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Qualcomm Is (Almost) Ready To Take On Apple’s AirPods Now

When I recently wrote about why Amazon hasn’t made Alexa earbuds yet, one observation from other headphone and earbud makers was consistent: They’re constrained by current Qualcomm chips, which were designed years ago with cheap Bluetooth earpieces in mind. Making them work with modern earbuds means dealing with tight power constraints and using battery-hungry external chips for features like noise cancellation.

At CES, Qualcomm revealed its plan to get with the times. The company’s upcoming QCC5100 chip is three times more battery-efficient than its predecessor for basic audio playback, and builds in support for new features such as active noise cancellation, fitness tracking, and hands-free voice commands. To handle all those activities, it’s also twice as fast.

For companies that don’t have the time or resources to design custom chips–like Apple did with the custom W1 chip for AirPods–Qualcomm’s solution should be a huge step up.

“We’ve had a great response to this announcement, because all the pain points that the current innovations are struggling with, this really unblocks a lot of that,” says Anthony Murray, the senior vice president and general manager for Qualcomm’s voice and music business.

[Photo: Jared Newman]

The Long Game

Although the QCC5100 seems like a response to Apple’s AirPods–which accounted for 85% of U.S. wireless earbud revenue as of August, according to The NPD Group–Murray says Qualcomm has been plotting its chip upgrade since 2014, when it acquired Bluetooth chip maker CSR. Since then, Qualcomm has been developing its intellectual property, figuring out which capabilities were most important to include, and trying to fit everything onto a single chip.

Earbud makers will be able to mix and match features depending on how much battery life they’re trying to squeeze out. They can also use smaller batteries–currently the largest component inside any wireless earbud–to achieve slicker designs. That means AirPod alternatives won’t have to be considerably larger than Apple’s pointy buds.

“We are on a continual crusade to get the power down, because the battery mechanically becomes the thing that dictates the form factor,” Murray says.

But don’t get too excited for a wave of new hearables yet. Although the new chips are entering mass production this quarter, actual products will take some time to develop. Qualcomm expects some early partners to have new earbuds out by the end of the year, but most products that use the chip won’t arrive until 2019.

Even then, the first offerings could be on the pricey side. The QCC5100 represents the high end within a range of chips that Qualcomm intends to launch. The company may announce cheaper variants later this year, with fewer features or less memory than its flagship chip.

“There’s a broad range between your $400 high-end product and your $10 headset, and we have to tailor the flexibility, the memory, and all that stuff to cater for those categories,” Murray says.

In the long term, though, Qualcomm is hoping its new series of chips will lead to something like that mythical Alexa earbuds, allowing you stay in touch with your virtual assistant of choice throughout the day. Murray even draws a comparison to the 2013 film Her (never mind its cautionary message about over-attachment to technology).

“The movie’s pretty old now,” he says, “but that’s where we see things going with the product.”

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