Wireless audio on Android has always been a battleground compared to iOS.
Android users have a lot of options that compete similarly on sound quality, battery life, and design. While features like Google Fast Pair attempt to bring some of the convenience of AirPods to more devices, and companies like Samsung integrate its own wireless earbuds well with its devices, there’s still nothing quite like the AirPods experience in the Android world.
Qualcomm wants to change that with Snapdragon Sound — or try dying. The audio platform is an intensive certification process for wireless earbuds, headphones, and smartphones, aimed at guaranteeing a terrific user experience. Similar to other tech certifications (i.e. Intel Evo), the idea is that customers would feel confident in the audio experience they're getting when they see a Snapdragon Sound badge stamped on the box of a device. The ultimate goal is to surpass the first-class connectivity and sound experience that Apple has nailed with AirPods.
Snapdragon Sound was announced in 2021 but is still in the very early stages of rollout. According to Qualcomm’s own page for supported devices, there are only 13 wireless earbuds and one pair of wireless headphones that are Snapdragon Sound certified at the time of this publishing (May 2022). The only phones certified to deliver Snapdragon sound come from Motorola, Xiaomi, Vivo, ZTE, and Black Shark.
To understand more about the process Qualcomm is taking to roll out Snapdragon Sound, and the requirements that device makers need to meet to get that badge, Input spoke with Johnny McClintock, Director of Product Marketing and Head of aptX at Qualcomm. “Snapdragon Sound’s three pillars were audio quality, latency, and robustness,” says McClintock.
McClintock was clear that lossless audio wasn’t the full story with Snapdragon Sound. The certification is targeted at the entire audio pipeline: addressing use cases for professionals, mobile gamers, and of course audiophiles. While the lackluster number of devices today may seem discouraging, talking with McClintock made it clear that it’s actually a result of Qualcomm wanting to get Snapdragon Sound right as a new brand consumers can trust.
Setting higher standards
On paper, any device with a Snapdragon 888 SoC (or newer) is capable of passing certification for Snapdragon Sound. The same goes with many of Qualcomm’s chips (the 305x, 307x, 517x, 515x, and 514x) for wireless earbuds and headphones released in 2021. These chipsets all include native support for aptX Adaptive, the key technology in enabling aptX Lossless within Snapdragon Sound.
As you may know, lots of phones meet this basic requirement. The Galaxy S21 was the first phone in the U.S. to use the Snapdragon 888, but so did the OnePlus 9 Pro and Galaxy Z Fold 3. This year’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 found in the Galaxy S22 series also should enable Snapdragon Sound. So why aren’t the Android devices most known to U.S. buyers certified yet?
The reason is that Qualcomm is not treating Snapdragon Sound as a rubber stamp any device with the right silicon can receive. Using Qualcomm’s silicon is just the first step of many to becoming certified.
When we first got involved with Bluetooth in 2009, Bluetooth was a joke for audio.
McClintock says that the certification examines every part of a device’s role in the audio pipeline. There are numerous APIs, quality checks on radio performances, and audio playback requirements that all need to be met before the Snapdragon Sound badge can be put on packaging. Eligible devices also need to have every part of their respective SoCs enabled. If a company chooses a Qualcomm chip for its audio processing and active noise cancellation performance in a new pair of wireless earbuds, but chooses to disable aptX Lossless to save battery life, that pair of wireless earbuds would not be eligible for Snapdragon Sound certification.
However, lacking Snapdragon Sound doesn’t mean a device can’t playback lossless audio, or benefit from lower latency. The S5 and S3, Qualcomm’s 2022 chips for wireless earbuds and headphones, include native support for aptX Adaptive and aptX Lossless out of the box, along with the rest of the Snapdragon Sound featureset.
Snapdragon Sound is Qualcomm’s seal of approval and guarantee that users can expect a certain experience from using a particular device as a result of Qualcomm’s own testing. It will be the best way to know that a particular set of wireless earbuds or a smartphone are enabled with the full suite of audio features Qualcomm’s mobile and audio SoCs support.
McClintock believes this is the best approach to consumer education on wireless audio quality as interest grows, instead of spending money educating people about the particular features and upgrades with each year’s flagship chip for listening devices. This is in contrast to the marketing and awareness campaigns Qualcomm roles out for each year’s flagship Snapdragon chips for mobile devices.
“I don’t think the average consumer would want to get that granular detail around the platforms. I try to look at it through the lens of how I would view it through simplicity. You think of all the money everyone spends on a particular chip, I don’t think the return would be there to focus on building consumer awareness.”
I think McClintock is right with this mindset. How many buyers really know that the H1 chip is the secret sauce to the AirPods experience for iPhones and iPads? The AirPods brand itself is the assurance.
While McClintock would not name names in our conversation, he did tease to expect “six to seven” major handset and earbud OEMs to announce support for Snapdragon Sound this year, and confirmed that Qualcomm now has agreements with 49 OEMs in total to participate in the certification program.
