Qualcomm has unveiled a new generation of audio systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for true-wireless earbuds.
These new chips should help close the gap between Apple’s excellent AirPods and AirPods Pro, which currently dominate the true-wireless category. While there are already some excellent third-party true-wireless competitors, few have matched the AirPods yet.
Qualcomm’s new QCC514x and QCC304x Bluetooth chipsets hope to change that up, offering features like integrated active noise cancellation (ANC), lower power requirements and support for voice assistants.
Both the 514x and 304x chips will offer support for Qualcomm ‘TrueWireless Mirroring’ technology. It allows for more seamless swapping between the buds. Qualcomm says that only one of the two wireless earbuds will connect to the phone at a given time — TrueWireless Mirroring allows the non-connected bud to mirror the other bud’s connection. Then, when a user does something like remove the connected bud from their ear, the mirrored bud takes over the connection.
TrueWireless Mirroring will help prevent interruptions to voice calls or music streaming by switching the connection from one earbud to the other when required.
Additionally, both chipsets will offer ANC and ‘natural leak-through.’ Noise cancellation is a welcome addition as it lets users block out background noise when in loud environments such as on the subway or at the gym. Qualcomm says users will be able to switch ANC on when needed to drown out the noise.
However, sometimes people will need to hear what’s happening around them. That’s why Qualcomm’s new chips also have natural leak-through, which use microphones on the outside of the earbud to allow certain sounds to “leak” through the ANC at a low latency so you can hear what’s happening around you. The 514x can achieve latency as low as 10 microseconds.
The 514x supports voice assistant wake words, offers longer battery life
Finally, the 514x — the ‘flagship’ of the new chips — will support low-power listening for voice assistant wake words. That means users will be able to say ‘Hey Google’ or ‘Alexa’ to wake up their digital assistant and issue a command. Additionally, the 514x has dual digital signal processors (DSPs) that earbud manufacturers can program for use with different extensions. Finally, the 514x should offer battery life of up to 13 hours of playback on an earbud with a 65mAh battery.
While not a fair comparison to make since Samsung uses its own chips for wireless earbuds, the excellent Galaxy Buds+ boast 11 hours of battery life with an 85mAh cell. If Qualcomm’s 514x chip can last longer with a smaller battery, that’s definitely a win for the chipmaker.
On the other hand, the 304x chip, aimed at low- and mid-range earbuds, has a single DSP core that isn’t programmable by manufacturers. However, earbud-makers will be able to configure the DSP settings, but not install new profiles. Further, the 304x will support push-button activation for assistants instead of wake-words.
It’s worth noting that neither chip supports Bluetooth 5.2 with LE Audio, but that’s because the Bluetooth SIG hasn’t finalized the spec yet. It’s expected to release the spec later this year at the earliest and Qualcomm expects to launch variations of the chip that support LE Audio.
Qualcomm will begin shipping the 514x and the 304x in April. The chipmaker expects to see new products using the SoCs in Q2 2020.