More than a year after Apple paved over the headphone jack in its smartphones, Qualcomm has released a new series of Bluetooth chips to bring down the cost and size of wireless headphones that can be equipped with algorithms to suppress noise or listen for voice commands.
The system-on-chips are the result of a breakthrough that allows Qualcomm to squeeze wireless connectivity and audio processing onto the same fingernail clipping of silicon. They consume 65% less power than previous Bluetooth chips, while prolonging battery life, improving sound quality, and boosting reliability in environments with a lot of signal noise.
With it, Qualcomm is digging deeper into the wireless headphones market dominated by Apple, which started selling AirPods after it eliminated the headphone jack in its smartphones. Last year, around 900,000 wireless headphones were sold in the U.S. from January to August, according to the research firm NPD. Apple’s AirPods accounted for around 85% of them.
Despite criticism over removing the headphone jack, Apple was praised for the simplicity and reliability of its first line of wireless headphones. Inside them, the company placed a custom system-on-chip that integrated Bluetooth with accelerometers and infrared sensors to detect when each device is in a person’s ear, keeping power drain to a minimum.
Qualcomm is targeting a wider range of applications. Its system-on-chip contains digital signal processors for running algorithms that cancel ambient noise during calls or while music plays. The hardware also uses an application processor to run software that makes sense of biometric sensors or local algorithms that respond to simple wake words.
“This breakthrough single-chip solution is designed to dramatically reduce power consumption and offers enhanced processing capabilities,” said Anthony Murray, vice president of Qualcomm’s voice and music business unit, in a statement. “This will open new possibilities for extended-use hearable applications including virtual assistants, augmented hearing and enhanced listening.”
Qualcomm said that the first device using the new series of chips, called QCC5100, would be released in the first half of 2018.