Apple AirPods have been a huge success, despite looking like their old buds with the wires sawn off
This particular rumour also appeared thanks to Bloomberg, and just like the Sonos one was once again attributed to ‘people familiar with the matter.’
However, even if Bloomberg’s source was a talking squirrel, or a drunk at the local bar, there are good reasons to believe Apple would make this move, which would probably be of grave concern to Bose, Sonos, Harman Kardon and its sub-brands (JBL, AKG, etc), Sony and even Apple-owned Beats by Dre.
There were a few true wireless buds before the AirPods, but it’s Apple’s that have become omnipresent, and driven the current boom in that sector. A spokesperson from one headphones brand told me the other day that everyone feels obliged to have a pair on the market, now. You can bet that it’s Apple that is mainly making money from true wireless, though.
Premium, over-ear, wireless, active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones are still the biggest portable audio market sector. They’re £300 a chuck – you do the math.
Up to now it’s been dominated by Bose’s QuietComfort 35. Similarly excellent ANC offerings from Sony, Bowers & Wilkins, AKG, Marshall and Beats by Dre have also done very well with critics (including me) and, presumably, the public.
Massive as those brands are, nobody has the mix of headphone market penetration (albeit solely with in-ear buds up to now) and overall brand awareness that Apple does. I doubt Apple’s premium home speaker/Sonos rival the HomePod has been flying off the shelves, but it certainly sounded good and reeked of premium-ness. Nobody can deny that Apple can successfully turn its hand to higher-end audio when it feels like it.
Apple also knows how to design and market quite expensive (sorry, ‘affordable premium’) products to a mass market.
Consider this, too: Beats By Dre’s Studio 3 Wireless is a great-sounding pair of headphones with arguably the best ANC of anyone in that market, at least until the arrival of Sony’s WH1000XM3. Its styling was very Beats though. With updated electronics from Apple, motion/accelerometer controls à la AirPods, built-in Siri and a Jonny Ive lick of paint, mega-success could be assured.
You might say, ‘but why would Apple want to take market share from a brand it owns?’ And I imagine they would say, ‘it’s a dual-brand strategy’ – increasing overall market share, even if it’s at the cost of one or both brands.
There’s one other thing: Apple’s arch rival Microsoft entered the ANC fray late last year with its Surface Headphones. They are yet another very good, undeniably stylish (if you like Microsoft’s ‘putty colours and fabric highlights’ approach) addition to the growing throng of premium, Bose-style headphones. You just know Apple will reckon it can do something better than its more successful but less hip adversary.
The only possible problem for Apple? This is not a small market that they can move into and immediately grow by releasing an improved/more chic version of what was already out there. That’s their usual MO, but affordable premium ANC headphones is already a fairly mature market with multiple very high quality products on offer. There are dozens of big headphone brands and hundreds of small to medium-sized ones. It’s not a matter of just turning up and muscling out Creative MP3 players or Bragi Dash true wireless buds.
There’s also the chance that Apple will do something totally stupid, like leaving out the magic noise-cancelling ingredient that makes people in their millions willing to shell out £300+ for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, on the grounds that they just don’t like it.
Even so, Bose, Beats, Bowers, Sonos et al would hardly be jumping for joy were Apple to bum-rush the premium headphones space.