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Qualcomm Upgrades Bluetooth Audio Chips to Take on Apple's AirPods

April 27, 2020
Qualcomm is trying to take advantage of soaring demand for wireless earphones. Apple sold around 60 million pairs of its AirPods wireless headphones last year, giving it more than 50% market share, far ahead of Samsung, Sony, Bose and other rivals.

Qualcomm, the world's largest designer of chips used in smartphones, is bringing the flagship features of Apple's AirPods and other high-end earphones to more of the tiny accessories. Qualcomm rolled out a line of Bluetooth audio chipsets to challenge Apple's lead in wireless earbuds by giving manufacturers the ability to actively cancel out noises and talk to voice assistants with the tap of a finger or a wake word.

The QCC304x is ideal for budget lines of Bluetooth earbuds, according to Qualcomm. The flash-programmable processor adds hardware accelerators for active noise cancelling (ANC), which tends to burn through the compact batteries in wireless earphones. The system-on-chip (SoC) can also be used to control Google's Assistant, Amazon's Alexa and other voice interfaces—but only after tapping a button on the side of the earbuds. 

"We have added voice assistant support at all tiers," said James Chapman, vice president and general manager of voice, music and wearables at Qualcomm, in the announcement.

The audio processor is designed for a wide range of wireless earphones, which need to be paired with smartphones over Bluetooth to send voice commands to the cloud. The chip is based on a dual-core programmable CPU running at 32 MHz. The single-core Kalimba DSP serves as the audio subsystem, running at 120 MHz with more than 256 KB of RAM. It also incorporates 32 MB of integrated flash memory and 98dB Class D audio amplifier.

The chip also integrates Qualcomm's hybrid ANC technology, which can be used to delete disturbances and other sounds from the surrounding area while also supporting the "leak through" of outside noise—such as horns honking, brakes screeching or someone asking for directions—which is recorded and replayed through the buds. That opens the door for manufacturers to bring advanced audio features, including ANC, to more affordable buds.

Qualcomm released another audio chipset, the QCC514x, for high-end wireless earbuds. The Bluetooth audio chip pumps out more performance and reduces power consumption compared to its predecessors. The quad-core programmable CPU is capable of running at 80 MHz. The audio subsystem is based on a dual-core Kalimba DSP running at 120 MHz. It includes the same ANC technology and Class D audio amplifier as the QCC304x.

Qualcomm said the QCC514x would be used in products by the second half of 2020.

The chips also add a technology called True Wireless Mirroring, according to Qualcomm. When the user is wearing both earphones, one of the buds is paired to the phone and the audio is transferred to it over the Bluetooth LE standard. The audio is then mirrored by the other bud. But when the connected earphone is popped out, the True Wireless Mirroring technology swaps the audio connection to the other bud—without pausing music or calls.

The QCC514x can be used in wireless earphones to interact with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and other voice assistants by calling out the wake words instead of tapping a button with the QCC304x. These wireless headphones work by running the microphones and audio processors at all times to listen for the wake words. But the challenge for audio manufacturers has been that wireless earbuds have tight thermal and power constraints.

The chips, crammed in 4.4mm by 4.3mm or 5.5mm by 5.5mm packages, can boost the battery life of wireless headphones to more than 12 hours, according to Qualcomm. By increasing battery life in the device, the Bluetooth chips also give customers the ability to shrink the battery in the charging case, enabling more compact form factors. The chips also use Qualcomm's AptX codec to deliver cleaner, crisper wireless audio to earbuds.

The chips are designed to support Bluetooth LE Audio, the latest standard for low power audio transmission over Bluetooth. They also deliver data transfer rates of up to 2 Mbps.

Apple introduced its new generation of wireless AirPods headphones last year, adding the ability interact with its virtual interface by saying, "Hey, Siri" instead of tapping on the side of the untethered earbud. Samsung also introduced the Galaxy Buds that can turn on the virtual assistant by voice. Amazon is also building Alexa into more wearable accessories, including a line of wireless earbuds called Echo Buds with active noise cancellation.

Qualcomm is trying to take advantage of soaring demand in the category. Apple, which rolled out its first generation of the AirPods in 2016, sold around 60 million pairs of the wireless earphones in 2019, giving it more than 50% of the global market, according to Strategy Analytics. China's Xiaomi followed far behind in second place with around 10% market share. Other major players in the market include Samsung, Jabra, Sony and Bose.

Apple builds custom Bluetooth audio chips in the AirPods instead of buying from Cypress Semiconductor, Broadcom, Qualcomm or other vendors. The custom H1 chip in its latest line of AirPods connects to iPhones faster and boosts talk time by 50%. It also introduced the ability to make calls, change songs or adjust the volume using voice controls. Apple is building the chipset into more wearable accessories, including the premium AirPods Pro.

The AirPods Pro add active noise cancellation features, including what Apple calls transparency mode to allow ambient noise to reach users.

Qualcomm is trying to snatch more market share in Bluetooth headphones by bringing the advanced features of Apple's AirPods and other high-end wireless earbuds to more types of devices. Qualcomm has partnered in recent years with audio manufacturers including Jabra, Anker, Audio Technica, Bang and Olufsen, JVC and others.

These firms are fighting over a market that in 2019 was worth around $16.6 billion on shipments of 128.5 million units, according to Counterpoint Research. That estimate assumes a selling price of $129 per unit, the average in the fourth quarter last year, according to Counterpoint. The market researcher forecasts shipments of 230 million units in 2020, though that excludes the impact of the coronavirus on consumer spending.

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