The market for Bluetooth speakers and earphones has never been more competitive, but that hasn't stopped musician turned tech entrepreneur Will.i.am from launching his own.
Presented as a fashion accessory meets wireless in-ear headphone, the product is called Buttons, and the name suits the simple yet classy design of the device. Each unit is covered on the outside with a quarter-sized circular disc reminiscent of a vinyl record — a design touch the company deliberately made to reference the music business pedigree of its founder.
However, what makes this venture different from Will.i.am's previous wearable tech outing is that he has pulled in two major celebrities as stakeholders in the venture: model and actress Naomi Campbell and reality-television-star-turned-model Kendall Jenner. In addition to serving as the faces of the Buttons brand, they are also financial partners — meaning they reap the benefits if the product takes off.
"If you care about glasses and you buy glasses to go with your wallet and your wallet to go with your watch, your headphones should be the same," says Will.i.am, speaking of his decision to involve Jenner and Campbell to reach more style-conscious consumers. "[These aren’t] headphones that you buy and you put in your pocket."
After meeting with Will.i.am in Tribeca to talk about the launch, I spent a few days with Buttons to see how they performed.
When I asked him what he'd list as the number one selling point for Buttons, he told me that battery life would be the device's standout feature. According to Will.i.am, Buttons will deliver between six to eight hours of battery life while playing music. I didn't conduct rigorous, hourly testing, but I can say that during the three days I lived with the product, they never ran out of juice (but I also made sure to charge them daily, a habit my power-hungry Apple Watch has drilled into me).
The packaging is a conversation piece on its own, complete with a mini magazine-style insert that was styled by Vogue great Andre Leon Talley, who now works with Will.i.am for his i.am+ brand.
Inside the box you'll find six different earbud covers along with three different sizes of in-ear covers, all designed to help the headphones fit snugly in your ears. Before even testing the device, I spent a good 30 minutes trying all of the options out, finally deciding on a pair that felt somewhat snug. The decision by i.am+ to give users a wide variety of ear-fitting options is a huge plus, and is a practice more headphone-makers should emulate.
Unlike the Beats Powerbeats headphones that use a large rubber and plastic hook that wraps around your ear, Buttons does the same thing but in a more subtle way, placing a piece of rubber along the outer ear to hold the earpiece in place. I've never tried this kind of ear cover before, so it took some getting used to, but it works, and I might even prefer it over the Powerbeats hook solution.
Image: mashable, Lili sams
The comparison to Beats is, in this case, quite appropriate, given that Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine, now an executive at Apple, credits Will.i.am with pushing him to move into the headphone space.
"I had equity stake and was a part of Beats from the beginning," says Will.i.am of the brand that was bought by Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. The subtext: Despite being a relative newcomer to wearable tech in the public's eyes, with Buttons, Will.i.am is treading familiar ground.
One of the key features of Buttons is how they function when not in use. Because the circular surfaces framing the headphones are magnetized, they have the ability to connect to each other around your neck, like a necklace, rather than forcing you to stuff them in your pocket or purse. As a wearable tech meets fashion solution, this is easily one of the slickest I've seen.
"The reason fashion companies are having trouble integrating tech into their fashion is because they’re not the ones creating the tech," says Will.i.am. "We’re walking into a world where devices will be devices you talk to, but they're telling you [those kinds of devices are] only supposed to be in the house, not out in the world. But if they are out in the world, what are they going to look like? Like that jacket," he says, pointing to a prototype bomber jacket with integrated Buttons headphones.
Yes, we're at an exciting point at the intersection of tech and fashion, but how do Buttons sound?
I'll give them a solid "very good." That might not sound like high praise, but the fact is that I've rarely experienced Bluetooth headphones or speakers that sound as amazing as wired audio. That said, Buttons at least matched my longstanding favorite in-ear Bluetooth headphones, the aforementioned Powerbeats, in quality. So in the realm of Bluetooth audio, Buttons performs above average, and head to head with one of the best.
When you power them on, the ghostly, vaguely British voice of AneedA (the voice assistant we experienced with the The Puls) tells you "Your Buttons are on." The assistant also tells you when "Your Buttons are connected" or "Your Buttons are off." It's a nice touch, but would be even better if AneedA delivered power charge level notifications like the Beats Powerbeats voice assistant. Speaking of voice, Buttons also features a microphone that allows you to take calls and interact with Siri. So, for example, while listening to a song, you can hold the "Volume Down" button for three seconds and activate Siri and ask it a question. Once Siri answers, you can click the center button to begin playing your song again.
Will.i.am wouldn't offer much in the way of details around how AneedA might change or offer additional features in the future, but he definitely seems committed to developing it as an integral part of an expanding line of wearable devices.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Buttons will have over a number of competitors is that it's launching on Nov. 2 in the number one tech venue on Earth: the Apple Store. Priced at $229.95, Buttons work with the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Android devices and come in silver, gold, black and rose gold. And because the product is part of the Pledge 1% program, i.am+ will donate one percent of the company's proceeds, products and employee time to education and technology programs for underprivileged high school students.
Will.i.am's earlier attempt to introduce us to a wearable smartphone didn't catch on as he obviously hoped it would, but his newest foray into wearable tech is a simpler and far more accessible product that still looks to the future. Oh, and they look pretty cool, too.