Like many Apple firsts, the day the futuristic little Bluetooth ear buds called “Airpods” were revealed was a momentous occasion.
Sure, they may not have been the very first consumer wireless ear buds but like many of Apple’s hallmark products, they were well refined and launched with a good serving of hype as well.
Journalists and tech bloggers ate it up and the alien looking little wireless buds took a lion’s share of hype when the now headphone-jackless iPhones were first unveiled.
While the new tech was sure to please the type of people who already loved Bluetooth headset users (we’re looking at you New York wheelers and dealers), they left a deadening thud for another group of users.
Ignoring a Lucrative Demographic: Music Obsessives
Audiophiles are an obsessive bunch. They care about quality music and quality craftsmanship, sometimes shelling out thousands of dollars for a single pair of headphones.
Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack and their half-hearted dongle and Airpod solution was akin to spitting in the faces of people who actually used their iPhones for listening to music.
This isn’t a small group of people; in fact, the original appeal of the iPhone was the ability to carry all your music around with you without needing a separate MP3 player.
Bluetooth, while it has advanced considerably over the years, is still far from 100% in terms of reliability and the quality of the audio is still noticeably lagging behind other wired headphone options.
If you absolutely MUST have complete free-range of motion and have your heart dead-set on a pair of Bluetooth buds, we compared the top Airpod alternatives in the Bluetooth earbud space and found a whole bunch that sound better, are more comfortable AND cheaper than Apple’s stupid pods.
So in launching a dongle and the Airpods Apple has essentially given a big middle finger to one of their most long-time user bases.
However, as is often the case in competitive free market industries, which consumer electronics most certainly is, with crisis comes opportunity.
A Whole New World Is Born
There are now a whole variety of 3rd party headphone makers now with lightning-cable headphones designed to work specifically with newer Apple devices to provide superior audiophile quality.
These lightning cable headphones are selling particularly well and it shouldn’t come as a big surprise since nobody was really complaining about headphone cables before Apple’s “brave” decision to drop the port.
Lightning cables offer the unique ability to transmit both audio as well as power simultaneously. This means things like DACs and amplifiers can be built directly into headphones themselves without the need for an external battery source.
Being able to utilize active noise cancellation without a battery pack, or fine tune your listening experience via an app is a wonderful thing to behold and 3rd party headphone companies are soaking up all the glory.
Meanwhile Airpods, after their initial hype have seemed to fizzle in their popularity. As with many small Bluetooth devices, limited battery life is one aspect, however lack of booming audio quality is almost certainly another contributing factor.
Losing Out On a New Sub-Industry
This brings us to the entire point of this article and one of the most perplexing decisions Apple has made in a long time.
Instead of creating and owning an entirely new realm of “smart headphones”, that is, headphones digitally connected to devices via a cable that can transmit power and data, Apple decided to go all-in on an already shaky Bluetooth technology.
Now companies like Audeze, JBL, Libratone, AKG and Sennheiser are jumping in to fill the void that Apple apparently couldn’t be bothered to claim.
Recently Sennheiser released the first directly labeled smart headphones, called the Ambeo, which are capable of recording a users surroundings and playing back that audio in a completely immersive 3D context.
This is a first and surely will be developed and integrated into other headphone models as the listening experience it creates is out of this world.
Creating an entire new sub-category within in industry is a rare opportunity. The headphone space has been ripe for disruption for quite a while now and finally Apple created room for true innovation.
Oddly enough, they chose not to claim that space they just created. Instead they seem to be going off in completely different directions, recently filing patents for things like a foldable smartphone.
Airpods will continue to sell, people have been wearing wireless ear units since the mid 2000’s. However the real excitement and innovation will be found in this new smart headphones space for the foreseeable future.
Don’t be surprised if after observing the success of other audio companies Apple finally makes a turn about and launches what they will claim to be “revolutionary” smart headphones here somewhere on down the line.
In the meantime we can’t help but be confounded at the “all-in” that was decided with the Airpods launch.
With new lightning-cable equipped headphones launching every few months the real excitement will be found in this new headphone market, that is the proprietary (lightning vs. USB-C) connector market.
We will be waiting for Apple to release their own dedicated smart headphone solutions, although given their odd singular focus on Airpods, we won’t be holding our breath.