Are Hearables Ready for Prime Time Yet?

The demise of two well-funded “hearable” manufacturers raises the question of when, or whether, this new product category will ever become the multibillion-dollar market that some analysts are predicting. The problem isn’t lack of funding or dearth of imagination. It’s that several core technologies simply aren’t yet far enough along to deliver all that consumers are asking for.

Doppler Labs Earbuds

Doppler Labs ran out of money before its earbuds took off

Doppler Labs started shipping its Hear One Wireless Smart Earbuds in February 2017 but shut down production in November. And Soundhawk, maker of a well-promoted personal sound amplification product (PSAP), discontinued operations over a year ago. Many other hearable makers are still out there, but so far none appear to have broken away from the pack.

Both companies’ products were aimed at people who needed hearing enhancement in addition to wireless streaming of phone calls and audio. They featured directional microphones for better comprehension of speech in noise, multiple program settings for challenging listening environments, and other capabilities to assist people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Substantial backing for hearables

And both had substantial backing. Doppler burned through an eye-popping $50 million in venture capital from top-tier Silicon Valley firms. And Soundhawk, founded by hearing-aid industry legend Dr. Rodney Perkins, raised more than $10 million from venture firms and from Foxconn, the Chinese contract manufacturer known for producing tens of millions of iPhones for Apple.

Their problems weren’t due to lack of consumer interest, either. Wireless audio earbuds from Apple, Bose and others are gaining traction in the market. Those products deliver good audio quality. But they are not what I like to think of as true “hearables”—earbuds that also provide substantial hearing enhancement for people seeking help in difficult listening environments.

Doppler and Soundhawk were passionately committed to meeting consumers’ needs for enhanced hearing. But even with an untapped market of millions of consumers with untreated hearing loss, their products didn’t sell. There are many reasons why. But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the main culprit is technology. To meet the needs of a mass market of consumers who need hearing assistance, hearables need next-generation technologies. To understand why, let’s look at some of the reasons Doppler folded.

Disappointing sales

The company’s founder told Wired that it sold only 25,000 of its Hear One earbuds, a fraction of the total needed to attract additional investment. At the end, 15,000 more units remained unsold in the warehouse.

And yet, Doppler had one of the best positioning statements I’ve heard for the emerging class of hearables: “Tens of millions of people will be interacting with audio-based smart assistants, translating hundreds of languages instantaneously, and even going without their phones because smart earbuds will give them access to the people they love and the data they need.” Doppler’s earbuds would be “designed specifically to help those who need to hear better—especially in noisy environments—but don’t want to buy a hearing aid due to cost or social stigma.”

The Doppler earbuds also got some great reviews, like this one in TechCrunch: “The $299 Here One headphones are about far more than listening to tunes, they’re about hearing different aspects of life unfold at the volume you desire. They’re also about buying into the future a tad bit earlier than everyone else and getting to experience something truly unique.”

Concerns about comfort, power, and size

But at the bottom of that review were two warnings: first, the Doppler earbuds weren’t necessarily comfortable enough to keep in your ears all day long; and second, at less than two hours between charges, their battery life was way two short. Both problems touched on technology issues afflicting this entire class of products.

There was also a third problem—their size. In my mind, there’s no getting around the fact that all the entries in the current crop of hearables are simply too big. It’s currently impossible to jam all the technology required for both audio streaming and sound enhancement into a small enough package to fit snugly within your ear canal. Which is why I’ve put size at the top of the list of technologies that I believe must improve before we see a true market breakthrough:

