By Jared Newman7 minute Read

In one of the most promising categories in consumer electronics—smart earbuds—Amazon occupies an unlikely spot on the sidelines.

One year after Apple unveiled AirPods, and more than a month after Google released its own Pixel Buds, Amazon doesn’t yet have its own set of earbuds to showcase the Alexa voice assistant. The job of integrating Alexa with headphones and earbuds has instead fallen to small third-party companies such as Bragi and 66 Audio, neither of which have Amazon’s marketing power or the same commitment to the Alexa ecosystem.

And unlike Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant, which are baked into millions of smartphones, Alexa is still mostly housebound on Amazon’s Echo speakers. Taking Alexa on the road should, in theory, be a top priority.

But integrating Alexa into earbuds is harder than it might sound. Headphone and earbud makers point to inefficiencies in today’s off-the-shelf hardware and the considerable amount of software development required. And then there are the challenges with cellular connectivity that Amazon must face, given that it doesn’t control a smartphone platform, as Apple and Google do.

Alexa earbuds still seem like a matter of when, not if. But for Amazon, it’s possible that it could be a while before the pieces fall into place.

“Every Single Thing Was Against Us”

Kristian Kay, the founder and CEO of 66 Audio, thought that building Alexa headphones would be easy. After Amazon launched its Echo speaker in late 2014, Kay’s engineers told him that building the same voice technology into their existing products would only take a month or so.

Instead, 66 Audio spent the next two years developing its Pro Voice wireless headphones with hands-free Alexa voice recognition, finally launching them in December. Along the way, “We realized that every single thing was against us,” Kay says.

Part of the problem was that Qualcomm’s existing wireless headphone chips aren’t set up for voice controls. Instead, nearly all of their power consumption goes toward basic features like audio playback and Bluetooth connectivity. To accommodate Alexa, 66 Audio had to tack on external flash memory and a separate digital amplifier, which in turn required a new circuit design.

Pro Voice wireless headphones [Photo: courtesy of 66 Audio]

“You’ve got a lot of technical constraints that prevent you from building a voice experience on a really small chip,” Kay says. “It’s like trying to run Photoshop on an Apple II.”

At the same time, 66 Audio was trying to meet Alexa guidelines from Amazon that hadn’t applied to headphones before. For instance, the team had to figure out how Bluetooth interaction should work when Alexa asks a follow-up question, or the best way to interrupt music playback while the user makes another Alexa query.

“We had to build quite a bit of custom code to make the experience work per Amazon’s experience guidelines,” says Kay.

In the end, 66 Audio can claim to have the first headphones that use the “Alexa” wake word for voice commands, but Kay acknowledges that bringing the same feature to earbuds would be tougher. Because bud hardware must be tiny, battery life becomes a more precious resource, which could be squandered by constantly listening for a wake word.

“When you add a voice recognition engine, which is in essence a microphone that is always listening for a trigger keyword, such as “Alexa” or “Okay Google,” you’re immediately cutting 30% of your battery life because of that always-on situation,” Kay says. As an engineering requirement, “You start with hell and you end up being in hell.”

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Apple’s Advantage

Earbud makers are also hamstrung compared to Apple, which developed its own W1 chip for the AirPods. Although Apple’s earbuds do use Bluetooth, the custom chip makes the connection more efficient compared to the off-the-shelf components that other companies use.

Noah Kraft, the CEO of now-defunct Doppler Labs, says having to use those components was a major reason why the startup’s ambitious Here One earbuds didn’t resonate with consumers, forcing the company’s shutdown. Doppler’s buds had a sleek design, came with sophisticated audio-remixing technology, and used near-field magnetic induction to wirelessly synchronize audio between the ears. But after managing all that, the Here One could manage only about two hours of battery life. (Apple promises up five hours of AirPod use before they need a boost from their carrying case.)

Kraft and Jacob Meacham, Doppler’s vice president of engineering, point to the Here One’s CSR Bluetooth chip, a Qualcomm product, as the culprit. The chip is manufactured with 10-year-old technology, and was mainly intended for cheap Bluetooth headsets that had to relay the occasional phone call. Until Apple launched its AirPods, chip makers didn’t realize they needed to modernize.

