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Apple Finally Finds a Hit With Strange Headphones

How Airpods went from object of ridicule to beloved accessory

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

When Apple launched AirPods in September 2016, they were an easy target of ridicule. Apple was still bruised from the relatively tepid response to its first-gen Apple Watch and was absorbing mild blows after removing the headphone jack from the iPhone. And then, of course, there was the fact that the AirPods looked stupid. Oh man did they look stupid.

They did—and do—resemble electric toothbrush heads. The jokes came quickly, unlike the AirPods themselves. Apple said the AirPods would be available in late October, but then suffered from supply-chain issues. AirPods didn’t start to ship until December 2016. But none of it mattered. Not only did AirPods become a commercial success, but it’s no longer laughable to see those toothbrush heads sticking out of someone’s ears; in fact, it’s commonplace—and braggable for whoever has them.

David Cannington is well aware of the initial reaction to AirPods and the increasingly positive reception that followed. He’s the cofounder of Nuheara, a company that has its own high-tech earbuds that look and act a little differently than your traditional in-ears. “On a flight to New York a month ago, I noticed more people wearing AirPods,” he says. “I’m starting to see them more and more, and I noticed I’m now conscious of people who are wearing wired earbuds.”

We all had our fun with the strange design and troubled launch only to see AirPods score a 98 percent customer satisfaction rate and dominate the market by September 2017. At $159, they sold out over the holiday season and are projected to double in sales next year. It helps that they work well, too. Connecting via Bluetooth—a technology that should work better than it does given its age—is, by all accounts, actually smooth when pairing the iPhone and AirPods. Apple has made sure that the onboarding and connectivity experience work better when you’re using its proprietary products, and for some users, that’s enough of a selling point to grab AirPods when making the switch to wireless.

“I see AirPods out and about now, [which is] different than a year ago when, I think, Apple made a good effort to get AirPods into influencers’ hands. … They would have had a botched rollout if they hadn’t figured out how to get them to the right people in the early weeks. [And they had to do that] even though they knew they were going to have supply problems,” says Brian Blau, a Gartner analyst who lives in the Bay Area. The limited-supply factor may have been a boon.

The AirPod feedback loop offers a few lessons. For starters, the backlash cycle is getting shorter and shorter. Second, it’s a reminder of the strength of Apple’s marketing machine. There were also more straightforward changes. Blau says that part of the turnaround was simply thanks to Apple getting its supply issue resolved in the spring and a concentrated marketing and advertising campaign.” The strategy spoke to Apple loyalists and those who’ve simply, by sheer market force, bought into the ecosystem. If you already have the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPad, and you’re considering wireless earbuds, why not the AirPods?

2017 was an experimental year for audio accessories, with AirPods stoking and benefiting from the trend. “There were quite a number of competitors,” says Blau. “And so what sort of felt like a field of one—because [AirPods were] such a unique-looking device—suddenly wasn’t.” The hearables craze, though small and burgeoning, was lauded at CES in 2017, setting a tone. Personal audio devices could be more than part of the throw-away accessory market; the simple earbud could be elevated. “You have to think maybe Apple was leading that charge and then people got used to it and thought, ‘You know, maybe the AirPods thing wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.’”

A handful of similarly unusual-looking AirPod alternatives have likely helped Apple’s version seem regular, though their own successes have varied. Bragi Dash and Doppler, both wireless earbuds, received hefty praise from the tech press (though Doppler Labs’ success was short-lived). Also among them is the aforementioned Nuheara, which makes IQbuds, wireless earbuds that allow you to augment sound. They offer basic capabilities like noise canceling, but also enhanced features, such as the ability to boost the voice of someone talking to you when you’re in a loud place. The company began as a crowdfunding campaign in 2016 and started shipping its product during CES 2017, where it was a crowd favorite. Since then, Nuheara has expanded its retail presence amid glowing reviews, and Cannington says his business is thriving.

Cannington says that IQbuds are not a direct AirPod competitor. “We look at the market differently than other earbud companies. We are a hearing intelligence company,” he says. “Everything we do is about enabling consumers to have control of how they interact with the world around them and also have control of their devices.” That said, Cannington acknowledges that there’s something of a symbiotic relationship between companies like his—solidly in the next-gen hearables category—and what AirPods have done to advance a new way of thinking about audio devices.

“What AirPods have done is help create a category. They’ve taken a lion’s share of the market, 85 to 90 percent,” he says. “The Sonys and Samsung and ourselves and Bragi—those are the only serious companies in the space. And then there’s lots of really crappy ones racing to the bottom.” Naturally, Cannington believes that AirPods serve as a gateway to a much higher-tech product, like his. They hasten the crucial first step: buying into funny-looking wireless buds. “Our position about AirPods is pretty simple: They’re a dumb bud,” he says. For another $150, you can enter an entirely new world of augmented hearing.

Apple notoriously sits out CES, so we won’t hear about any future plans for the lineup next week, but the next version is due before 2018 is over.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple develop AirPods as wearables, and the company could implement features like fitness tracking or, maybe further down the line, augmented-sound capabilities similar to Nuheara’s technology. But one thing seems certain: The new, formerly strange earpiece design isn’t going away. Now, it’s going to be about which ones we choose to stick in our heads.