What are smart headphones and hearables?
By Oliver Trebilcock
We explain the features and potential benefits of this new breed of wireless headphones that let you do far more than just listen to music.
You may well have already heard of ‘wearable’ technology, but you’re probably less likely to have encountered the term ‘hearable’. Wearable technology refers to smart devices that you wear, such as smartwatches, but hearables – you guessed it – are smart devices that you can listen to.
Hearables are still a relatively new class of products, and what exactly makes something a hearable is still not very rigidly defined. Broadly, it means a pair of headphones with added smart features - usually fitness tracking or a built-in voice assistant that you can use to control your smartphone.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the idea of a ‘personal computer’ evolve from something you might have on your desk at work to a pocket-sized device that many people carry around with them constantly. Some manufacturers are promoting hearables as the next step as we weave computers ever closer into our daily lives.
Hearables are starting to move into the mainstream, but the concept has been around for a while. The first fitness-tracking headphones were released in 2013, but now that voice-assistant technology is starting to take off the case for smart headphones is becoming stronger. You can see the products we’ve tested in the table below.
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Smart headphones on test
These over-ear headphones are a landmark launch, becoming the highest-ever scoring wireless headphones at our expert lab. The industry-leading active noise cancelling is the best we’ve yet seen, they’re superbly comfortable, and the 27-plus hour battery life goes the distance. They’re foldable and there’s even a detachable cord if you forget to charge them, plus a whole host of optional settings in the accompanying smartphone app.
These in-ear wireless headphones have one aim: to make your music sound amazing – and they certainly deliver. Sound is well balanced, punchy and entertaining. They’re lightweight and comfortable too. Plus, the neckband brings added stability and longer battery life. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better-sounding pair at this price.
These headphones are some of the best-sounding our lab has tested. They're designed to pair perfectly with iPhones, and even allow you to control Siri without having to get your phone out of your pocket. They’re light and comfortable, so are easy to take out and about with you.
If you hate wires and cables, truly wireless headphones are for you. These in-ear headphones are little earbuds you put in your ear, with no cord between them. They come with a little charging case you put them in when not in use, which keeps them topped up, extending their five-hour battery life to 15 hours. They’re IPX4 sweat- and weather-resistant as well, so they should survive rigorous exercise or a downpour. They’re not quite a Don’t Buy, since the bass will be a touch heavy for some, but otherwise they’re an excellent pair.
What can hearables do?
Hearables are usually in-ear headphones, as these are easier to take around with you everywhere than bulkier on-ear and over-ear models. They will connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth, just like other wireless headphones.
Headphones have long included microphones, allowing you to make voice calls while wearing them. Hearables take this a step further by syncing with the voice assistant on your phone, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. This will allow you to make calls simply by speaking the request aloud. You could also dictate a text message, all without getting your phone out of your pocket or bag.
Many hearables also include fitness-tracking features. Built-in GPS tracking, step counters and a heart-rate monitor will give you the equivalent functions of most fitness trackers. Some hearables also have built-in memory, allowing you to store music on them and leave your smartphone at home when going out for a run.
Some hearables rely completely on your smartphone to do all the computing work – they are just a way of controlling your smartphone without getting it out. Others, such as the models with on-board music players, can be used without a smartphone but need the phone to access the full range of smart features. A small minority of models include built-in internet connection and are designed to be used completely independently of a smartphone.
The benefits of hearables
If you’ve ever been annoyed by someone walking down the road engrossed in their smartphone, a hearable future might appeal to you. Tasks we currently use smartphone screens for, such as navigation, could become voice directed through hearables instead – far less distracting and keeping our vision free.
You might be surprised to learn that hearables may actually be better at recording your heart rate than wrist-based monitors. The idea for putting a heart-rate monitor in your ear was originally for purely practical reasons. The location of blood vessels means it’s easier for the sensor to get a reliable reading there.
Hearables could also make it easier for people to interact with their smartphones. Many people prefer the idea of voice commands to tapping away at confusing buttons. Because hearables feature microphones, they could also be used to boost hearing – think a hearing aid with added features.
Into the future
Currently much of the talk around hearables is around their fitness-tracking features. However, one day hearables could be the solution to many tasks you currently carry out on your smartphone. Voice-assistant technology keeps getting better, so it’s not at all far-fetched to imagine a world where people check the news headlines, navigate their way around and order taxis all without getting their phone out.
Having a smart earbud in your ear opens up the possibility of real-time translation. This is actually already a feature on the Google Pixel Bud headphones, but in future it could become widespread.
Hearables will also likely get smarter when it comes to working out which sounds you want to be listening to, and which can be filtered out. For example, this could be used to turn down the background noise in a cafe and let you focus on your conversation.
Currently, voice assistants are getting a lot of attention from tech companies, but it’s not always practical to speak aloud to your headphones. It’s likely to be a fair way off yet, but it has been suggested that future in-ear headphones could also include a sensor to monitor your brain activity, giving the possibility of controlling your devices by merely thinking about doing it.