Qualcomm has unveiled its latest audio chips for wireless earphones and headphones, enabling head-tracked spatial audio, low latency for mobile gaming, lossless audio for true CD-quality sound, and compatibility with Bluetooth LE Audio, which aims to replace older Bluetooth standards in the next year or two. The S3 and S5 Gen 2 chips are currently being evaluated by manufacturers, and Qualcomm expects that we will see the first products equipped with these chips in the second half of 2023.
The new S3 and S5 chips enable the headphone/earphone/speaker side of Qualcomm’s evolving Snapdragon Sound platform, which the company launched in 2021. Snapdragon Sound isn’t technology—it’s more of a certification of features and performance. Qualcomm uses the mark to let people know what to expect when pairing a wireless audio product (like earbuds or headphones) with a smartphone when both products feature the Snapdragon Sound badge. That way you’ll also know that Qualcomm has independently confirmed that these features work as expected.
In 2021 and 2022, this emblem meant you could expect audio quality up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution, thanks to Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec and the extended bandwidth of Bluetooth High Speed connection technology. It also guarantees low-latency performance when gaming or watching videos to keep the on-screen actions in sync with the respective sounds. The last piece of the puzzle was aptX Voice for high-quality calls.
With its S3 and S5 Gen 2 chips, Qualcomm is redefining what Snapdragon sound means for 2023 thanks to the addition of head-tracked spatial audio, a feature Apple popularized when it brought the tech to its AirPods Pro of the first generation added in 2020. Citing its own 2022 State of Sound survey, Qualcomm claims that more than half of respondents said they would like spatial audio on their next set of wireless earbuds. It’s not clear if these survey respondents understand the difference between the added sense of immersion that spatial audio provides and the added realism that head tracking brings to the spatial audio experience.
Mobile gaming enthusiasts will also want to note Snapdragon Sound’s new promise of low-latency audio. Qualcomm says certified earbuds and headphones deliver a delay of just 48 milliseconds between the screen flash and the associated pop. That’s not quite lag-free as Qualcomm suggests, but it’s far better than the latency most people will experience when using older Bluetooth codecs like SBC, AAC, or even Qualcomm’s own aptX classic.
Some of these can result in latency in excess of 300 milliseconds, which would be very noticeable. Along with that promised low latency, Qualcomm has added backchannel support for in-game chat.
Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless codec made its official debut in 2022 on the Nura True Pro wireless earbuds, but so far it’s supported for the codec – which the company claims delivers bit-for-bit CD-quality sound with The Qualcomm High Speed Link can deliver 16 bit / 44.1 kHz – both on audio products and on mobile phones have been restricted. That’s set to change now, as new products with the Snapdragon Sound label include aptX Lossless compatibility.
Speaking of codecs, the latest Snapdragon Sound platform will be fully compatible with the new Bluetooth LE Audio specification, including the more interesting optional features of this technology such as Auracast Broadcast Audio.
It’s worth noting that due to the sometimes confusing relationship between Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound program and the actual S3/S5 chips that enable the program’s features, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see headphones and earphones that feature all these great new ones Offer features but without the Snapdragon Sound label. Participation in the Snapdragon Sound program is optional but not free, and some manufacturers may simply choose not to sign up for it.
That’s also why there are two platforms: the S3 Gen 2 is a ready-made solution for companies looking to quickly develop headphones and earphones using Qualcomm’s technology, while the S5 Gen 2 is fully programmable, allowing companies as few or as many of them can use the capabilities of the platform at will, alone or in conjunction with other technologies.
The new Gen 2 platforms also offer improved active noise cancellation (ANC) and an adaptive transparency mode, which Qualcomm says recognizes when you’re speaking and automatically improves your ability to hear your own voice. These aren’t technically included under the Snapdragon Sound label, and headphone and earbud makers can use Qualcomm’s technology for these features or implement their own.
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