Industry voices — Gold: Can you hear me better now? Qualcomm upgrades earbud audio

Earbuds sound can be improved with smart functionality that detects a user's unique frequency response curve. At least that's what Qualcomm in partnership with Jacoti says. (Getty Images)

Earbuds have become the de facto way many people interact with their smartphones, and many times other devices as well. The convenience of no wires connection over Bluetooth with good sound quality and long battery life has made earbuds essential. Indeed, while there are still many low cost earbuds to be had, the high end ($150-$200+) has seen incredible growth, with its included “smart” functionality beyond just audio reproduction.

But for many users, the audio quality has not been stellar due to deficits in their hearing functions. This is especially true for an aging population that acquires some hearing deficits over time, but is also true with many younger people who may have something other than the assumed linear frequency hearing capability. For those users that receive less than optimum audio, Qualcomm wants to do something about this by being the first to add an audio enhancement feature to its processors powering many smart earbuds.

Qualcomm already powers many manufacturer’s high end earbuds with its QCC5100 processor. What it plans to do is make those devices more receptive to the hearing anomalies of its users, thus improving overall sound quality that’s customized to each individual user.

Qualcomm is partnering with Jacoti, a company from Belgium that created a set of European and USA regulatory agency approved algorithms for customizing audio playback based on a user’s unique frequency response curve. Through a convenient smartphone app for iOS or Android, individual users can run a test that maps their frequency and volume response curve for each ear. The customized response curve can then be loaded into the DSP of the processor in the earbuds so that the specially equalized audio is completely adapted for the user’s ears.

This capability has major implications for the hard of hearing, obviously, with parallel functionality to hearing aids, but hearing aids don’t work very well with smartphones and similar devices. This adaptation is attractive as a substitute for some functions for hearing aid users, but also attractive for many other users wanting to optimize their listening experience. And the customized frequency performance is not only valuable for music listening to “flatten the curve” for better quality for which many earbuds are designed.

It is also beneficial to those who simply need to have better audio experiences in noisy environments, especially on voice calls where it may be difficult to understand the speaker without such enhancement. It could even be helpful in live conversations to hear through background noise that impacts comprehension of a conversation.

The audio mapping capability is necessary for customizing the equalization, but it can potentially be useful as a diagnostic tool over time as well, making the earbuds part of an overall wellness application. Keeping a record of the audio tests can show hearing degradation or problems as an analytical representation. It can also provide some incentives for those users who keep their audio levels at top volume to turn it down -- by seeing the damage they may be doing to their hearing over time.

Coupled with other DSP and processing enhancements available like ANC, this enhancement to the processor can significantly increase usability and overall end user satisfaction with devices, making them much more attractive for consumers. This could stimulate upgrade sales for those users who desire enhanced clarity and improved sound quality.

 While it’s theoretically possible that this capability could be used to update existing earbuds built using the Qualcomm processor, in all likelihood earbud manufacturers will require you to buy a new device to take advantage of this functionality. I expect to see new devices in the market with this combined Qualcomm/Jacoti functionality in the first half of 2021. It’s likely they will be available at a premium price, at least to start, even though the additional parts cost required to implement this function are minimal. Ultimately I expect this technology to make its way down into the midrange products, and to also be extended beyond consumer earbuds into professional earphones for specialty users.

 With its capability to significantly enhance user understanding of voice conversations, as well as provide a more flattened audio curve so it’s not necessary to crank the volume up to hear, this technology will go a long way to improving the quality and versatility of things we put in our ears. I expect over the next 1-2 years to see nearly all mid- to high-end earbuds include this functionality. We’re now reaching a point where dynamic programmability of earbuds will be a requirement going forward.

Jack Gold is founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, LLC., an information technology analyst firm based in Northborough, Massachusetts. He has more than 25 years of experience as an analyst and covers the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. He works with many companies. Follow Jack on Twitter and on LinkedIn.