“Alexa, is Amazon making Alexa earbuds?” The assistant won’t answer that question, but the tech giant is reportedly working on an AirPods 2 rival that will be released this year.
According to Bloomberg, the new Alexa earbuds will have three main advantages over Apple’s wireless earbuds: a lower price, better sound quality and instant access to a smarter assistant. Amazon could easily wind up selling millions this holiday season, but it’s not a sure thing.
There are some serious obstacles in Amazon’s way beyond the company’s past failings in mobile — remember the Fire Phone? — but based on interviews with several analysts, the mega retailer should not be underestimated.
The AirPods 2 start at $159 but go up to $199 with the wireless charging case. That leaves plenty of room for Amazon to undercut Apple and other premium earbuds, such as the Jabra Elite Active 65t ($189), which also happen to be Alexa enabled.
“Considering Amazon's past pricing strategies, its new device will be cheaper than AirPods,” said Liz Lee, a senior analyst with Counterproint Research. “If it has a sort of stylish hardware and advanced features, it could be a cheaper alternative to AirPods.”
There are dozens and dozens of cheap wireless earbuds out there already, some of which offer better sound quality than the AirPods, such as the $79 Anker Soundcore Liberty Air. However, we found the touch controls to be poor on that model, and it didn’t integrate well with Siri or Google Assistant due to the lackluster speech recognition support.
We could see Amazon charging $99 for its Alexa earbuds, which according to Bloomberg will come in a storage case that doubles as a charger. That means you wouldn’t get wireless charging, a trade-off value-conscious shoppers will likely be happy to make. It’s also worth noting that only Apple offers an H2 wireless chip that allows for instantaneous pairing with devices and quick device switching.
So could Amazon make a big dent in the market by charging a mid-range price? Stephen Baker, vice president at research firm NP, says that’s not where the action is right now. “The fastest growing segment in wireless headphones (after AirPods) is your basic $25 and below wireless headphones,” said Baker.
Still, we wouldn’t underestimate the sheer marketing muscle of Amazon and its ability to prominently promote its own earbuds during key shopping events. This strategy has worked phenomenally well with products like the Echo Dot and Amazon’s Fire tablets.
“Amazon could take aggressive markdowns, including offering its new gadget in Prime deals and bundles for cheap during the Black Friday sales to increase market share,” said Lee.
Nevertheless, it will be vital for Amazon to make its earbuds stand out to command a premium over other basic true wireless buds.
What Alexa Will Do In Your Ears
As you might expect, Amazon’s earbuds will reportedly let you summon Alexa by simply saying “Alexa.” And, according to Bloomberg’s report, you’ll be able to “order goods, access music, weather and other information on the go.”
In addition, the earbuds will reportedly feature gesture controls. For example, you’ll be able to tap to start and end calls, as well as switch between songs. Those are standard features for this category, though.
There is a certain appeal to having Alexa in your ears, as opposed to using an Echo that’s across the room. You don’t have to let everyone around you hear every time you want to ask about the forecast, skip a track or add something to your shopping list. It would certainly be easier to ask about more sensitive topics, such as medical issues.
“A wearable Alexa. Sounds kind of Star Trek-y, doesn’t it?” said Ramon Llamas, a research director at IDC. “I like that it can be kept private, and that you don’t have to bark out orders to the nearest smart speaker.”
But Amazon will have to go beyond the basics to get people excited about wearing Alexa. For example, could the assistant let you know when to turn left or right when giving directions? Or maybe you could have Alexa let you know when a price on a certain product drops for Prime Day.
Then there’s the simple fact that Alexa is simply smarter than Siri, based on our third-party evaluations and our own testing. “It is apparent that access to Alexa could be more appealing for some people than access to Siri, as Alexa can be used to order goods from Amazon directly and Amazon's ecosystem is more open than Apple's,” said Lee.
On paper, Alexa-powered earbuds sound promising. Yes, there are already other headphones with Alexa integration, but Amazon creating its own affordable AirPods rivals would be a much bigger statement then simply lending its support to other products.
“The device will get Alexa into the ears of more people,” said Lee. “Alexa-equipped hearables could mark Amazon’s renewed steps into mobile hardware.”
Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to mobile. Its Fire Phone, which was introduced in 2014 with a gimmicky 3D display, flopped. And, even though the companies Fire tablets continue to sell well, the overall market for slates is in decline. The company is also being very cautious with its other mobile Alexa device — Alexa Auto — which is only available by invitation.
The biggest problem for Amazon is that it doesn’t control its destiny with phone when it comes to platform support and integration as it is on the smart speaker front, where it owns the whole widget. Because the Alexa earbuds reportedly won’t have cellular connectivity built in, the company will have to find a way to have Alexa to live alongside existing assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa on the iPhone and Android phones.
“This is a large challenge for them without a phone or an OS to latch onto, said Baker. “Their previous successes have mostly been in newer growth segments where they can reinvent/control the product story.”
In a separate interview with Yahoo Finance, Loup Ventures managing director Gene Munster went so far as to call Amazon's earbuds "a bad idea for them," citing integration issues with iOS and Android.
As Apple looks to build on its momentum with the second-gen AirPods and its Hey, Siri support and Google looks to rebound from the fail that was its own Google Pixel Buds, the companies have little incentive to embrace Amazon and its efforts to disrupt the wireless earbuds space. So it’s up to Amazon to find a way to work within the limitations of other companies’ ecosystems in iOS and Android. Chances are, you’ll have to run an Alexa app on your phone, similar to the experience of using other mobile Alexa devices, such as the Anker Roav Viva Pro or Garmin Speak Plus.
“That’s what Amazon has to solve with both platforms in order to be of value to the owner,” said Llamas. “Apple prefers to keep things in-house, and even if Android is a bit more open, there could still be obstacles there depending on which phone you own.”
When you look at Amazon’s overall strategy, it’s easy to see where Alexa earbuds fit in, especially if you use Alexa already. The assistant is constantly learning based on what people are asking and user feedback, and putting it in millions of users’ ears could help Amazon keep pace with Google Assistant while creating more distance between itself and Siri.
“Amazon has launched dozens of its own Alexa-enabled products over the past few years, and its strategy is typically to offer low pricing on hardware to improve its AI platform penetration overall,” said Avi Greengart, lead analyst and founder of Techsponential.
Introducing the Alexa buds at a significantly lower price than AirPods should be enough to get a sizable wave of early adopters this holiday season. But Amazon will have to demonstrate a truly unique value of wearing Alexa to keep the momentum going beyond the early buzz phase.
Credit: Tom's Guide