Apple rivals add tricks and treats to compete in noisy earbud space

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Apple rivals add tricks and treats to compete in noisy earbud space

By Tim Biggs

Apple didn’t invent the “true wireless” earbud, but the category was so new when its AirPods were unveiled in 2016 that they became the subject of ridicule. Fast-forward six years, and Bluetooth buds are practically ubiquitous.

Global shipments of true wireless earbuds crossed 300 million for the first time in 2021, according to Counterpoint research, a 24 per cent year-on-year increase from 2020. Of those buds more than a quarter were Apple’s AirPods, with the nearest competitors being rival smartphone-makers Xiaomi and Samsung, followed by the budget-focused JBL and Skullcandy.

Apple’s range of AirPods dominate the mid, premium and high-end true wireless markets.

Apple’s range of AirPods dominate the mid, premium and high-end true wireless markets.

While legacy hi-fi and electronics brands were among the first to enter the category, they now find themselves caught between a dominant player and a flood of cheap alternatives as the technology matures. ABI research predicts global shipments will hit 600 million by 2026.

While the high end is dominated by luxury brands - Apple’s AirPods Pro and models with advanced sound technologies or noise-cancelling like Sony’s WF-1000XM4 - the key battleground for premium players is around the $300 mark. Against Apple’s third-generation AirPods, brands are pulling out all the stops to attract switchers and upgraders with a range of new gimmicks and features.

Buds going beyond Bluetooth

LG’s latest earbuds, the Tone Free FP9A, have excellent sound, decent noise cancelling and long batteries. But where they go a step further is in the included charging case, which has a few unique tricks designed to tackle some common in-earbud complaints; hygiene, and compatibility with non-Bluetooth devices.

LG’s Tone Free FP9A have UV lights for cleaning and the ability to work wirelessly with old-school headphone jacks.

LG’s Tone Free FP9A have UV lights for cleaning and the ability to work wirelessly with old-school headphone jacks.Credit:

Cleanliness might not be top of mind for many earbud users, but for some people the act of jamming something in their ear canal after it’s been in their hands or on a table is just asking for an infection. LG has a UV light in the charging case which it claims will kill 99.9 per cent of E. coli and S. aureus bacteria within five minutes. It’s tough to verify without medical equipment or the ability to peer inside the closed case, but the feature does provide some peace of mind.

More practical is the included USB-C to 3.5 mm cable, which lets you connect the charging case to any old-fashioned headphone jack and send sound wirelessly from there to your buds. Wired headphone connections may be obsolete on most smartphones, you still find them on exercise equipment, in-flight entertainment systems, public PCs and hi-fi gear. Or you might like to extend your Bluetooth buds to retro tech like old laptops or iPods, which these buds do well.

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Another curious feature is that when taking calls you can remove the right earbud and hold it to your mouth, so you can talk very quietly or pretend you’re using a candlestick telephone from the 1890s, which seems very much like a function Apple could nick for AirPods.

Preparing audio for the metaverse

Sony has its eyes a little further ahead, starting work on problems that nobody’s really encountered yet. Namely, how will audio devices work in the future when our devices tether us constantly to a persistent digital world? The implications of the metaverse are that information may present itself to us at any time and, alongside augmented reality headsets, audio will likely play a big role in that. This means, at least as far as Sony imagines, that we’ll want buds we can wear all the time without annoyance.

Audio from Sony’s LinkBuds is pumped out of a ring that lets air flow into your ear.

Audio from Sony’s LinkBuds is pumped out of a ring that lets air flow into your ear.

The $300 LinkBuds are not the company’s first attempt at that paradigm, but they’re the most convincing yet. The very light buds attach to the inside of your ears but don’t poke into the canal. Instead, sound is played through a donut-shaped speaker that sits above the canal, letting outside air (and noise) through the middle. You can interact with the buds by tapping on your jaw.

The result is that you can hear normally with nothing blocking your ears, and noises from your phone sound as though they’re somewhere close nearby. Right now these make a lot of sense for things like AR apps and games — you can see the digital world and material worlds at the same time, and the LinkBuds expand that to sound — and they’re also good in an office scenario for phone calls and voice assistants.

But like the metaverse itself — which features prominently in Sony’s ads — the LinkBuds aren’t really ready yet. They’re not comfortable enough for a full workday of wear, and the batteries only last five hours or so before they have to go back in their case for a top-up.

Customisation kings

Most premium buds offer some manner of customisation, whether it’s an audio equaliser, a choice of smart assistants or buttons and gestures that can be programmed for different tasks. But the leader in sound customisation is Australia’s Nura, which launched headphones in 2017 that could measure an individual’s hearing capability in detail and adjust sound to suit. Last year it miniaturised the technology into the NuraTrue earbuds.

The NuraTrue earbuds have the same capabilities of the larger Nuraphones.

The NuraTrue earbuds have the same capabilities of the larger Nuraphones.

Like the larger headphones, these buds have sensitive microphones built in that can be used to analyse a person’s cochlea. When you first put them on, the buds emit a series of bleeps and bloops over a few minutes and record the “otoacoustic emissions” the ear makes in response, building a profile of how you hear. In extreme cases this could allow people to hear parts of the music they completely miss with standard earbuds, but for most people it’s like an automatic equaliser that accounts for their individual hearing.

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Outside of that tech, the NuraTrue pull in features offered by other premium earbuds, including water resistance and noise-cancelling, even if they don’t perform quite as well. They do have a legitimate focus on sound quality though, with big drivers and support for the kind of high-end Bluetooth codecs you usually only find on more expensive buds.

One other audio trick that Nura has up its sleeve is what it calls “immersion mode”, which uses psychoacoustic trickery in an attempt to widen the soundstage. The goal is to replicate the sound of live music, and it’s successful to some extent, although can fill your head with too much noise and bass to be comfortable at higher levels.

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