Headsets – our sound islands [TUPdate]

Dan Ness, Principal Analyst, MetaFacts – December 10, 2020

Wireless Bluetooth headsets get a booster

Wireless Bluetooth headsets have been in the news lately, widely promoted as a year-end gift accessory. As a category, they have been available for decades, so why the latest emphasis, and is there enough demand for them?

Market demand has gotten stronger during 2020 in large part due to changed playing and working conditions. With the pandemic and stay-at-home restrictions worldwide, many people are now nearby a distinct set of people than they might interact with at their workplace or school. While quarantines can be a bonding experience, there can be added pressure when the sounds we make or listen to impinge on others.

Listening widespread, although differs by device type

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps the ear. The music some may consider beautiful may seem like noise to others. Similarly, the phone call we may think thoughtful may sound to others like distracting chatter.

Connected devices have enabled a wide range of listening activities wherever the user happens to be. From phone calls to TV or video watching, the sound is a core part of nearly every technology user’s life.
Listening activities are effectively ubiquitous, being regular activities of more than 90% of online adults in the US, Germany, and the UK. In Japan, the share is also large, at 83.4%.

Smartphones are the most-used device. Three out of four online adults in the US, Germany, and the UK actively use one for listening activities. PCs are second-most, although not far behind. Sixty percent of German online adults use their PCs for listening activities, slightly more than online adults in the US, UK, and Japan.

Top listening activities

Two of the top three activities across all connected devices are personal calls, personal phone calls, and personal video calls. Personal phone calls using either a smartphone, PC, or table rank tops among online adults, with just more than three-fourths of online adults in the US, Germany, and UK, and 62% in Japan.

PCs are primary used for more passive listening activities, watching videos/movies or television. Also, PCs are top-rated for taking part in work-related web-based group meetings. Applications from Webex to Zoom offer screen-sharing in addition to seeing videos of other participants. Both features are more useful with a PC than on a smartphone.

Tablets and PCs are both used for watching videos and television. However, voice assistants are the 2nd-most widely used listening activity for tablets.

Listening activities and household size

The greatest interest for wireless Bluetooth headsets is likely to be in larger households. Online adults in larger households are more likely to be using their connected devices for listening activities than those in smaller households.

This pattern is true across the US, Germany, the UK, and Japan.

While users listen to and speak with smartphones the same across household size, those in larger households use their PCs and tablets differently than users in small households.

Wireless Bluetooth headsets by country

Wireless Bluetooth headsets are one way to support listening activities.

However, headsets are not in widespread use. Around one in four online adults in the US and Germany actively use one kind of wireless Bluetooth headset or another. This share is one in five online adults in the UK and only one in eight in Japan.

Generation gap and headsets

Younger adults embrace wireless Bluetooth headsets more broadly than older ones. The usage share among Gen Z (age 18-23) is nearly double that of Gen X (40-55) in Germany and the UK. Gen Z still uses them more than younger generations in the US, although with not as high a margin.

Among online adults in Japan, it is more the case that older adults (Boomers/Silent/56+) are not using wireless Bluetooth headsets. Anyone younger than 56 is using them at a similar rate regardless of age.

Looking ahead

There are many ways we interact with the connected world, from what we see and touch to what we say and hear. Sound is one sense that can get mingled with other sounds, which may or may not be desirable.

Headsets promise to offer more privacy to listeners and respect to others. However, they are also one more accessory to buy and one more device to keep charged up. Also, there are social standards about who would wear them in public or around others.

Activities oriented around listening and speaking are here to stay. They are being used regularly and widely. Due to inertia in social interactions, I do not expect the penetration of wireless Bluetooth headsets to expand much further than they have today.

Instead, we will see headset manufacturers further segmenting the product set. While some will focus on enriching the user’s music-listening pleasure, others will help with video and voice calls. Yet others will tackle the small but demanding immersive game market segment.

There will be a robust replacement market as companies like Apple, Sony, LG, Jabra, and myriad others continue to add features that support user’s major activities.

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