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      Matt Windmill
      Matt Windmill,

      Sales Manager, Consumer EMEA, Analog Devices

      Author Details
      Matt Windmill

      Matt has 20-year experience in the semiconductor industry, most recently leading the Consumer Sales Team in EMEA at Analog Devices. A lifelong passion for music and audio dovetails perfectly with building partnerships and enabling ADI’s industry-leading technology and solutions in the hearable and wearable space. Currently studying for an Exec M.B.A. at Aston Business School.

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      NOW HEAR THIS: CUSTOMIZED EARBUDS BRING BETTER SOUND TO ALL


      Between nonstop streaming, gaming, and video calls, the assault on the modern ear is relentless. Partial hearing loss is a silent epidemic among populations of all ages, whether it’s teens with poor listening habits or remote professionals engaging with colleagues on Zoom. Even among U.S. adults who report good to excellent hearing, 1 in 4 have undiagnosed hearing damage.1

      What if everyone could hear music, movies, games, video calls, and even in-person conversations exactly as nature (and content creators) intended? With customized earbuds, that potential is now possible.

      Customized earbuds make personal audio more personal. Hearing augmentation technology enables everyday earbuds to serve many of the same functions as hearing aids without the stigma associated with those traditional large and cumbersome accessories. Since most of the requisite technology already exists today, customized earbuds are a natural next stage in the evolution of personal audio.

      1 in 5
      TEENS HAVE SOME DEGREE OF HEARING LOSS 2

      HEARING DAMAGE: THE SILENT EPIDEMIC

      Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic physical condition in the U.S. and is twice as common as diabetes or cancer.3 Unsafe listening practices expose nearly 50% of American teens and young adults (ages 12 to 35) to unsafe levels of sound, putting over 1 billion young adults at risk of permanent and avoidable hearing loss.4

      While people with profound hearing loss most often use sign language to communicate, those with mild to severe hearing loss generally still use spoken language. These individuals can benefit from tools such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, captioning, and other assistive devices. But only 1 in 5 people who would benefit from these solutions actually uses them—despite the fact that you can now buy hearing aids over the counter.

      Wireless earbuds offer a solution without stigma: An accepted form factor with traditional hearing aid capabilities. The proliferation of earbuds is part of the problem, but with personalized hearing augmentation, those same earbuds can also be part of the solution.

      “Listening to loud noises can overwork and damage cells in the ear, and hearing loss can progress as long as the exposure continues. Damage to the ear is generally permanent and cannot be reversed.”

      Matt Windmill

      Sales Manager, Consumer EMEA

      LISTENING TO THE LISTENERS: TODAY’S AUDIO MARKET AND TRENDS

      Today’s consumers are shopping for headphones and earbuds based on features they desire for home, office, exercise, gaming, and other applications. Going forward, audio manufacturers will need to differentiate themselves with increasingly specialized earbuds. You can expect to see technologies like occlusion cancellation and transparency become industry standards in the market for fitness earbuds in the same way that active noise cancellation did for business customers and travelers. Meanwhile, spatialization will be in demand for immersive applications. Finally, there is the plain fact of audio quality getting better as technology has advanced.

      In a market long dominated by convenience, the TV soundbar industry has tuned the public’s aural palate by migrating viewers away from native television speakers and demonstrating the potential of superior audio. This exposure to superior sound has whetted the consumer appetite for better sound across the board, including the sound that fits inside their ears.

      ADVANCED AUDIO TECH: MUSIC TO THE EARS FOR CUSTOMIZED EARBUD MANUFACTURERS

      X+

      Real-Time Acoustic Processing

      Low latency, highly deterministic, real-time acoustic processing is at the heart of active noise cancellation (ANC). ANC requires the audio digital signal processor (DSP) to sample audio input, combine it with anti-noise, and push the composite audio through the speaker output. Long delay, or high latency, may invite a combing effect where filtered sound and ambient sound reach the user’s ear at an offset, causing audio distortion and a suboptimal listening experience.

