Qualcomm brings pro sound to true wireless: Lee

Qualcomm's Snapdragon Sound reference design will optimize the signal path across various components and devices, not only earbuds. (Getty Images)
Leonard Lee

While small in size and seemingly meek from a technical perspective, the true wireless earbud is an engineering problem that requires advanced technologies in semiconductors, AI, audio signal processing and RF to solve in delivering premium audio experiences. Today, Qualcomm officially announced the launch of Snapdragon Sound, an optimized chain of audio technologies and software to improve the wireless experience on and between devices like smartphones and headsets.

The introduction of Snapdragon Sound is timely for Qualcomm as the true wireless audio trend continues to build momentum among consumers with sales volumes expected to reach over 300 million units in 2020 according to Strategy Analytics. Connectivity technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 5G are also reaching tipping points that make the end-to-end delivery of high-definition audio to a wireless earbud a compelling consumer experience and a market opportunity for OEMs and premium media providers.

A true wireless solution for source-to-ear hi-definition audio

Qualcomm describes Snapdragon Sound as a system. It is more a solution that is focused on addressing key problems that have beleaguered early and current generations of true wireless headphones by delivering on the following value propositions:

  • Pro-quality sound maintained and delivered with consistency from content source to ear.
  • Robust, low-latency, low-power wireless connectivity that provides durable and extended use.
  • Intelligent operation that lends to seamless user experiences and ease of use.

While Qualcomm has a reference design for true wireless earbuds, Snapdragon Sound is more. According to James Chapman, Qualcomm’s vice president of voice, music and wearables, the purpose of Snapdragon Sound reference design is to provide an optimized signal path across the various components and devices that make up a true wireless system. The goal: elevate mainstream audio experiences from the low-fidelity (below 16-bit/44.1 kHz resolution) past and present to a future of high-definition sound (24-bit/96 kHz resolution).

From the system perspective, Snapdragon Sound brings together a portfolio of Qualcomm’s chipsets, software and audio technologies in a reference design engineered to deliver pro-quality audio experiences from a high-resolution content source, whether it is played back on a smartphone or streamed from the cloud, to the ear.

The Snapdragon Sound solution starts with Qualcomm’s premium Snapdragon 888 mobile platform for smartphones. The 888 features an integrated Fast Connect 6900 SOC (System on a Chip) that supports Wi-Fi 6E for up to 3.6 Gbps broadband connectivity for online gaming and high-definition media streaming. Fast Connect supports Bluetooth 5.2 which introduces Low Complexity Communications Codec (LC3), the Bluetooth codec that is used for the forthcoming LE Audio standard.

On the earbud end of the true wireless system, the Snapdragon Sound solution is supported by a range of Qualcomm’s audio SOCs that includes QCC514x, QCC515x and QCC3056 chipsets. These Bluetooth audio SOCs provide low-power performance, echo cancellation for voice, and support for convenience features such as Google Fast Pair and voice services by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Snapdragon Sound also leverages a number of Qualcomm’s codec IP including their Aqstic DAC (digital-to-analog converter) for high-definition audio playback (up to 32-bit/384 kHz audio resolution) and recording, and aptX Adaptive which features dynamic bitrate and latency adaptation. According to Qualcomm, Snapdragon Sound-certified systems are able to deliver 89 ms latency source device-to-ear (versus the typical 140 ms) while maintaining 24-bit/96 kHz resolution audio playback, making them ideal for competitive mobile gaming and wireless VR applications.

More than the sum of its parts

While Snapdragon Sound-based earbuds will work with any smartphone or Bluetooth-supporting media device, the integrated Qualcomm technologies that make up Snapdragon Sound yield exclusive features and optimizations that are not available outside the Qualcomm fold.

One such feature that Qualcomm touts is its TrueWireless Mirroring which connects a pair of earbuds to a media device or smartphone through a single connection with one earbud for simplicity of pairing. The primary connect can be dynamically swapped between earbuds depending on connection quality and availability ensuring robust and seamless connectivity.

