Amazon Echo Buds Have Impressive Audio Performance and are Critical to the Alexa Mobile Strategy
Amazon Echo Buds arrived yesterday and reflect Amazon’s first hearables product. It was joined by two other wearable technology products, Echo Frames smart glasses and Echo Loop smart ring. However, it is the Echo Buds that stand out in terms of performance and practicality as well as residence in a proven product category.
Echo Buds are high-quality wireless, in-ear earbuds with persistent, always-listening Alexa access along with a variety of touch controls. They also include Bose Active Noise Reduction and pass-through technology and impressive bass for an in-ear solution. Despite these qualities, Echo Buds are selling for $129.99. They compare favorably to and even surpass the $159 AirPods in features. During the Echo Buds product demonstration, the Amazon product manager went through a list of “AirPod” features without ever calling that product out.
After trying them out, albeit briefly, I immediately knew Echo Buds were the first earbuds that would make me consider abandoning my AirPods. I have posted before about how very good AirPods are but also lamented that their functionality is limited and Siri is lacking. Dave Kemp, business development manager at Oaktree products and an expert in the hearables category, commented:
“Amazon launching Echo Buds is potentially the most significant development in the hearables’ space since AirPods launched in December 2016. Echo Buds represent a native home for Alexa that users can take with them on-the-go, which is imperative for Amazon’s long-term goal of having Alexa available to users everywhere. The other aspect of the significance is that Echo Buds seem to be one of the best candidates to truly challenge AirPods’ dominance, which could serve as the catalyst that finally pressures Apple to focus on Siri in a more meaningful way.”
Echo Buds and Alexa On-the-Go Strategy
Amazon’s biggest weakness in its “Alexa everywhere” strategy is mobile access. The Echo smart speaker created tens of millions of Alexa endpoints in homes but today few consumers are using the voice assistant while on-the-go. Amazon is starting to close that gap with automotive solutions for Alexa, but the one constant for most mobile consumers is the presence of their smartphone.
You can access Alexa today through a mobile app, but that is not an “always listening” hands-free experience and requires manual navigation to the app. By contrast, Siri, Google Assistant, and Bixby enable access at any time by simply speaking. This has proven to be a significant disadvantage for Alexa in driving on-the-go usage. One theory has been that Amazon needs to launch a smartphone again to compete. However, Amazon has adopted a peripherals approach as an alternative strategy. They don’t need to have a smartphone platform if they can generate interest in wearable devices that the smartphones enable to have persistent access to services on the device.
For Alexa to be always listening as a mobile app alone, it would require that app to be always in foreground which is inconvenient, impractical, and a drain on battery life. However, wireless earbuds can have that “always listening” channel open at the hardware level and then use protocols to go directly into an app that is in background. It’s essentially an end-run around the barriers erected by the mobile OS providers around app access and navigation.
The Strategy Follows a Larger Trend
AirPods have been a core part of Apple’s Siri strategy for persistent, always-available access. That effort was furthered this year when the new AirPods added hands-free Siri accessibility. Echo Buds enable Amazon for the first time to offer consumers a similar benefit backed by Alexa.
Amazon’s bet on hearables also is aligned with a favorable market trend. Andrew Bellavia, director of market development at Knowles Corp, sees Echo Buds as ushering in a new era of smart hearable devices. “With this announcement, the promise of truly intelligent hearables is now being fulfilled. We believe the future is fast coming when hearables with voice interfaces, long battery life, health & fitness features, and premium sound achieve mass-adoption.”
While Alexa access is a nice feature, Bellavia points out that consumers will have expectations well beyond voice assistant access. That is why Echo Buds features might just be a bigger draw for consumers. The audio quality combined with noise cancellation and a comfortable fit at an attractive price point may drive initial consumer interest. However, once they are hooked, Alexa will always be there for them as well.
AirPods command about 50% of all wireless earbuds sales revenue so they have proven to be tough to beat in this category so far. Amazon will have an easier time going after Android smartphone users first which are not big adopters of AirPods. And, at the $129 price point that I fully expect to see discounted to $99 as a holiday season sale price, the company has a chance to use Echo Buds to expand the market as oppose to simply looking to take share from an incumbent.