If any company (other than Apple) is in a position to define the future of headphones, earbuds and phones, it’s Qualcomm. The telecom giant manufactures the chipsets at the heart of many of today’s portable devices, and today it has announced two audio platforms that could lay the foundations for smarter, better-sounding wireless headphones to arrive in 2024 and beyond.
Qualcomm says the S7 and S7 Pro Gen 1 chips offer improvements in battery life and active noise cancellation, and expand the opportunities for sound personalisation and other AI-powered functionality, compared with its previous platform (via more powerful and efficient processing power), though the last of those benefits is the gateway to the more interesting and innovative features we could see in headphones in the coming months.
The S7 Pro Gen 1 introduces ‘micro-power’ wi-fi support in conjunction with Qualcomm’s XPAN (Expanded Personal Area Network) technology, opening a door to better sound quality (via increased audio bandwidth) and whole-home range for portable devices, compared with what Bluetooth connectivity currently offers.
The idea is that headphones with this S7 Pro Gen 1 chip will be able to connect to a home’s wireless network to offer ‘lossless’ hi-res audio up to 192kHz, without their headphones having to be within close proximity of the source device. Qualcomm’s highest audio support claims over a Bluetooth connection is 16-bit CD-quality ‘losslessly’, while Bluetooth range maxes out around 200m. Due to the immobility, if you like, of internet connections, however, Bluetooth isn’t off the menu for future headphones; Bluetooth (inclusive of 5.4 and LE) can step in when a wi-fi connection isn’t available, a switch that Qualcomm says can happen automatically and seamlessly.
Qualcomm says wi-fi connectivity in headphones will “extend the range of audio devices far beyond what is possible today using only Bluetooth – allowing users to walk around a home, building or campus while listening to music or making a call.” And, importantly, the company says listening over wi-fi won’t compromise battery life, claiming that the S7 Pro Gen 1 platform can offer up to 10 hours of ‘lossless’ 96kHz music streaming. The features of S7 and S7 Pro Gen 1 will work only between headphones, earbuds and speakers using the chipset, and phones or other devices powered by Qualcomm’s just-announced Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip.
It isn’t surprising that ‘AI’ is being bandied around in this announcement, and Qualcomm says its two S7 platforms will employ on-device AI to allow manufacturers to offer enhanced user experiences. For example, a headphones’ active noise cancellation feature could detect where the user is and automatically switch modes accordingly. It could perhaps recognise a voice call in an open-office location and work to drown out surrounding voices while homing in on yours.
One of the findings of Qualcomm’s recently published annual The State of Sound report was that people are wearing their earbuds more frequently and for longer periods of time, across more use cases. With this in mind, we can expect headphone companies to deliver more intelligent and multi-purpose headsets for everyday (and all day!) listening – and wi-fi functionality will no doubt be a big driver in facilitating that.
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