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[News Focus] Competition heats up for a share of noise-canceling earbud market

Samsung, LG, Sony introduce new earbuds with advanced ANC technology to catch up with Apple

Samsung, LG, Apple and Sony usually engage in fierce competition in electronics and IT gadgets. In recent years, they’ve also shown their willingness to tap into a small device with big potential: wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation.

Headphones and earphones with ANC functionality used to serve a small group of tech-savvy users and those working in environments where noise levels were too high. But this specialty label for ANC gear changed drastically in 2019, when Apple hit it big with its wireless AirPods Pro.

Analysts expect Apple to sell over 100 million sets of the devices in 2022 if the US tech giant rolls out a second-generation follow-up, the rumored AirPods Pro 2.

Spurred by the huge success of Apple, other tech players are trying to catch up and are offering new lineups of wireless earbuds with more features, especially better ANC functionality.

Samsung Electronics will reportedly incorporate ANC into the Galaxy Buds 2, a sequel to the Galaxy Buds+, a model that generated positive reviews last year yet lacked noise-canceling technology.

Samsung did include ANC technology in the high-end Galaxy Buds Pro, launched in January this year, but rumors that the cheaper Galaxy Buds 2 would be similarly equipped have drawn attention from users who want more affordable ANC earbuds.

Phone Arena, a mobile tech website, said if Samsung’s new earbuds come with the same ANC technology used in the Galaxy Buds Pro, “Samsung may finally have an Airpods Pro killer on its hands.”

South Korean tech media on Wednesday reported that LG Electronics will roll out new wireless earbuds with ANC, possibly within this month. LG’s new Tone Free ANC wireless earbuds already passed the country’s compulsory safety and compatibility tests last month and are expected to be sold at 240,000 won ($211).

LG’s new earbuds are reported to showcase more powerful noise-canceling technology, signaling the company’s future focus after it decided to wind down its loss-making mobile division in April.

Once a pioneer in mobile innovations, including ultra-wide-angle cameras, LG said it would pull out from the fiercely competitive smartphone market and steer its resources to growth segments such as smart homes and electric vehicle components.

LG’s home entertainment division is expected to launch the new earbuds, with more powerful ANC functionality and a longer battery life, at a time when rivals are introducing new models with advanced noise cancellation.

Sony’s new wireless ANC earbuds, named WF-1000XM4, made their debut in Korea last month amid heightened interest from high-end earphone users. Sony’s WF-1000X lineup has long enjoyed popularity with its sleek design and feature-packed specs. The latest model comes in an all-new design, with a new charging case and a new processor on top of noise-cancellation technology.

Sony’s new earbuds also come with an improved digital-to-analog converter and V1 integrated processor, offering a clearer sound and better noise control than its previous models.

Fans of Sony’s audio devices also welcome the new earbuds’ support for the audiophile-grade codec LDAC, a technology that allows high-resolution audio files to be streamed over the Bluetooth network.

Despite the relatively high price tag of 299,000 won, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 sold out at many offline and online stores, reflecting pent-up demand for high-end ANC earbuds.

Bose, a front-runner in active noise-canceling technology, is also trying to stake out a share in the domestic market by promoting its newest model, QuietComfort, to those who are familiar with the brand’s excellent reputation in the ANC gear field.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of consumers have opened their pockets to purchase IT products, including wireless earbuds, while related content such as high-resolution digital music is expanding at a rapid pace.

Counterpoint Research forecast that around 310 million wireless earphone units will be shipped in 2021, up 33 percent from last year. Shipments of wireless earphones jumped by 78 percent in 2020 from a year earlier, spurred by strong consumer demand for low- to midrange offerings.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)
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