2023 was business as usual in the headphone world, but next year should bring some shake-ups

Vector collage of various headphone brands.

A lot happened in the headphone world this year. 2023 gave us the usual serving of big new products, but it also continued that story of earbuds and headphones growing smarter and more advanced — while audio quality keeps reaching new heights. And for better or worse, the trend helped to strengthen ecosystem lock-in for brands like Apple, Samsung, and Google.

Bose overhauled its hardware lineup and released the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and Headphones, which are the latest flexes of the company’s best-in-class active noise cancellation. Sony launched the hotly anticipated WF-1000XM5 earbuds. Jabra tried to keep pace with larger competitors with a pair of new premium earbuds, the Elite 10 and Elite 8 Active. Other companies produced buds with fantastic sound and unique features like, in the case of Panasonic’s Technics brand, three-way multipoint pairing. 

Meanwhile, Apple and Samsung largely stuck to their existing products in 2023, focusing instead on new software capabilities to enhance their value. Apple rolled out several features including Adaptive Audio, Conversation Awareness, and Personalized Volume to make the AirPods Pro even more intelligent about your day-to-day surroundings. They’re far better earbuds today than they were when they first went on sale, which goes to show the benefit of these ecosystem-dependent gadgets. It’s a pain if you’re on the other side of the fence, but the list of conveniences keeps getting longer for those already bought in.

This year wasn’t without some hiccups: LE Audio continues to roll out at a snail’s pace, slowing the arrival of exciting enhancements to the Bluetooth spec. Hopefully CES 2024 will jump-start a wave of new hardware that supports the AC3 codec, Auracast (streaming audio to multiple devices at once), and other LE Audio benefits.

Either way, 2024 is looking like a very exciting year for audio nerds. New devices from tech’s big players are on the way, we’ve got fresh competitors emerging, and Qualcomm could radically evolve the range and fidelity of earbuds by using Wi-Fi to make up for Bluetooth’s weaknesses. 

A photo showing the third-gen AirPods

A photo showing the third-gen AirPods

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman has reported that Apple is planning to replace the third-generation AirPods with two new models in 2024. One of them will include active noise cancellation, bringing that feature to a lower price point than the flagship AirPods Pro, which are unlikely to undergo any big changes next year after making the transition to USB-C in September. The new mainstream AirPods will continue that changeover. And they’ll preserve the one-size-fits-most design that doesn’t require sticking anything into your ear canal. This makes them Apple’s most comfortable buds for some people, and they’re also the best at keeping you aware of your surroundings. 

The Galaxy Buds 2 Pro were well received by reviewers and audio experts alike, and nearly two years after their launch, the timing is right for Samsung’s next top-tier earbuds to make a debut. There haven’t been many rumors about the Buds 3 Pro, but Samsung will inevitably do its best to counter Apple’s latest software tricks with some clever new features of its own that strengthen the link between the Galaxy Buds and the company’s upcoming Galaxy S24 series.

After years of rumors, Sonos is expected to release its first pair of wireless headphones sometime next year. The product is rumored to carry a very high-end price tag between $400 and $500, which would pit Sonos’ headphones against the best of the best in the category, including Apple’s AirPods Max and Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra. That’s a bold strategy for a newcomer, but Sonos expects its debut headphones to bring in the bulk of revenue from new hardware launches next year — so there’s a lot riding on them. The big question is how Sonos will stand out from a crowded field; the headphones are sure to integrate with the company’s multiroom audio platform. But other major features remain unknown.

Qualcomm’s latest chipset designed for these products will use micro-power Wi-Fi to keep the music playing even when you leave the Bluetooth range of your smartphone. This will also allow for truly lossless audio to be delivered to wireless earbuds from compatible Android phones. Wi-Fi could also help overcome the congestion and occasional signal disruptions that can still happen with Bluetooth earbuds in busy environments. There’s a lot of promise tied to this S7 Pro silicon; now we’ll need to see whether the execution goes smoothly among headphone manufacturers. The first such devices are expected to hit the market starting in 2024.

As my buying guide for the best wireless earbuds should make clear, there are a ton of great products to choose between as 2023 comes to a close. Everyone’s got a good handle on features like active noise cancellation, ambient sound mode, and the other vitals. 2024 should be a great indicator of where the category is headed next and how tech’s biggest players can keep pushing forward — and convincing consumers to upgrade from whatever they’re using right now.

Headphone makers can’t seem to agree on how spatial audio should work for music. And there’s a lot of “fake” processing and virtualization happening. With its new Ultra lineup, Bose has veered off with its own proprietary spatial audio solution that completely ignores actual Dolby Atmos audio mixes. Jabra’s new Elite 10 buds similarly use Dolby processing to “spatialize” all music whenever you enable the setting. And head tracking remains a largely gimmicky experience that mostly benefits movie watching — not music. It’d be wonderful if tech companies could get on the same page, somehow, and bring some consistency to spatial audio over the next 12 months. But I’m expecting it to remain a free-for-all.

One nagging issue that tech manufacturers haven’t yet solved with wireless earbuds is the notion that they’re ultimately disposable. With time, their batteries will hold less of a charge until there’s little choice but to replace them with something newer. This cycle is great for a tech company’s bottom line, but not so much for the environment. And while the industry has made strides in reparability with some smartphones and PCs, there’s been little headway with the comparatively tiny, more delicate earbuds. It’d be amazing if at least one or two manufacturers could flip the script on this in 2024, but I’m not hopeful. This is the main reason to never forget about good old wired earbuds — even if they lack the fancy perks of modern wireless buds.

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