Qualcomm unveiled Thursday “Snapdragon Sound,” proprietary software and hardware technologies designed to optimize wireless quality in an entire audio chain from HD content delivery to mobile phones to earbuds — all the way to human ears.
Given Qualcomm’s dominance in 5G, WiFi 6, smartphone RF technologies, apps processors and Bluetooth connectivity, the mobile chip giant sees itself as ideally positioned to enhance the wireless HD audio experience through Snapdragon Sound. Moreover, this development enables Qualcomm’s further penetration into consumer devices beyond smartphones, with “Snapdragon Sound inside.”
“If you try to get best audio by only looking at an earbud, or only looking at a phone, you can only get so far,” said James Chapman, Qualcomm’s vice president and general manager for Voice, Music and Wearables, in an interview with EE Times. “If you really want to do the best job, you need to take the system as a whole.”
Delivery and playback of reliable, low-latency, high-quality wireless audio and voice can be easily interrupted when signals travel through many layers of software and hardware deployed in the audio chain. Between the content’s delivery to devices and the time consumers listen to it, disruptions can be triggered by how devices connect with each other. There can be connectivity breaks, audio dropouts and glitches. It’s easy for latency to creep in. And certainly, audio quality can be compromised by poor compression.
By optimizing the interactions between its technology stacks, Qualcomm claims it was able to design Snapdragon Sound to deliver high-resolution 24- bit 96kHz audio. Noting that the artists are recording their music in studios at 24-bit 96kHz, not at 16-bit 48kHz, Chapman explained the goal of Snapdragon Sound is “to take that very high resolution audio into the phone and deliver it to you all the way.”
Qualcomm also boasts that Snapdragon Sound can support Bluetooth latencies as low as 89 milliseconds (45% lower than a leading competitor) for more immersive gaming and a better video experience.
Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, observed, “By controlling both ends of the connection, Qualcomm can optimize the connection beyond standards-based interoperability.” Asked what he sees as the biggest technical achievement of the Snapdragon Sound, he said, “For me it is the higher bit rates that translate into higher quality audio for ear buds. The lower latency would be good for gamers, but the most important thing for them is higher screen refresh rates.”
Wireless — the weakest link
As popular as wireless devices have become, Chapman said, “The biggest compromise [in audio quality] has been the wireless link.” He added, “If you are dealing in a difficult RF environment and handling higher bit rates, you get problems. And that’s what leads to increased latency, resulting in compressing audio to get it reliably across to an ear,” said Chapman. To combat the problems, “We’ve taken standard Bluetooth radios, and we’ve added some Qualcomm secret sauce. So, we’ll be able to upgrade some of those radios and get a better-quality foundation for everything we’re doing here.”
Devices embedded with Snapdragon Sound are the key element necessary for HD audio envisioned by Qualcomm. As Krewell articulated, both ends of the link must have silicon supported by Snapdragon Sound.
Doesn’t Qualcomm’s “secret sauce” make Snapdragon Sound-based wireless connectivity proprietary? Isn’t Snapdragon Sound an inherently walled-garden solution?
Chapman said, “Yes and no.” He stressed that Qualcomm still advocates standards. “We want the standards to be successful. The problem is we want consumers to get the best possible experience, and we can’t do that without going over and above the standards.”
Speaking of the long process required for making changes through standards bodies, Chapman said, “I think it would be unfair to hold the consumers back for another three, four years to get it through a standards body when we can deliver it to them today.” Qualcomm calls this approach “standards plus.”
“We are very committed to getting those standards as good as we possibly can, but until a standard gets there, we should as Qualcomm be doing the best. We can’t ignore [HD audio] until the standard catches up.”
That may be so, but wouldn’t Qualcomm’s strong presence in every link of the wireless audio chain make Snapdragon Sound one more way for the mobile chip giant to exert its power?
Krewell challenges that assumption. “Qualcomm still supports all the standards. I see this as making the user experience even better when both ends are Qualcomm silicon. Similar to how Apple makes pairing the Airpods to the iPhone simple because of its ability to control both ends of the connection.”
Qualcomm listed the following as key components of Snapdragon Sound:
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 8-series mobile platforms
- Qualcomm FastConnect 6900 mobile connectivity system
- Qualcomm QCC514x, QCC515x and QCC3056 series Bluetooth Audio SoCs
- Qualcomm Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) technology
- Qualcomm aptX Adaptive(tm), 24-bit 96kHz and 89ms latency
- Qualcomm aptX Voice super wideband voice
- Qualcomm Aqstic audio codec and smart speaker amplifier WCD938x and WSA883x)
- Qualcomm Audio and Voice Communication Suite
Chapman stressed that additions, changes in radio chips and software stack optimization are “treated carefully to keep the best quality and the lowest latency all the way to the point where it’s actually hitting your eardrum.”
On both sides of the link on phone and earbud, he noted, “We’ve had to go and optimize our TrueWireless mirroring, our Active Noise Cancellation and our codecs. We’ve done the same for aptX adaptive and aptX voice, and some of our HDR on 3d audio recording. We’ve made sure that all of them fit together and get the benefit from the Snapdragon Sound optimizations.”
Snapdragon Sound optimized devices will be tested for interoperability in Qualcomm’s Taiwan test facility. measuring audio quality, latency and robust connectivity.
“Any product — phone, earbud, or anything else — that carries the Snapdragon Sound brand will be tested by us. So that when we allow someone to put that Snapdragon sound brand on the box, it stands for something,” said Chapman.
Does Qualcomm consider licensing Snapdragon Sound in software, for example?
Chapman said, “Today you would struggle to do it in software because there are hardware changes as well.” He explained, “That’s one of the things you see in order to get this level of capability. You must go and change things in the silicon and in the software.”
To enable a competitor with Snapdragon Sound, Chapman noted, “We would have to effectively give them an awful lot of IP, not just software, but silicon as well. And what would end up happening is the competitor would effectively buy our chip and then sell it. And that could happen, but I’m not sure it’s going to work.”
Among early adopters of Snapdragon Sound are Xiaomi, Audio-Technica, and Amazon.
At the Snapdragon Sound event, Amazon introduced its Music HD playlist designed to showcase the superior quality that Snapdragon Sound can achieve.
A few streaming service companies including Amazon and Tidal introduced HD audio music delivery. Earlier this month, Spotify announced plans to offer lossless streaming later this year. Apple is expected to eventually follow suit.
Streaming service companies are pushing HD audio onto phones. However, until Snapdragon Sound came along, nobody was hearing the HD, said Chapman. That’s why Qualcomm sees the partnership with Amazon critical.
Snapdragon Sound is now available to OEMs.
Devices supporting Snapdragon Sound are expected to be available later this year, according to Qualcomm. Soon, “Consumers will be able to look for the Snapdragon Sound badge on optimized devices to readily identify phones, earbuds and headphones,” promised the company. Qualcomm also expects other devices like PCs, watches and XR glasses to embed Snapdragon Sound.