Moving beyond wires: how to evaluate wireless earbud designs
Which features differentiate wireless earbud designs?
Wireless earbuds designs everywhere. At CES 2020 wireless earbuds or in-ear monitors, depending on how audiophile you want to sound, appeared at almost every audio booth of any size, from anywhere in the world. And many accessory makers prominently displayed their cases, chargers, and charms aimed at Apple’s AirPods.
As I poured over the literature from multiple manufacturers we met with at CES, several characteristics became clear design standards among earbud manufacturers. All earbuds on the market need to address the following characteristics to be considered relevant.
Wireless Earbud Designs: The Criteria
Smaller earbuds usually mean more efficient electronics, but also means a smaller battery. Earbuds offer a variety of continuous playback times from 2-hours to 24-hours. The sweet spot seems to be 5-6 hours.
Limited battery life for a wearable means coming up with ways to charge earbuds quickly, and with the need to chase down an electrical outlet.
Implementing Bluetooth® 5.0 greatly increases connection distance between devices, from 4.2’s 200 feet to 800 feet. Distance and speed/quality are tied in Bluetooth, which means that those manufacturers who choose 800 feet may not be leaving the 2Mbps transfer speed, which can also be used to transmit higher-quality sound over the signal.
Most earbuds deliver sound to one bud. Earbud to earbud communications connects to bring stereo. Some new earbuds, like the Dyplay ANC Shield Pros, send signals to both earbuds, making them a dual master configuration. Remove one and place it into charging, and no interruption of the signal occurs. The earbud still in use had its own Bluetooth connection to the device.
Many earbuds offer passive noise isolation, which means that they have a good seal around the ear and sound dampening components that attempt to keep sound out. Active noise cancelation requires hardware to pick up ambient noise, and software to filter it out of the incoming sound stream–thought some, like Jabra, recently delivered a software only noise cancelation update to their t75s. More lower-priced headphones will follow the lead set by Apple and Bose on noise cancelation.
Does the earbud support an IPX rating, and if so, does it cover a splash, and downpour, a swim around a pool, a deep-sea dive or a walk across a desert? (See this Wikipedia article for an explanation of IP codes). Some will list an IPX rating, while others will choose phrases like “some water resistance.”
Size and weight
Some earbuds are starting to disappear into the ear. It isn’t clear that the smallest versions will prove best for sound, features or battery life. Regardless of features fulfillment, the size of earbuds will matter for comfort and overall experience.
Wireless earbud designs: special features
Several manufacturers offer the following features in an attempt to differentiate their products from the onslaught of now relatively easy to manufacturer devices.
Heath rate monitoring
Personalized hearing profiles
As Serious Insights continues to evaluate new earbuds, we will include an evaluation against all the listed characteristics for our readers—and continue to update the criteria as the market evolves.
What other features would you like to see evaluated?
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Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.