Will The Future of Audio Be Wireless or Smart Wired?

With the release of the iPhone 7, Apple chucked the analog audio jack. That’s old news. The criticism is overwhelming.  One critic says that the company has terrible reasons for removing the headphone jack. Another post humorously points out that there is absolutely no upside to the change. Another post explains why Apple’s promise to deliver better sound quality over their proprietary Lightning port might not even be noticeable in most cases, unless you’re an audiophile. So, in short, reviewers are not very happy about this so-called courageous move.

Contrary to these views, there just might be some interesting benefits to this move. In fact, although the future is undoubtedly wireless, in the near-term, it might actually lead to a renaissance of the wired headphones.

Goodbye trusty 3.5mm connector

Goodbye trusty 3.5mm connector

Power to the Wired Headphones Can Offer Noise Cancellation, HD Audio and More

A digital connector to wired earbuds opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Until now, analog earbuds were simple speakers on wires. In some cases, they might include a button to answer calls, control volume and maybe skip to the next track. But that was about it. Without a power source, the earbuds could not include any level of sophistication.

Now, with a digital connection, like the Lightning port (or USB-C for a more standardized approach), wired earbuds can receive power. This means that they can incorporate a chip, and basically do everything that the fancy wireless earbuds do. Here are some of the top features that are enabled:

  • Multiple microphones which can perform beamforming, for enhanced voice quality. Until now, simple microphones have been available in headsets by using TRRS audio jacks, but this is not a viable power source for advanced processing.
  • Active noise cancellation to reduce ambient noise, as well as smart filters for safety features like identifying sirens or other important sounds that shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Manipulation of the digital stream to improve sound quality or boost volume. Instead of relying on the digital to analog convertor (DAC) and amplifier that are shipped with the standard phone chipset, these can be implemented on the headphones. This allows the headphone OEMs to implement their own chipset and determine the quality and volume of the output audio.
  • Sensors and sensor fusion to perform all the tricks that are available in battery powered headsets like tracking vitals and biometrics and detecting when the buds are removed from your ear to automatically pause music or to change the active speaker or mic.
  • 3D audio can be used to enhance sound quality as well as offer more immersive virtual and augmented reality

But, if they are the same why would anyone prefer wires over wireless? Here are a few reasons: they are much cheaper, they don’t need batteries, so they are lighter and don’t need to be charged, and some more sensitive music listeners might prefer the robustness of a wired connection to sometimes jittery Bluetooth (maybe this will be solved in the Bluetooth 5 release?).

Apple is Not the First Vendor to Eliminate the 3.5mm Headphone Jack

An example of a product that uses the Lightning port is the JBL Reflect Aware which was mentioned in Apple’s September 7th keynote. These in-ear sports headphones take advantage of the power source to offer noise cancellation. Another example, which exploits the possibilities of digital sound is Audeze’s Titanium EL-8 and Sine headphones. This very positive review from The Verge shows that there is a lot of potential in wired digital audio. And this product only takes advantage of a small portion of the above opportunities, mainly ones that deal with sound quality.

Apple, as usual, has garnered the most headlines for this move, but is not the first vendor to eliminate the 3.5mm headphone jack. All three of LeEco’s 2nd generation handsets also lack the 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, they deliver digital audio via the USB-C port. The same goes for the flagship Motorola Moto Z. To compliment this move, LeEco offers USB-C headphones, which are purported to give excellent results using their CDLA (Continual Digital Lossless Audio) technology.

Making the transition from the highly effective and extremely ubiquitous 3.5mm jack to digital connections will not be trivial. Still, with tech giants like Intel pushing the USB-C to replace the 3.5mm jack, it just might get enough traction to stimulate a whole new generation of smart wired headphones.

A Bold Step for Hearables: Who Needs a Jack When There’s No Cord?

On the other hand, there is a strong case for wireless. It’s no coincidence that the release of the AirPods is synchronized with the removal of the 3.5mm jack. I recently wrote a post about hearables, the in-ear wearables, in which I speculated that Apple would come out with their own hearable soon. And they delivered. The AirPods are quite different than the other devices I reviewed in the category. Most of them were all about being as tiny as possible and tucked away inside the ear. This form factor raises many challenges, which Apple simply eliminated by designing a long cylinder protruding from the earbud. Three main advantages of this design are a larger battery, a longer antenna, and distance between two microphones for beamforming. Apparently, with some effort and sophistication, the beam forming could have been achieved in a more elegant manner. According to a TechCrunch review of the new Here One smart earbuds, they pick up fantastic audio, thanks to three microphones in each earbud.

The AirPods also include a few other interesting features. They automatically connect with an iPhone when the charging box is opened next to it. They sense when they are in-ear, and which one, so they can auto-pause music when removed, and activate the one that’s in for calls if only one is in. Double tapping activates Siri, another disappointing example of NOT always-listening earbuds.

Apple shows the inside of the AirPod

Apple shows the inside of the AirPod

Apple’s new W1 processor is enabler of these new wireless ear sticks. Even before there has been a single teardown, there are already some very interesting speculations about what’s inside it.

Nick Hunn posted a speculative teardown that appears to be a very educated guess. Among other things, he places Bluetooth 4.2 dual mode w/ A2DP, a low power DSP, a sensor fusion hub, a low power microprocessor and the ability to relay Bluetooth to a second W1 chip. He also suggests that the charger case also contains a W1 chip, due to its ability to sync with the phone on opening and show the battery level.

An EETimes post speculates that Apple has used the technology of Passif, a company which it acquired a few years ago, to improve the Bluetooth capabilities. Like other hearables, the AirPods must overcome the challenge of relaying Bluetooth to two separate earbuds, while keeping them perfectly synchronized. It also has to be done with very low power consumption to deliver the 5 hours playing time that Apple promises. Getting this done requires going beyond the current standard BLE protocol, and could be explained by some proprietary tweaks.

Listen Carefully as the Future of Listening Unfolds

Only time will tell whether the removal of the 3.5mm jack will spread and what it will cause. In any event, it is another strong sign that we are moving towards a time when intelligence is a basic requirement in even the simplest devices. As a result, wireless hearables are thriving, but the option of much cheaper digital wired headsets might be very appealing to many.

The CEVA-TeakLite-4 DSP is ideal for ultra-low power audio, voice and sensor fusion, and is a perfect fit for smart earbuds. You can learn more about it by downloading the product brief here. You can also find out about CEVA’s connectivity solutions, including low-power Bluetooth 5-ready platforms, by clicking here.

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