Some people would rather put a broken Q-tip in their ear, while others would prefer a bulky earplug or a mint candy the size of a coin.
That is essentially the choice consumers have as tech companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Samsung, introduce a wave of new, often oddly shaped, competitors to the AirPods, Apple’s popular in-ear wireless headphones that start at $159.
Silicon Valley has long been on the cutting edge of aesthetics, with numerous game-changing designs over the years (like the Apple products released under Steve Jobs’ tenure) as well as some memorable misses (Google Glass). And while Apple has succeeded in turning its white, dangly AirPods into a status symbol, truly wireless earbuds are gaining popularity despite, not because of, their design.
To the credit of those companies, product design experts said it is difficult to create a pair of wireless, Bluetooth-enabled devices that sit comfortably but unobtrusively in the ear, provide high-quality sound and still capture the user’s voice.
For one thing, the human body interferes with Bluetooth signals, so transmitting information to both earbuds in a synchronized fashion is complicated.
The newest devices to enter the fray are the Microsoft Surface Earbuds, which the company unveiled last week. The earbuds have both touch and voice controls and sell for $249. The most visible part of each bud is a flat white disc that measures slightly less than an inch in diameter, about the size of a quarter.
Last week, Amazon announced its $129.99 Echo Buds, which are black, resemble round earplugs and are also about the size of a quarter. Visually, they are similar to Samsung’s equally priced Galaxy Buds. The Galaxy Buds are available in black, white and yellow and debuted in February.
None of the devices have escaped the wrath of social media. When they were introduced, AirPods were the butt of many a Twitter joke, and the devices have since been compared to Q-tips, corncob holders and “an angry praying mantis.” Only after competitors were introduced did they seem streamlined in comparison. The Surface Earbuds were variously described on the web this week as refrigerator magnets, the mint candy Mentos, ear gauges and “chonky bois.”
“So Apple earbuds look like cigarettes hanging out of your ears while Surface earbuds look like you’ve been tagged as a part of an animal migration experiment,” tweeted Kevin Giszewski, a software engineer and podcaster.
Other tech companies have followed Apple’s lead in part because earbuds have become big business for the company. Though Apple doesn’t disclose AirPods sales, Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives estimates that the company will sell between 55 and 60 million AirPods this year, the equivalent of roughly $9 billion in revenue.
In addition to seeing wireless earbuds as a cash cow, companies also view the devices as a path to lock consumers into their product and service ecosystem, as well as a way to bring digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa into the user’s broader world.
For instance, Microsoft’s Earbuds allow users to open their Outlook e-mail and calendars with their voice and instantly stream music by triple-clicking either bud. Consumers can also use the earbuds to interact with their PowerPoint presentations.
Ives said there is currently a small window of opportunity for other earbud manufacturers to encroach on Apple’s market dominance before the third-generation AirPods are released, which Ives said is likely to happen in early to mid-December.
Truly wireless headphones first appeared on the market in 2015 — devices from EarIn and Bragi were among the initial batch — and became more popular after Apple’s AirPods launched in 2016. The devices have become such a symbol that retailer ASOS is selling an AirPod-like “faux headphone ear piece” for $9.50.
As for Giszewski, he said he is sticking with the “garden-variety” truly wireless earbuds he purchased for $30. That is, he said, until tech companies can come up with something that looks less ridiculous.