During a press conference this morning at the Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle, Amazon formally announced a widely anticipated new product: first-party earbuds. Called Echo Buds, they’re wireless and cost less than $129, putting them within striking distance of Apple’s AirPods, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, and other rivals.
These aren’t just any IPX4 splash-resistant Bluetooth earbuds, mind you. Noteworthy features include up to five hours of battery life and up to 20 hours with the included battery case. (For comparison’s sake, the Galaxy Buds last six hours on a charge.) Bose’s active noise reduction technology is built in, as are dual drivers and gesture-recognizing capacitive sensors. Tapping and holding grants access to a paired phone’s assistant, either Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, while double-tapping toggles noise reduction.
Predictably, the Echo Buds work best with Alexa, which can be summoned with the wake word “Alexa.” The assistant can field any question it understands on Echo devices, and later this year Alexa on Echo Buds will helpfully tell you whether your nearest Whole Foods has the item you want and direct you to the right aisle. (Amazon owns Whole Foods.)
The earbuds give Amazon an opportunity to deliver a more portable Alexa experience to customers — extending beyond the confines of home speakers, smart displays, soundbars, and car infotainment systems.
Amazon has been laying the groundwork for years. Last October, Qualcomm announced it would release chips that any headphone OEM could use to embed Alexa directly into their devices. And in June Amazon introduced a refreshed Alexa Mobile Accessory (AMA) Kit — the software stack that routes voice commands to a paired smartphone running the Alexa companion app — with support for location-aware responses and access to more music services.
Amazon first introduced the AMA Kit in January 2018, when it revealed ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that more than 150 products have Alexa built in. The dev tools were initially made available to select manufacturers like Jabra, Bose, and Sony, but they became generally available last November.
There’s no denying that the airbuds make sense from a dollars and cents standpoint. Research firm IDC recently reported that global wearable shipments in Q2 2019 were up 85% year over year, climbing to 67.7 million devices. Meanwhile, the “hearables” category of intelligent assistant-connected earbuds and headphones grew to 250%, a roughly 47% slice of the entire wearables segment.
Apple’s AirPods have become the de facto earbuds for folks living wire-free lifestyles, with an estimated 60% share of the global wireless earbuds market as of April 2019. The valiant efforts of Jabra, Samsung, Jlab, Bose, and others have so far failed to unseat the Cupertino company’s flagship from its pole position. Perhaps Amazon will fare better.