Does this mean that the next pair of Galaxy Buds or Samsung’s next flagship smartphone will be on board? Almost certainly not. Though Samsung is frequently one of the first to throw support behind Qualcomm's mobile SoCs, the company also uses its own Exynos silicon for devices released internationally. This split-silicon strategy means Samsung would have to optimize for both chipsets and that may be more work than it's worth for the Snapdragon Sound badge. Galaxy Buds also don’t use Qualcomm chips and rely on AAC when connected to other Android devices and Samsung’s proprietary “Scalable Codec” when connected to a Galaxy phone. While yes, Samsung is just one OEM, its stronghold on consumer tech globally gives it a lot of weight when it does or doesn't support a platform.
Snapdragon Sound advantages
The way Qualcomm is enabling lossless audio is important to focus on. AptX Adaptive is the key technology here since aptX Lossless sits on top Adaptive’s technology. AptX Adaptive is built as a scalable codec, able to provide great audio at a variety of bitrates, so Qualcomm focused on that scalability to get true lossless audio over Bluetooth.
McClintock says that vanilla Bluetooth becomes very unstable around the 800Kbps mark. This is enough to deliver higher quality audio compared to the 256Kbps AAC audio operates at, but it isn’t considered lossless by audio experts. Sony’s LDAC is able to get to 990Kbps, but rarely hits that peak bitrate, and is still somewhat lossy. McClintock was quick to point this out when I mentioned LDAC.
“LDAC is lossy. That peak of 990Kbps is certainly higher quality audio but you do lose some data still. We’re able to achieve bitrates over 1Mbps, which is what you need for CD-lossless.”
AptX Adaptive includes a technology Qualcomm calls Qualcomm High Speed Bluetooth (QHS) that adds a parallel modulation layer to the existing Bluetooth radio, providing an extra 300Kbps of bandwidth that was previously unavailable. McClintock says they’re able to pull this off with a great level of stability and reliability “previously unseen” and should deliver a much better end-user experience compared to LDAC trying to operate at full bandwidth.
It’s very impressive stuff that Qualcomm has built on top of Bluetooth, but lossless is just the tip of the iceberg as I see it.
Lossless is just the tip of the iceberg.
McClintock also is very excited for aptX Voice, a key feature in Snapdragon Sound, to become available to more users. AptX Voice was designed to take advantage of Voice over LTE (VoLTE), a technology that launched in 2012 but didn’t become widely rolled out for years, just as wireless earbuds started to go mainstream. VoLTE greatly widened the frequency range for phone calls, but Bluetooth has never supported that widened range of audio. (This is a big reason why phone calls sound the clearest when both parties have their phone to their ears.)
AptX Voice is Qualcomm’s answer to VoLTE’s unrealized potential (the underlying technology is also included in 5G), and promises wireless audio quality for phone calls comparable to listening directly through a phone's receiver. This will most appeal to professionals stuck in conference calls all day who want to rely on their favorite wireless earbuds to get the job done, but should also improve Voice over IP (VoIP) services like Discord and Zoom.
Qualcomm also promises Snapdragon Sound will deliver reduced latency for gaming and watching video, cutting down lag to 89ms compared to hundreds of milliseconds of latency typical for most Bluetooth connections, according to McClintock.
Testing for RF interference performance is a large part of the certification process for Snapdragon Sound. Qualcomm claims that the connection between two Snapdragon Sound devices will better withstand high interference areas and a more stable connection, so fewer (or ideally no) random dropouts when walking outside from a building or glitches in high-traffic areas like a crowded bus or street intersection where tons of people are all connected to Bluetooth devices.
Raising the bar slowly
Snapdragon Sound may not end up being the revolution that Bluetooth LE Audio is on course to be, but it also doesn’t have to change the world. While aptX has been a reliable part of the Android audio story for years, it was usually the end of Qualcomm’s place in your listening experience. Qualcomm has been content to sell chips and aptX licenses to whichever company was willing to pay.
Snapdragon Sound is a new step for Qualcomm’s role in the world of audio. The platform makes it a more active player in what will still be a crowded field of vendors and allows it to assist with defining an audio product's specifications to meet its greater seal of approval. Ultimately, Qualcomm will still need to compete with audio chipset makers to keep its existing OEM partners together.
If it works out and Snapdragon Sound does become a motivating factor for wireless earbud and headphone buyers, Qualcomm may well secure a new monopoly for itself. This would force new OEMs to buy Qualcomm chips and submit their products for Snapdragon Sound certification to stay competitive.
I’d argue the wireless world will still benefit from the Snapdragon Sound project, even if the badge doesn’t become a must-have for consumers. The motivating factor behind it is still to deliver increased confidence in consumers when choosing a pair of wireless earbuds, even if all of those earbuds use Qualcomm’s chips. Forcing companies who don’t use a Qualcomm chip, or opt not to submit their Qualcomm-powered headsets for certification, to dedicate more time to improving the connection and audio quality of their products can only benefit consumers.
“When we first got involved with Bluetooth in 2009, Bluetooth was a joke for audio," says McClintock. "In terms of being something reputable for audiophiles, it wasn’t in any way a medium people would use to critically listen to music. Since then we’ve made substantial improvements with aptX and now we’re able to deliver true CD-quality lossless.”
For now, we can only wait and see which of the major wireless earbud brands Qualcomm has been able to court since 2021, and then judge for ourselves if Snapdragon Sound is worth all the noise.