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The future of headphones

Hear hear

Welcome to Lowpass! This week: Why everyone is making headphones now, and why streaming is still not like cable.

Listen up: Headphones emerge as disruptive tech

This week, smart speaker maker Sonos finally introduced its long-awaited headphones. For Sonos, this step is part of a bet to expand beyond speakers, but the company isn’t alone in embracing audio wearables: Apple, Amazon and Google are all in the earbuds and headphone business these days. 

Meta’s Ray-Bans are arguably a personal audio device as well, and the company has reportedly been exploring the idea of headphones with integrated cameras. Even Carl Pei’s Nothing, which is nominally in the smartphone business, is betting heavily on earbuds, to the point where it released a total of eight different personal audio devices over the last three years.

So why is everyone making headphones and earbuds now?

There’s one obvious answer: money. Wearable audio is a multi-billion-dollar market. Total revenue estimates vary widely, but Apple alone is estimated to have sold 23.4 million personal audio devices in Q3 of 2023. The company’s total wearables revenue, which also includes Apple Watch and accessory sales, was close to $40 billion in 2023.

  • Shipments of personal audio devices fell by 3% in Q3 of 2023, following similar declines in prior quarters, according to Canalys. Despite that, the industry is still estimated to have shipped 110 million devices that quarter, thanks in part to growing demand in emerging markets.

  • Futuresource Consulting estimates that the industry saw 4% revenue growth for personal audio devices in 2023 despite a modest decline in sales.

Headphones are all about the future. But there’s also another reason for why tech companies are betting on personal audio. Headphones, earbuds and other personal audio devices are an ideal platform for technical innovation, and new form factors have offered an easy onramp into the premium audio market – a market that has otherwise resisted change from outsiders (remember the Google Home Max? Samsung’s Galaxy Home? Or Apple’s HomePod, for that matter?)

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