “hypermobile essentials”, indicating that Bose intends to fit as many smart features as possible onboard its next release.
- Product: Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700
- Trend: The rise of connectivity.
- Expected Launch: “Launching Later in 2020”
Apple – The reigning leader of the headphone market is rumored to be releasing its first pair of over-ear headphones, expanding its assortment outside of the hugely successful AirPods true wireless lineup. Supporting the theory is the appearance of a placeholder product in Target’s inventory system for the “Apple AirPods (X Generation) $399.99”, with a store representative confirming that the placeholder names frequently change at release, unlike the pricing. The $399.99 price point and leaked iOS 14 code suggest a premium over-ear model likely to include active noise cancellation. The larger surface area of an over-ear device relative to the AirPods could allow Apple to offer its popular laser-engraved customization directly onto the headphone earcups— a highly personalized feature available across several of the manufacturer’s product lines.
- Product: Apple AirPods (X Generation) Over-Ears
- Trend: Personalized products and messaging.
- Expected Launch: Fall 2020 hardware refresh.
Samsung – The recent launch of the bean-shaped Galaxy Buds Live was a powerful signal that Samsung remains unafraid to be bold with new product development. The Galaxy Buds Live introduced active noise cancellation to the manufacturer’s true wireless lineup, suggesting that the feature will likely migrate to the flagship Galaxy Buds+ lineup during next year’s refresh. Samsung’s Galaxy product ecosystem spans across nearly every work-from-home category on the market, providing plenty of opportunity to offer cross-category bundles to ensure seamless integration of home office devices.
- Product: Galaxy Buds+ 2
- Trend: More cross-category bundles.
- Expected Launch: Q1 2021 Unpacked product launch.
Making Sense of the Noise
Whether you are sharing a new song with a friend or watching your favorite movie on a train, headphones have long served as a companion in finding a lighthearted escape from a hectic world. This companionship remains at the core of the category, growing even stronger as our audio sidekicks gain new capabilities. As a result, the manufacturers listening the closest to trends like connectivity and personalization will be the most successful in capturing the ears and loyalty of the modern consumer.
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