In the world of premium headphones, audio executives mentioned the lack of active noise cancellation as a major drawback. "Adjustable noise cancellation is pretty important to customers, because the function of a one-size-fits-all solution is just not correct," said Andreas Sennheiser, co-CEO of German audio manufacturer Sennheiser, along with his brother Daniel Sennheiser.
Sennheiser, along with audio giants like Bose, Sony and Apple-owned Beats, is moving toward technology that allows users to decide how much external noise they let in. If someone is on an airplane, they might choose to block out all ambient noise, while on a city street they might want to hear cars passing by.
Current technology doesn't allow for this type of noise cancellation in wireless earbuds, several audio executives said. The power source needed for the feature can't fit into the tiny devices, so it either requires a cord or an external battery pack. That leaves the market at a crossroads: wireless earbuds without noise cancellation, or wired solutions with it.
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Apple chose what some consider a surprising third option: wireless earbuds without all the bells and whistles.
Many consumers won't mind the trade-off, said Patrick Moorhead, founder and president of global technology advisory firm Moor Insights & Strategy. For the general public, simple wireless setup and functionality is a more important innovation than high-resolution sound quality, he said.
"There are no perfect technologies at first, but compared to most Bluetooth headsets, AirPods are a step ahead," Moorhead wrote in an email.
Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, told the audience at Apple's recent product event, "It makes no sense to tether ourselves to cables with our mobile devices."
Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment.