True Wireless Earbuds Market, Why Every Audio & Voice Tech Company Is (or should be) Reading This

by | Friday 21st December 2018

A Brief History of the Wireless Stereo Headphone

The headphone* market has transitioned toward wireless technologies over the last 10+ years; today >70% of total stereo headphones shipped are wireless (according to SAR data). Most initial designs were ear cup (on ear) or over ear (fully enclosed) form factor, with increasing volumes in lighter weight more minimal designs over time. Wireless in ear (earbud) headphones have been available for many years but grew in popularity for sports and general music listening over the last five years, using a tethered design, connecting the two earbuds, either with a wire or fixed band.

Various form factors will continue to be used depending on the major use case. However, true wireless earbuds are predicted to be, by far, the largest growth market.

True Wireless Earbuds Taking Over

True wireless earbuds** (TWE) started to appear in 2014 as startups (such as Bragi, Earin, etc)  started to experiment with extending wireless technologies to dual earbuds, expanding on technologies already well established in the mono Bluetooth headset market, with new functionality. From 2016 onwards, well-known OEM brands such as Samsung, Onkyo and Apple introduced TWE devices and the market begun rapid growth.

In 2018 the market was estimated to be >40 million units shipped with retail revenues >$6bn. Rapid growth is expected to continue, largely driven by use of TWE as an extension of the smartphone. The market is expected to reach almost 180m units by 2023 and account for >60% of all wireless stereo headphones shipped.

Technologies Driving Growth

All TWE use Bluetooth as a means to stream audio from, and communicate with, a source device and 100% of devices are expected to have Bluetooth throughout the forecast period. Initially, Bluetooth was used for device connection only but the introduction of Apple AirPods and improvements in Bluetooth technology has driven increasing use of Bluetooth for earbud-to-earbud connection too. There is also a growing trend towards providing separate Bluetooth streams independently to each earbud, which have many advantages, including the avoidance of trying to send signals through the head, which can cause drop outs and adds latency. Software vendors such as Tempow and SoC vendors such as Qualcomm are enabling this trend.

SAR expects that Wi-Fi and cellular technologies will start to be used in TWE devices from 2019 onwards, primarily to enable a direct connection to the cloud. However, there are still major issues such as efficiency and radiation that need to be overcome for these technologies to be implemented.

The use of voice control increased dramatically when the Apple AirPod was introduced with Siri in 2016. Since then, several other devices have added Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Many device OEMs will opt to add multiple digital assistant platforms in order to have the widest availability of devices to connect to. While Apple, Google and Amazon are leading the market today, China-based platforms such as Baidu Duer, Xiaomi Xioa and Huawei Xiaovi will see strong adoption from 2019.

Today, digital assistants are activated by physical means eg, a press of a button or a tap. SAR expects that there will be rapid increase in the use of always-on voice trigger from 2019 onwards as battery density improves and new, more energy efficient, solutions such as smart microphones are implemented.

Sony introduced the first TWE device with ANC in 2017. Only a handful of products use ANC today but its usage will increase as solutions fall in price and also as more TWE move to looser fit (non-occluded) designs.

Component Vendors Enabling More Functionality

The total number of microphones used in TWE is forecast to grow to >1billion in 2023. Driven by increasing shipments of TWE and by increasing numbers of microphones used per device. The average number of microphones per earbud is expected to rise from two to three over time. However, a wide range of implementations will be used, with higher end devices mainly using three to four mics per earbud.

Accelerometers have been widely used in TWE. Initially, this was led by sports devices that required movement detection for step counting. However, they are also widely used for tap detection. Gyroscopes and heart rate sensor were used in many early devices that were sports focused. However, more simplified, music-focused devices have taken over, which do not require these. Touch sensors are widely used and are expected to continue to be important, however, very low-cost devices often use physical buttons and some devices use accelerometers instead. IR sensors have become popular to enable ‘in -ear detection’. This enables TWE devices to sense when they are inserted into an ear to automatically turn on and also to help improve battery life when removed.

Many early TWE devices were criticized for poor battery life, often only achieving two to three hours of usage per charge. Alongside poor connection stability, these were the major issues affecting market growth. Battery life has been improved significantly over time, this is due to two main reasons: a reduction in the use of power hungry sensors, and improved software solutions. Average battery life is expected to rise to seven hours by 2023, with higher end devices at eight-plus hours, and lower end devices still relying on repeated charging in a case.

Smartphone Vendors Leading the Charge

Apple has led the market since introducing the Airpods in 2016 and dominate market shipments today. Smartphone OEMs lead the market and accounted for an estimated 90% of volumes in 2018. These vendors are expected to continue to dominate, supplying TWE as companion devices to their smartphones. Total market revenues are expected to reach almost $10 billion in 2019. Smartphone vendors are expected to account for the vast majority of this.


This BRAINwave provides commentary on TWE market growth, for detailed market data and forecasts please access the SAR study: FOCUS – True Wireless Earbuds: Market Growth, Market Shares, Technologies Used, Components Used.


*This BRAINwave is not concerned with mono Bluetooth headsets, instead focusing on stereo headphones/headsets. SAR covers mono Bluetooth headsets in other studies, please contact us for more details.  

**There are many different terms used across the industry to describe this type of device, these include hearables, fully wireless headphones, truly wireless headphone, smart earbud, etc. SAR Insight uses True Wireless Earbuds as this is most widely used across headphone vendors to describe this type of product.

Contact the author:

Peter Cooney