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AirPods don't go far enough: The effort to reinvent headphones for 'hearables' era

Not only will you listen to your headphones, future headphones will listen to you. And they will respond with a surprising range of information. Beyond the latest playlists, wireless headphones with sensor-enhanced artificial intelligence will hear you better, help you manage your home and even act as your personal trainer.

"The use case for headphones goes beyond audio," says Ben Arnold, a consumer technology analyst at NPD Group. He says sensor-enhanced headphones are called hearables, a new category of headphones that do more than just stream music. Hearables focus on several key features: Advanced audio technologies that actively listen for human voices and cancel outside noise, devices that more deeply integrate digital assistants, and health-and-fitness-centric devices that monitor and give user feedback.

The Bragi Dash combines AI with sensors to provide user feedback. Handout: Bragi
The Bragi Dash combines AI with sensors to provide user feedback. Handout: Bragi

Telling users more about themselves is one key to taking headphones beyond the era of the audio-first focus.

German start-up Bragi — which first launched through a 2014 Kickstarter campaign and had some fits and starts on the way to gaining traction in the headphone market — recently released the Dash Pro, completely wire-free headphones with sensors that measure everything from heart rate to distance, step count and breaths. "If you're using just a microphone, it's just one range of understanding," said founder and CEO Nikolaj Hviid. "If you were only capable of listening, you couldn't smell, you couldn't see, you couldn't taste. How much of the world would you understand?"

Giving users more control over their environment is another aim of companies following Bragi into the hearables market.

"We're at the beginning of something that will become the norm." -Matt Ahumada, head of marketing at smart headphone maker LifeBeam

"Everyone is making wireless headphones, but they're all driven on audio," said Marty Urick, vice president of sales at OnVocal. His company makes what he says is a "wearable assistant," neck-worn wireless headphones that integrate Amazon's Alexa voice assistant so wearers can control connected home appliances, like thermostats and lights, through verbal commands.

Another market entrant is LifeBeam Labs' neck-worn Vi wireless headphones, which include sensors and a miniaturized computer. The Tel Aviv and New York City based tech company developed Vi around a proprietary, in-house artificial intelligence that analyzes data and gives active feedback to users while running. It integrates existing information from Apple's HealthKit to judge how intense your workout should be, a subtle acknowledgement that users may not wear the device all the time. Vi was designed for "turning that data into something useful that can ultimately improve people's lives," said Matt Ahumada, LifeBeam's head of marketing.

Turning information into action through the next generation of wireless headphones is becoming more important as Bluetooth headphones sales boom. In 2016, Bluetooth headphones accounted for a whopping 54 percent of all headphone sales, overtaking non-Bluetooth sets for the first time, according to the NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service. Bluetooth headphone sales accounted for $2.2 billion in sales from June 2016 until May 2017.

One potential sales limitation — concerns about low-level radiation — have always trailed the smartphone market. But recent research on Bluetooth and other wireless devices specifically indicate they transmit at a harmlessly low power level.

The market for Bluetooth headphones is dominated by Beats by Dre with 42 percent of dollar sales, according to the NPD Group. Bose follows at 17 percent, then LG at 11 percent. Bragi commands less than 1 percent of the total Bluetooth headphone market, but it merits attention because "it's one of the first companies that was looking at adding sensors to headphones and doing more than just listening to music," Arnold said.

Hearables are attractive to industry incumbents because it's a way of expanding the footprint of digital assistants like Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa, making it likely Apple, Alphabet and Amazon may enter the field, the NPD analyst said.

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Headphones without any cord connecting the two earbuds are starting to go mainstream also. Apple leaped to fourth place in Bluetooth headphone market share after it started shipping its delayed EarPods. Samsung has been selling the Gear IconX since last year, which includes a step counter and heart-rate sensor.

Both Apple and Samsung have been making inroads collecting health data; Apple's Health app is installed on every modern iPhone and collects user data from multiple sources, including HealthKit and its Apple Watch, a wearable heavily marketed for its health benefits. The company also has several parallel health efforts designed to help apps better track user health. CareKit will help apps better monitor medical conditions, while its ResearchKit makes it easier for medical professionals to gather data. Apple also is reportedly working on tech that can help treat diabetes.

Arnold said future AirPods with health sensors are possible, but the NPD analyst speculated that would run the risk of cannibalizing Apple Watch sales.

The headphone industry is no stranger to category-defining change. "Monster came out and revolutionized the headphone scene," OnVocal's Urick said. (Monster was the original manufacturer of Beats by Dre, now owned by Apple.) That turned utilitarian headphones into a fashion accessory.

"We're at the beginning of something that will become the norm," said LifeBeam's Ahumada.

— By Mike Juang, special to CNBC.com

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