Now that Apple’s AirPods have become ubiquitous, there are plenty of other companies trying to nip at Apple’s heels with their own wireless earbuds.
Still, any wireless earbuds vendor not named Apple must contend with an uncomfortable question: Why would anyone buy their product instead? After all, other earbuds still can’t match the AirPods’ hassle-free pairing with Apple devices, and since last year’s launch of the AirPods Pro, they can no longer claim exclusivity over noise cancellation or water resistance.
After seeing all the AirPods alternatives vying for attention at the CES trade show last week, I asked some earbuds makers how they plan to take on Apple in 2020. Here are their strategies.
Be cheap and cheerful
The most obvious way for earbuds makers to compete with AirPods is to drastically undercut Apple on pricing. While plenty of wireless earbuds do this already—last year, for instance, I bought a pair of wireless buds from Chinese e-commerce site Banggood for $25—what struck me about some of the cheap buds on display is how they lean into their cheapness with fun color options.
JLab Audio’s $30 Go Air True Wireless Earbuds, for instance, come in navy and army green along with the usual black and while, while Altec Lansing’s $30 Nano Pods come in baby blue, pastel green, pink, red, and orange. If other earbuds can’t match AirPods as status symbols, at least they can have some personality.
Do what Apple won’t
One of the more interesting AirPods alternatives I saw came from a company called Acouva. Unlike most wireless earbuds, Acouva’s $250 Extreme buds will come with removable lithium-ion batteries, and the carrying case has an extra pair that users can swap in.
Acouva CEO Damon Mercadante says the main idea was to give users longer playback time between charges, but the company quickly realized that it had a sustainability angle as well. When the batteries no longer hold a charge, users will be able to replace them for $5 or $10 instead of having to recycle the entire earbud at a discount, as is the case with Apple’s AirPods.
One other neat feature worth noting: Acouva’s earbuds can store an hour or two of music files, so you can leave your phone behind and still play music when you’re on a run or at the gym. They’re launching in the third quarter of this year.
Win the specs war
Jabra has been taking on Apple in the wireless earbuds business since 2018, and its latest Elite Active 75t earbuds have a few superior specs that could steer some people away from AirPods. For instance, you can wear them in the shower, dunk them in up to a meter of water, or expose them to dust thanks to an IP57 protection rating. (Apple’s AirPods Pro have an IPX4, which offers lower water resistance and no dust resistance, while standard AirPods have no water or dust resistance.)
The Elite Active 75t also have a longer battery life of 7.5 hours, versus 5 hours on Apple’s AirPods and 4.5 hours on the AirPods Pro. And while they don’t have active noise cancellation like Apple’s AirPods Pro, each bud does have two external microphones to filter out wind noise while you’re on a call. They’re also $50 cheaper, at $200. Look for them to launch later this quarter.
Layer on clever design
Instead of just trying to compete on specs or pricing, some earbuds makers have come up with other smart ways to distinguish themselves.
A company called Helm Audio, for instance, has created a set of earbuds with rotating dials on the outside, so you can quickly adjust the volume without taking out your phone or screaming at Siri. The TW Triple Driver earbuds are launching next quarter for $149.
I also like JLab Audio’s idea to build a charging cable directly into the case on its $30 Go Air True Wireless Earbuds. Instead of having to carry another cable, you can plug the case directly into the USB port on any charging adapter or laptop. If you’re an iPhone user, it’s an elegant solution to the problem of not being able to charge non-Apple earbuds with a Lightning cable.
Speaking of case innovation, TCL had the bright idea to build a keychain holder directly into the case of its ACTV500TWS earbuds. Maybe that’s not a strong enough selling point on its own, but wireless charging, IPX7 waterproofing, and a reasonable $100 price might help.
Find a focus
Rather than pursuing a broad audience, some companies are getting more specialized.
Australia-based Nuheara has been straddling the line between earbuds and hearing aids for a few years now, but its latest IQbuds2 Max are a major overhaul, with both new hardware and software. Nuheara’s mobile app first runs a hearing assessment to identify frequency loss, then the earbuds equalize their sound to compensate. In addition to offering active noise cancellation, the trio of microphones on each earbud can focus on sound in front of the wearer while reducing the surrounding noise.
Meanwhile, Helm Audio is aiming its earbuds at audiophiles with separate models for different musical tastes. For folks who want maximum bass, Helm’s TW Triple Driver appears to be the first set of truly wireless buds with three dynamic drivers, versus one or two on other earbuds. The dynamic drivers in an earbud or headphone act like miniature loudspeakers for converting electrical signals to sound waves, so having more of them allows each one to focus on a specific frequency range. But when Helm Audio CEO Eric Johnson found out that I was a jazz snob, he pointed me toward Helm’s $199 TW Electrostatic model, which claims to have the first electrostatic driver in a truly wireless earbud. These drivers tend to appear in high-end audiophile headphones and offer clearer sound in the mid-to-high frequencies.
Of course, it’s unlikely that any of these AirPods alternatives will dethrone Apple in 2020, but at least they’ll give people a wider and more interesting range of wireless audio options as headphone jacks keep disappearing.