“No one really saw this coming, and so the technology that people who couldn’t spend a bunch of money building their own chip had was essentially the technology that you’d put in a $20 crappy Bluetooth headset,” Meacham says.

Qualcomm has been hinting at new chipsets for “hearables” in early 2018, but Meacham speculates that we won’t see products based on those chips until later in the year, followed by a broader push in 2019. He also guesses that Amazon and Google must be working on their own custom chips. In the meantime, second-generation AirPods are rumored for the second half of 2018.

“The W1 was able to catapult [Apple] at least 24 months ahead of everyone else,” Meacham says.

The Cellular Connection

Compared to Apple and Google, Amazon faces one unique roadblock: Without built-in cellular connectivity, its earbuds would have to depend on a smartphone app, running on another company’s platform. The notion of having Apple and Google as gatekeepers probably doesn’t appeal to Amazon, which is busily adding more ways for developers to monetize their Alexa skills, such as in-skill purchases and subscriptions.

Besides, depending on a smartphone app rather than deep integration into a mobile operating system can cause headaches for users. Nikolaj Hviid, the CEO of Bragi, says that the need for an app is the biggest technical limitation of company’s Dash Pro earbuds, because it needs to be running in the background for most features to work. (Bragi added Alexa controls to the Dash Pro in October, but activated with head gestures instead of a wake word.)

Dash Pro earbuds [Photo: courtesy of Bragi]

“If the application’s not open, and the Bluetooth device is not connected to the application, then it does not work,” Hviid says.

Adding cellular connectivity directly to earbuds—akin to what Apple did with its latest Apple Watch—would only compound existing battery issues, Doppler’s Meacham says. It could also amplify concerns over cellular radiation. “Obviously phones are certified to [hold] near your head, but not necessarily two phones near your head all day,” he says.

One short-term solution would be to put a cellular radio inside the earbuds’ carrying case, though this would necessitate carrying around yet another device in your pocket. And given how inflexible wireless carriers have been about data plans for small-scale computing devices, cellular earbuds would likely carry yet another stiff monthly charge. All of which means that Amazon has lots to think about before it brings a set of Alexa earbuds to market.

The Third-Party Route

If it doesn’t release its own Alexa buds anytime soon, Amazon can at least lean on third-parties’ headphone and earbud makers to release their own. But those companies are also wary of casting their lot with Amazon.

66 Audio’s Kristian Kay points to how Amazon burned Nucleus, a maker of connected intercoms, after investing in the startup via the Alexa Fund. After Nucleus shared lots of insights on how its intercom worked, Amazon released a similar product called the Echo Show, effectively burying Nucleus’s business. (Amazon has claimed its product was in development long before the collaboration began.)

“I think what Amazon did tainted, 100%, any company that they want to invest in in the future, because everyone’s going to think about that story,” Kay says. “And they can say anything they want, but they’re still the juggernaut in the room, and we’re all entrepreneurs, and we all talk to each other.”

Rather than just betting on Alexa, 66 Audio plans to build Google Assistant into its headphones in 2018, allowing users to switch between assistants through the company’s mobile app. Kristian Kay expects that this will only take a few months to implement. “All we would need to do is, we would need to retrain—i.e., build a separate engine module—to recognize ‘Okay Google,’” he says.

Kay also claims to hold a bargaining chip in the form of a software development kit that would allow other headphone makers to easily add voice recognition to their hardware. It’s an offshoot of the work 66 Audio did to enable Alexa on its own headphones.

“Multiple companies have expressed interest in the SDK and various hardware SDKs as well, which we own, for development of wireless voice platforms in the race for portable AI assistants,” he says. But for now, the company isn’t interested in sharing its work with gatekeepers like Amazon.

Bragi has even more ambitious plans, having built an entire gesture-controlled operating system into its Dash Pro earbuds. This allows for built-in activity tracking and music playback without a paired smartphone. Over time, Bragi plans to add even more features that don’t depend on cloud connectivity. That would stand in contrast to Amazon’s approach of building most of the intelligence into the Alexa cloud service, with Echo hardware serving as a cheap and fairly dumb terminal.

“It’s easy to make headphones,” Bragi’s Hviid says. “It’s difficult to make a device that sits in your ear that’s computer-based.”