Wireless VS Wired Headphones: Who Wins in the Long Run?

There’s a huge wireless headphones revolution going on, with seemingly no one carrying wired ones anymore. But cords are there for a reason, and for a good one – the quality of sound depends on it, actually. However, it doesn’t come close to the rise of the wireless headphones market, which was valued at $42.7bn in 2021 and expected to grow at a CAGR of 14.4% till 2031. But are they really worth it?
Read on to find out who wins the famous Wired VS Wireless battle.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

wireless headphones

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

Why do we need cords at all? 

Bluetooth earphones were a complete boom when they showed up – as new technology usually is. But the hype didn’t last as much. So how are we now living in a world where every kiddo on the street is wearing wireless headphones? Moreover, how is this shift so powerful that companies are removing the headphone jack from smartphones? 

There’s not only a technological but societal shift happening, where cord headphones are considered outdated and even vintage. ‘Nobody wears those anymore; we’ve moved past it’, you can often read in the comments. 

But don’t underestimate the power of cords, for they exist for a reason. What’s more, they’re so powerful that they can transform the sound of the instrument as a whole. That’s why they can sometimes be pricy, but every professional musician will tell you it pays off in the long run. 

“If we talk about the highest possible technical standards in the world of music production and mixing in general, cables, as well as connectors, are of extreme importance. A bad cable or a connector can significantly affect the quality of sound (especially in costly systems and rooms where you can hear every detail), whether it’s a cable for headphones, microphone or some other outboard equipment”, told us music producer Aleksa Čolaković who goes by the name 2ofhearts and whose TikTok videos have up to 20M views. 

@2ofhearts___

Foley recreation of – Spring (Blender short animation) Written and directed by Andy Goralczyk #fyp #foryoupage #asmrvideo #sounddesign #art #asmrtiktoks #asmrsounds #asmr #foley #disney #pixar #america #hollywood #usa

♬ original sound – Aleksa

He emphasizes that each cable has the role of a medium that transmits the desired information to our equipment. 

“If we enter the world of real audiophiles, it is not uncommon to come across a cable whose threads are made of pure gold because gold is a phenomenal sound conductor and actually plays the biggest role in the transmission of our signal. The better the material conductor, the smaller the loss in its transmission. What’s more, the cable helps us stay in the analog world of signal transduction, which therefore means avoiding additional conversions that lead to loss of quality”, the producer pointed out. 

Now, let’s keep in mind that wireless headphones are mainly used for practical reasons – each of us gets annoyed with the cord getting tangled. But even more than that, nowadays people wear them as an accessory. Often, they’re not even charged or playing music; kids just wear them for the aesthetics. 

However, this trend has consequences in the real world – by prioritizing wireless technology, companies don’t invest as much in wired headphones. They are slowly squeezing them out of their plans and future products. 

How did the wireless headphones market rise?   

After the initial boom of Bluetooth earphones vanished, the wireless market reinvented itself in a much more stable, long-term way. It dates back to Apple launching AirPods at the end of 2016. 

From the start, their price was substantially high, making people want to have them. Other than the convenience, of course. 

Data from 2020 shows that AirPods alone generated revenue of $23.05bn, which is more than Spotify, Twitter and Square combined in the same fiscal year. 

wireless earphones

Photo Illustration: Freepik

Not only that, but this breakthrough encouraged other competitors to launch their own product lines. The design somewhat differed, they were usually chunkier, so the aesthetic dimension didn’t grip as much with other manufacturers. Everybody wanted the slim, white Apple version, and wore them almost as earrings. 

You could often see someone wearing only one, meaning the other probably fell off somewhere. Still, they were so pricy and most wanted that they had to keep even that one as a statement. 

To prove this point, let us share the following stat from Allied Market Research

image-1

Based on category, branded headphones segment dominated the global market with a market share of more than 70% in the year 2021.

However, the type of headphones differs significantly, affecting not only their price range but also the user’s sound preferences. It’s important to differentiate between: 

  • On-ear Headphones 
  • Over-ear Headphones 
  • In-ear Headphones 

According to the mentioned research, the type that dominated the market in 2021 was the on-ear segment by more than a 50% share. Nonetheless, the in-ear segment is expected to grow at a CAGR of 16%, which is more than any other type of headphones. 