  • Miniaturization: Digital signal processors, directional microphones, Bluetooth LE circuits and other electronics all must get even smaller before a hearable will fit comfortably within the ear. Shrinking all these components is easier said than done. Moore’s Law will ensure more powerful processing chips, but reducing the actual size of the chips further requires ever more sophisticated semiconductor fabrication. Getting the industry to agree to improvements to the Bluetooth standard is a very slow process. And directional microphones already are unimaginably small, having benefitted from decades of R&D investments by hearing-aid companies; further size reductions are possible but won’t come quickly either.
  • Streaming: There are a number of apps now that use the smartphone’s microphone to pick up sound, amplify it, and transmit it to a set of earbuds. The apps can be adjusted to an individual’s hearing loss profile. But there’s an excellent recent article in Hearing Review explaining why Bluetooth “latency” currently makes it impossible for Apple AirPods and other wireless earbuds to be used as true hearing aids. Bluetooth streaming currently imposes a slight delay from the sound source to the output from the earbud. That’s not a problem when talking on the phone or listening to music. But when you’re trying to understand what someone in the same room is saying, hearing amplified words a fraction of a second after they are spoken puts them out of visual sync with the speaker. It’s annoying, stressful and makes speech reading nearly impossible. Hearing aid manufacturers solve this problem with custom signal processing chips and algorithms that reduce latency to near-zero. But they are more costly than Bluetooth circuits. What about those “Made-for-iPhone” Bluetooth hearing aids? They’re not true Bluetooth—Apple developed a custom adaptation of Bluetooth for the made-for-iPhone hearing aids to reduce latency. Until the problem is solved, hearable makers will either have to provide their own custom solutions, which will increase costs, or provide dual systems—one for Bluetooth streaming and the other for hearing enhancement—increasing both the cost and the size of the earbuds.
  • Speech-in-Noise: Suppressing unwanted noise to better hear speech in challenging listening environments has been the Holy Grail of hearing aid manufacturers for decades. And in recent years there’s been plenty of progress. But even the best noise-suppression algorithms and directional microphones only provide a partial solution. They are a lifesaver for people with severe-to-profound hearing impairment, but many people with modest hearing loss find them less useful. And many of the best algorithms are proprietary. Lacking off-the-shelf solutions, manufacturers of hearables for entry-level consumers will have to make their own investments in sound processing software, which may push the price of the end products higher than consumers with modest hearing complaints want to pay.
  • Battery Life: Hearing-aid batteries are marvels of miniaturization and efficiency. Many of them last a week or longer with all-day use. But when audio streaming and other wireless features are loaded on top of the hearing-aid’s sound processing and amplification tasks, they can drain batteries extremely rapidly. Battery makers are investing heavily in a mad rush to deliver longer life, but the technical challenges are daunting. The best they can tell you about when and how they will deliver batteries that meet the size and duration requirements of future hearables may only be “watch this space.”
  • Multifunction Wireless Applications: Right now, listening to your iTunes, talking on the phone and using Siri are reason enough to spend $169 on a pair of Apple AirPods. And if any hearable maker comes through with better hearing enhancement in a smaller and more comfortable form factor, we may finally see hearables emerge as a successful niche product category. But to establish the multi-billion-dollar market that some analysts have been predicting for years, hearables will have to offer even more applications. Think of the smartphone market. Using the phone for email and texting was reason enough for a segment of consumers to buy the first smartphones. But when enough apps came along, and when digital wireless started to rival the broadband streaming you enjoyed on your home computer, the smartphone became a must-have item for nearly everyone. It will take some time for a similar ecosystem to develop that will churn out a steady stream of useful new applications for hearables.

Finally, let me briefly address another constraint imposed by current limits of technology: esthetics. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But in this humble viewer’s eyes, all the entries in the current crop of hearables are simply too unattractive for the mass market. The jury is also still out on even the smaller wireless earbuds used mainly for Bluetooth audio streaming. One Millenial I know recently summed up the Apple AirPods nicely: “They work so great I can’t not use them, but they look creepy.” Here again, size is still probably the biggest problem. The bulky first generation of Bluetooth earpieces suffered from a reputation for looking “dorky.” So appearance may be the biggest elephant in the room in any discussion about the emerging hearables market. But new technologies, especially further miniaturization, will enable far more flexible and attractive designs.

Technologies need to evolve

Time will tell how and when these technologies will evolve to a point where we see the kind of market emerge for hearables envisioned by the founders of Doppler Labs. Technology moves fast, and I don’t doubt we’ll continue to see substantial investment in new products that get closer to the vision. But I’ll be surprised if we see a mass market develop in 2018.

In the meantime, it will still be worth watching the players who continue to reach for the brass ring. To name two: NuHeara, a publicly held Australian company, has succeeded in establishing global distribution at major retail outlets with its IQBuds; and Bragi, maker of the Bragi Dash Pro, has been in the market for a long time and benefits from a close strategic and development partnership with Big-Six hearing aid maker Starkey Hearing Technologies. Keep an eye out for new, technology-driven developments from these and other players in this space.

(For another great take on the demise of Doppler Labs, including links to multiple additional sources, see Karl Strom’s blog at Hearing Review).