Many companies tend to underestimate the importance of design in headphones. In addition, most headphones are purchased from OEMs to reduce overheads and expedite time-to-market. The downside of using OEMs is the cookie-cutter design of products.
AirPods – masterclass in design, with a distinctive look
AirPods have a stem which sticks out, and were initially widely panned for their unconventional design. To many they looked like traditional headphones with the wires cut off. AirPods sport a distinctive design (whether it is aesthetically pleasing is debatable), are easy to pair and connect, and integrate tightly with Apple’s other products and services. The unusual design did not stop Apple from commanding half of retail volume sales of TWS earbuds globally in 2017.
The choice of the white colour and its distinctive design allowed AirPods to be instantly recognisable and differentiate from the competition. Other brands, especially new entrants, started imitating the design, and any TWS earbuds sporting the same stem design are inevitably called “AirPods clones”.
Sony – starting to forge its own identity
Sony had been in the headphones market for a long time, and when wireless headbands and TWS earbuds started to gain traction, the company was able to react quickly. Its flagship products garnered rave reviews and won awards, especially for their active noise cancellation (ANC) prowess and acoustics quality. These products helped Sony build its credibility amongst consumers. Sony’s WF-10000XM4 shows the company’s strength in terms of design, with a distinctive gold coloured ring for differentiation. Sony has also launched a new lower-priced model, Sony LinkBuds (WFL900-W), that puts the ring at the forefront of the design. Sony must ensure that the “ring” design element cascades to other models so that it becomes Sony’s identity throughout its whole headphones range.
Note: Sony’s ring design element (WF-1000XM3, WF-1000XM4, WFL900-W)
Limited footprint makes design especially critical
The small footprint of TWS earbuds makes design differentiation a challenge for many companies. The audio quality of basic TWS earbuds has improved tremendously, and the performance gap between basic and premium models has narrowed considerably. The smart usage of colour, materials and finishing (CMF) can elevate the identity of TWS earbuds, especially with TWS earbuds becoming a fashion accessory rather than simply a product to listen to audio. Consumers will be willing to pay a premium for a well-designed product that can stand out from the sea of TWS earbuds.
Sales of TWS earbuds have enjoyed explosive growth and are projected to exceed USD56 billion in 2026. Apple’s AirPods, and possibly Sony, are carving out sizeable market shares due to the performance and design of their TWS earbuds. Other brands have not managed to come up with distinctive designs to capture a larger slice of the market.
For further insight, read our briefing, The Fight for Headphones Supremacy.