In addition, each of these types has its own price range, falling under the following categories: 

  • Economic 
  • Premium 
  • Ultra-Premium 

The price point that was the most common in 2021 was the economic segment, by more than 45%. However, the fastest-growing share in the analyzed period goes to the ultra-premium segment. 

Last but not least, over 40% of surveyed wireless headphones owners were Zoomers, making them the most common group among wireless technology adopters. 

Now, let’s try and present all of the mentioned stats visually and build an average user profile. 

infographic average profile

What’s driving the wireless market?   

One more thing we should mention when talking about users’ habits in terms of wireless headphones is that most of them purchase this gadget online, since online stores offer many more options than in-person retail. Why is this fact important? 

Because online portals, retail outlets, specialty and electronic stores are the #1 distribution channel for this piece of equipment. 

Another critical factor is that True Wireless Stereo (TWS) is the only category within the global smart personal audio market that didn’t suffer a decline in Q3 2022. Namely, according to Canalys

image-1

The global smart personal audio market suffered its second consecutive decline in Q3 2022, with shipments down 4% to 113.6 million units. TWS remained the only category (including wireless earphones and wireless headphones) to show an increase, with a 6% growth to 76.9 million units in the quarter.

In the same estimation, the competitors with the highest market share are: 

  1. Apple (including Beats) launched 2nd generation Air Pods Pro, which led to a 34% increase in shipments and a 31% market share. 
  2. Samsung (including Harman subsidiaries) launched Galaxy Buds2 Pro launch, but its shipments fell by 15%. 
  3. boAt is a local Indian brand with a 5% market share and a growth rate of 50%. 
  4. Xiaomi’s market share is 4%. 
  5. Skullcandy holds a share of 3%. 

As Canalys reports, towards 2nd half of 2022, audio-centric brands, such as Sony, Jabra, and JBL, all offered extreme discounting to sustain shipment levels. Consequently, this move has significantly weakened the market performance of value-for-money brands.

Factors contributing to wireless market growth
  • True wireless headphones as hearables in connected environment – Most recent models come with functions like simultaneous pairing with numerous devices and wireless charging.
  • Standardization of innovative offerings – Vendors have started to incorporate innovative technology such as active noise canceling, gesture recognition and control, active head tracking, biometric monitoring, 3D surround sound delivery, and onboard storage.
  • Value-added features driving adoption – They are integrating the functionalities and capabilities of several electronic devices into true wireless headphones.
  • High number of tech-savvy consumers – New generations are becoming familiar with technology at an earlier age, resulting in a higher number of consumers with the purchasing power.

    How long will the market continue to grow? 

    The wireless headphone market boom is only starting, according to several independent researches. We’ll cite combined data from Globenewswire and Allied Market Research published recently: 

    • In 2021, the market value was estimated at $42,693.9mn. With a predicted CAGR of 14.4% by 2031, the market is expected to reach an astonishing $156,501.9 mn. 
    • Revenue of the global true wireless headphones is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of at least 20% by the end of 2026. 
    • The largest revenue share will have North America, reaching $6bn by 2026. 
    • The active noise cancellation (ANC) headphones revenue will grow at a CAGR of 22%, reaching a total of $9bn in the same time range. 
    • The premium range wireless headphones revenue is predicted to reach $8bn. 

    However, if you’re among those who cherish good sound quality and want to hear every layer of what your favorite musician intended you to hear, going for the current wireless hype won’t get you there. 

    “The more I talk about this, the deeper I can go about every step of the chain, but I’ll try to explain the essence to keep my answer concise. The bottom line is that it’s always better to avoid unnecessary sound conversions. Professionals who buy a device that only does one type of conversion know it can cost a few thousand euros, weigh several kilos and be larger than most laptop computers. Now, knowing that your wireless earphones are only a few centimeters long, you can imagine how much conversion happens there”, Aleksa explained. 

    Moreover, he underlined that the wireless technology itself is quite expensive, so the replicas that can be found on the market and cost a few hundred bucks are not true representatives of this technology. 

    So, what’s his verdict? 

    “If you want the best sound, stick with the headphones that have a cable because you will avoid one excessive conversion from who knows what kind of converter that is installed in your wireless headphones”, he concluded. 

    A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.