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AirPods' sales spike barely dents market share for Beats and Bose

Have Apple's AirPods taken a big bite out of Beats' share of the wireless headphone market? Actually, the latest NPD Group retail tracking data suggest it's more of a nibble.

Apple's AirPods had an impressive start, but perhaps not as impressive as some numbers suggested.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Are Apple's AirPods already taking down the market share of Beats headphones, their corporate siblings? That was the implication of recent stories -- including this one on CNET -- that cited data from online shopping analyst Slice Intelligence.

The numbers showed that Apple had taken a 26 percent share of wireless headphone sales in December 2016 with its AirPods. The difference before and after the AirPods became available to buy online on December 13 was dramatic: Beats, which is owned by Apple, dropped from a 24.1 percent share to 15.4 percent while Bose went from a 10.5 percent share to 16.1 percent.

However, according to Ben Arnold, an executive director and industry analyst at NPD Group, those numbers paint an incomplete picture of the wireless headphone market and don't jibe with NPD's December numbers. Unlike Slice, which analyzes the email receipts of 4.2 million online shoppers, NPD's data reflects brick-and-mortar and online sales, including Amazon.

The AirPods got heaps of attention when Apple unveiled them in September alongside the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, even as it also showcased a trio of new Beats wireless headphones. They only hit the market after weeks of delay, but sales ignited right away, prompting Apple CEO Tim Cook in late December to describe the AirPods as a "runaway success."

Ultimately, the question is whether Apple's totally wireless earphones will cannibalize sales from its own brand (Beats) or claim it from other brands.

According to NPD's December 2016 Weekly Retail Tracking Service data, the AirPods had an impressive debut but not as impressive as Slice Intelligence suggests.

  • Beats had a 25 percent share (unit sales) and a 46 percent share (dollar sales)
  • Apple had a 2 percent share (unit sales) and 3 percent share (dollar sales)
  • Bose had 8 percent (unit sales) and 19 percent (dollar sales)
  • LG had 10 percent (unit sales) and 7 percent (dollar sales) with Sony at 7 percent (unit sales) and 6 percent (dollar sales)
  • Plantronics and Jaybird were at around 2 percent unit sales each but Apple is already neck-and-neck with them after only one partial month of sales

"Apple being able to capture 2 percent of the market in units and 3 percent in dollars with one product in its debut month is significant, given how big the headphone market is," Arnold said.

Beats has its new BeatsX hitting stores in February.

David Carnoy/CNET

Back in December 2015, NPD pegged Beats' wireless headphone sales at 24 percent (unit sales) and 49 percent (dollar sales), very close to its share a year later.

"The Bluetooth headphone market grew 51 percent over the last year (in dollars) so the fact that Beats was able to maintain share and its position in the market means its sales grew as fast as the market did."

Presumably, Apple will continue to gain market share with its AirPods (the current data only reflects two weeks of AirPods sales), but Beats' much-anticipated BeatsX wireless headphones were delayed until after the launch of the AirPods. (Conspiracy theorists might argue that Apple delayed them to make sure it had a clear runway for the AirPods, which are priced nearly identically.)

We reached out to both Beats and Apple for comment and didn't hear back.

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