      Hearing Augmentation

      TWS earbuds with personal sound amplification offer functions that were formerly reserved for hearing aids: Augmented hearing, background noise control, beamforming and speech enhancement, wide dynamic range compression, and low latency. With ANC and advanced transparency, listeners can tune the world out or in to focus on what they want to hear.

      Low Power Solutions

      Class AB amplifiers have long been the default in audio applications, but for hearables, a switching Class DG architecture offers improved efficiency, extended battery life, and ANC support. Class D audio amplifiers combine dynamic power supply adjustment with adaptive dynamic filtering to strike a balance between efficiency and distortion, enabling them to achieve optimal sound from small, battery-powered speakers such as those found in earbuds.

      BEYOND BLUETOOTH: ULTRAWIDE BANDWIDTH IN THE EARBUD OF THE FUTURE

      Current Bluetooth® technology supports functions like hearing augmentation, spatialization, and even vital signs monitoring in earbuds. But while Bluetooth has enabled foundational developments in personal audio technology, there is a tipping point for how many Bluetooth functionalities a single device can support. With our current capabilities, consumers may be required to make a choice when shopping for the earbuds of the future.

      Either Bluetooth must evolve significantly in the coming years, or the market must shift toward other technologies that enable features unavailable with Bluetooth. One such technology that holds promise is ultra-wide bandwidth (UWB), which offers the potential for better data rates, lower latency, greater processing power, lossless and high res audio, spatialization, and other heavy-lift functions that are currently out of reach in the smallest personal audio devices.

      Some of UWB’s anticipated functions will still require a Bluetooth handshake, so if it comes to fruition, UWB will have to coexist with Bluetooth—but that would be the case no matter what. Due to its ubiquity and broadly accepted standards, Bluetooth will likely be around for a long time to come.

      An infographics comparing bluetooth low energy and ultra-wide bandwidth
      Comparison Between Bluetooth Low Energy and Ultra-wide Bandwidth

      CUSTOMIZED EARBUDS IN THE PERSONAL AUDIO ECOSYSTEM

      When it comes to customized earbuds, the predictable adoption cycle isn’t the only driver. The Intelligent Edge offers a smart sandbox in which customized earbuds could easily play.

      Imagine earbuds handing off music and calls to the smart car, home, TV, or office, integrating with personal assistants, or smartly adjusting their own performance to match the environment based on smart sensing or GPS. Some innovative audio makers are starting to offer advanced functions like adaptive noise cancellation, but the industry is still at the beginning of this exciting new road.

      While high res audio, spatialization, and other next-gen features will likely inspire new types of content, the potential for customized earbuds in the personal audio ecosystem may prove an even more powerful driver of adoption.

      A woman in a video conference wearing wireless earbuds, while drinking coffee
      A man sits on a bus while holding a phone and wearing wireless earbuds
      A teenage boy jogging in the park with wireless earbuds

      CRANKING THE VOLUME ON MARKET ADOPTION

      Luxury features have a way of becoming industry standards over time. For example, the availability of HD TV-inspired content that capitalized on that technology. Consumers then came to expect this improved performance and HD TV became the new baseline.

      Active noise cancellation (ANC) offers a corollary in the personal audio industry. Once reserved for frequent fliers and big spenders, ANC is now a standard feature in virtually every over-the-ear headphone product available.

      In both cases, the cycle is the same: better technology leads to better content, creating consumer demand and, eventually, new industry standards. It is well within the scope of probability that hearing augmentation and customized earbuds will follow a similar trajectory.

      References

      1 Joy Victory and Healthy Hearing. “Hearing Loss Statistics at a Glance.” Healthy Hearing, 2022.
      2 “Hearing Loss Facts and Statistics.” Hearing Loss Association of America, 2018.
      3 “Loud Noise Can Cause Hearing Loss: Public Health and Scientific Information”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
      4 All Ears International and G. Vaughan. “Deafness and Hearing Loss.” World Health Organization.