One of the new System on Chips announced by Qualcomm
Have you tried Apple’s AirPods Pro? If so, you’ll know that they’re sensational, offering really tremendous sound quality in every situation but especially in those places where background noise is overbearing. You can read my in-depth review here.
The background noise is kept in check by outstanding active noise-canceling, deftly and efficiently achieved on AirPods Pro better than on any rivals – though the Sony WF1000XM3 earbuds come very close indeed.
Now, Qualcomm has announced two Ultra-Low power Bluetooth Systems on a Chip (SoCs) which are designed to improve wireless sound in true wireless earbuds and hearables.
Watch out, Apple.
The new SoCs are catchily named Qualcomm QCC514X, for the premium tier, and Qualcomm QCC304X for entry-level and mid-tier. The company says that they are designed to improve robustness, better connectivity, extra battery life and comfort.
Most importantly, Qualcomm says both chips, not just the premium tier version, include:
integrated dedicated hardware for Hybrid Qualcomm Active Noise Cancellation (Hybrid ANC), Voice Assistant support and premium wireless sound and voice quality.
James Chapman, vice president and general manager, Voice, Music & Wearables, Qualcomm Technologies International, Ltd., said, “We have added voice assistant support at all tiers as well as integrated digital Hybrid ANC without compromising power consumption which further allows these new SoCs to deliver amazing experiences.”
Noise-canceling as standard is very big news and will lead to cheaper earbuds with this high-end technology built in. Apple spent a long time and, presumably, huge resources to create the noise-canceling capabilities in AirPods Pro. If an audio brand can instead simply buy an off-the-shelf chip that offers noise-canceling – and the Transparency mode which Apple and others can do as well – then that’ll be a tempting proposition. Transparency is included, as Qualcomm goes on to say:
The new SoCs also boast integrated Hybrid ANC technology. The dedicated ANC hardware integrated in the SoC enables super-low latency leak-through of the outside environment to allow for truly natural awareness of the surroundings, making ANC not just for airplane use, but applications in sports, office environments and other places throughout the user’s day. The QCC514x and QCC304x SoCs are also optimized to deliver leading power consumption under various use cases, with up to 13 hours’ playtime based on 65mAh battery, depending on settings and other factors. Now, with ANC enabled, there is minimal impact on battery life, allowing consumers extended battery life for enjoying sound on international flights or long periods at the office. Additionally, the extended playtime on the device allows for the shrinking of the battery used in the charging case and a more compact design that readily fits in a pocket.
The benefit of the premium tier chip is that it is designed to be able to respond to a wake word, like Alexa or Hey, Siri, to launch a virtual personal assistant, while the entry/mid-tier SoC requires a button-push to activate the assistant.
That’s kind of interesting because building a hardware button onto an earbud adds to the cost, so presumably the lower-price chip is so affordable that it more than offsets the extra hardware price for the button.
So, is it game over for Apple?
Hardly. Apple would point out that it’s not just the components that make the experience, that it’s the Apple engineers’ careful and painstaking tuning of noise-canceling that makes AirPods Pro so great. And there’s certainly something in that. Noise-canceling done badly is just awful, with effects ranging from headach-inducing to making you feel you might have been buried alive. Quiet, yes, pleasant, no.
There’s one other feature mentioned by Qualcomm, and that’s TrueWireless Mirroring. The company says:
With Qualcomm TrueWireless Mirroring, one earbud is wirelessly connected to the phone via Bluetooth while the other bud mirrors the connected bud and is engineered to deliver a rapid swap under several scenarios. For example, if the user removes the connected bud from their ear, the mirroring bud is designed to take over the connection to the phone, to avoid any interruption of streaming music or an active voice call with no action required by the user. Qualcomm TrueWireless Mirroring is also engineered to manage a single Bluetooth address so only one “device” shows up when the user is pairing their earbuds to a phone.
Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of what Apple does in the AirPods and AirPods Pro, which are designed so that if one of the earbuds is removed while you’re listening to music, that the audio pauses until you put the earbud back again. Like Qualcomm, though, Apple’s design allows a phone call to continue in the other ear when one bud is removed.