Another important feature for enabling Snapdragon Sound’s hi-definition audio experience on the go is Qualcomm’s Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation (AANC). AANC allows a Snapdragon Sound-based system to playback and deliver the details of high-definition audio media in noisy environments that would otherwise adversely color a premium sound experience. Qualcomm uses an advanced algorithm that intelligently adjusts and optimizes the performance of noise cancellation based on the level of isolation or passive noise reduction experienced by the user.

Voice is also a key aspect of Snapdragon Sound especially as more of us are working from home relying more on video conferencing and phone calls to stay connected. Snapdragon Sound incorporates aptX Voice codec that brings super wideband voice quality to Bluetooth earbuds.

Democratizing true wireless for the little guys

Qualcomm’s primary objective for Snapdragon Sound is to empower the OEMs in the Android ecosystem with the product development accelerators, resources and support to enter and compete in a market that is experiencing a significant growth and interest. By doing this, Snapdragon Sound hopes to level the playing field for smaller OEMs facing large vertical players and niche players such as Sony (with its proprietary Hi-Res Audio technology and LDAC codec) that are able to quickly and broadly differentiate themselves with unique, system-level features and performance optimizations. Qualcomm hopes that by bringing leading-edge audio and wireless technologies and a vertically integrated true wireless solution to the Android ecosystem, smaller OEMs will be able to leapfrog to the forefront of a market currently dominated by Apple.

Qualcomm is also keen on making Snapdragon Sound product development easy for their OEM customers. Qualcomm announced the establishment of an interoperability testing lab in Taiwan to help their OEM customers test and certify their offerings and accelerate the introduction of Snapdragon Sound systems into the market. According to Chapman, this testing service will promote a high standard of experience and quality for consumers using Snapdragon Sound branded devices. Moreover, it will foster interoperability within the Snapdragon Sound ecosystem that will allow true wireless device OEMs to attach to what Qualcomm hopes will be a rapidly expanding universe of smartphones and media devices that support Snapdragon Sound.

As an ecosystem enablement play for premium sound, Snapdragon Sound will bring device OEMs in the Android ecosystem together with media  providers to foster a mainstream market for high-resolution audio content. Qualcomm hopes to create a window of differentiation for early-mover device makers entering the accelerating true wireless market while providing an expanded addressable market for media providers that provide premium-quality music content. In this capacity, Qualcomm announced their collaboration with Amazon HD to showcase and promote the works of musical artists rendered in high-resolution audio.

The start of something industry-leading for true wireless and beyond

Qualcomm has integrated its technologies and ecosystem-building know-how into a solution that could potentially bring industry-leading audio experiences to the true wireless earbud. Snapdragon Sound brings all these elements together in a reference design and an ecosystem blueprint that could help high-resolution audio finally break out into the mass market and make true wireless audio an opportunity that is too easy and valuable for smartphone and headset manufacturers to ignore.

However, Qualcomm and its Snapdragon Sound partners will have to dispel the specter of previous efforts to bring studio-quality audio to the masses, most notably Neil Young’s ill-fated Pono digital music service and player device. Qualcomm faces the not-so-trivial task of building a vibrant ecosystem around the Snapdragon Sound platform. It will need to make Snapdragon Sound ecosystem participants successful and rapidly expand the installed base of devices capable of delivering Snapdragon Sound experiences.

According to Qualcomm, the true wireless earbud is just the beginning. Snapdragon Sound has its sights set beyond premium consumer audio and toward the frontier markets of XR (Extended Reality), gaming, automotive infotainment, PCs, wearables and more. This is just the beginning. There is plenty of runway ahead for Snapdragon Sound. It seems like it will be an interesting, catalytic run.

Leonard Lee is the founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on Information and Communication industry and technology research. NeXt Curve covers many of the leading ICT companies in its research and advises enterprises, startups and industry regulators on industry and technology topics shaping our digital future. Lee has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/leonard-lee-nextcurve