On any domestic flight in India, one thing becomes obvious: Indians do love their earphones and headphones. Over the past couple of years, the number of high-end headphones in this mix has really gone up, underlining how Indians are opening up to high-end audio. The biggest driver for the personal audio market is smartphones, which give users access to music all the time, in the form of FM radio, stored files and streamed content. Over the years, the mobile phone has surely become a more popular audio source than the radio. For audio equipment manufacturers, it helps that the experience on earphones that come in the box is average, at the best. This is why a lot of people end up buying an extra pair of headphones to enjoy their music while on the go.
Now, there are two interesting trends in this space. One of people upgrading to expensive high definition headphones after having used an affordable budget earphone for long. The other is of headphone users deciding to cut the cord and opt for a wireless headphone. The former is a gradual progression, where every time you buy a new device you get something better than the last time—by this logic, some Indian users are quite high up on the ladder. As far as the latter goes, the fear that wireless might mean poorer audio quality, even though it is more expensive, has, for long, kept a lot of buyers away. But that is changing with the newer breed of Bluetooth headphones as they are getting better at lossless audio and, in fact, becoming more affordable too.
“Initially, we had to struggle to get stores to even stock headphones, but now there is no such issue. Everyone is aware of the potential of the segment,” says Sennheiser India MD Kapil Gulati. He adds that the era when Sennheiser had to make people aware of the need for better personal audio devices or even wireless is over. The German audio major is, in fact, expanding into the wireless segment in a big way. While last year the entry point for the wireless range was near Rs 30,000, now it has gone down to Rs 11,000. “Our focus has always been on premium headphones, and in India this range is over the price of Rs 5,000. We have seen significant growth in this segment—almost 70% in the last seven months—though over a small base.” This year, the company launched close to 18 models and most of these are priced over Rs 5,000.
However, it is no longer a market where a Sennheiser, a Sony or a Bose lords over. Over the past couple of years, the potential for growth has drawn in a lot of global brands offerings all sorts of personal audio devices. One of these is Audio-Technica, which is coming to India all guns firing. The Japanese company will have over 120 different models, or stock keeping units (SKUs), in the market from now on. Satoshi Nakamura of the company’s products planning division says the idea is to cater to the demand from all kinds of people with different requirements and preferences. “Ours will be a differentiated experience, for sure,” says Nakamura. The Audio-Technica management, too, sees a trend in favour of Bluetooth-driven wireless headsets. “By next year, this will be up to 60% of all headphones sold,” says Nakamura, adding it is a clear indication that Bluetooth technology is getting better from a user perspective.
Meanwhile, there is one very interesting aspect to the Bluetooth story, which both Sennheiser and Audio-Technica agree to, and that is the iPhone. Since Apple dropped the ubiquitous 3.5-mm jack from the iPhone 7 and subsequent models, wired audio stopped making sense for a lot of users. Gulati of Sennheiser says this has clearly helped sell more wireless headphones, especially in the upper end of the spectrum.
But does this mean that audio will be all wireless in a few years and companies will lose interest in traditional models? No. Audio-Technica, for instance, is clear that it will be launching more acoustic models in the near future. Nakamura underlines that while this segment might plateau or even decrease a bit, it will never disappear. At the end of the day, you will need wires to satisfy the audiophiles.