Here's the thing: the first Bluetooth specification was launched in 1999 – the same year Microsoft launched Windows 2000.
Of course, Bluetooth has evolved and improved drastically since then (see Bluetooth LE Audio and Auracast) but today's wireless earbuds and headphones want more – more range, a more seamless user experience and more information to ping from your source device to your listening gear.
Qualcomm's all-new S7 and S7 Pro Gen 1 sound platforms are the answer. The chip company announced them during its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii and with them, a collective cheer erupted from music-lovers across the globe.
How are these standards better? Qualcomm is going to bring in wi-fi as well as Bluetooth, to set your earbuds and wireless headphones free – and the firm promises you won’t even have to stay within 10 meters (30ft) of your phone or laptop anymore.
But that's far from the end of the story: Qualcomm says both the S7 and S7 Pro Gen 1 offer improvements in active noise cancellation and battery life, plus expanded scope for AI-powered sound personalization (using a more powerful and efficient processor), but it's when we get to the S7 Pro Gen 1 only perks that things really get interesting.
The top-tier S7 Pro Gen 1 introduces ‘micro-power’ wi-fi support in conjunction with Qualcomm’s XPAN (Expanded Personal Area Network) tech – all of which allows for increased audio bandwidth, a network of connected devices jumping happily onto wi-fi and back to Bluetooth whenever necessary. And, you've guessed it: better sound quality!
How much better are we talking? I wasn't at the Summit in Hawaii sadly, but The Verge's Chris Welch spoke to Qualcomm's VP and general manager, Dino Bekis, who sums it up beautifully:
"Today we can deliver 24-bit 48kHz audio over Bluetooth using AptX Adaptive as part of Snapdragon Sound. It’s not lossless. It’s far from lossless. It’s a lossy music stream. We can’t do lossless at 24-bit 96kHz because the bit rate just can’t be supported by Bluetooth. But now that we’ve got the power consumption part down and we can put Wi-Fi into an earbud, we can deliver 96kHz lossless audio to the earbuds over wi-fi. And you’ll see here that we can do that with the same 10 hours of playback on a 50mAh hour cell, so we can deliver lossless audio over wi-fi at the same power consumption of lossy audio over Bluetooth."
Analysis: when these buds start shipping next year, Apple needs an answer
Essentially, any wireless earbuds or headphones that proudly display the S7 Pro Gen 1 badge – and these are reportedly coming in 2024 – will be able to connect to your home’s wi-fi network (across 2.4-, 5-, and 6-GHz bands) for hi-res audio up to 192kHz. Oh, and you won't have to worry about staying close to the source device.
What about when you go out? Qualcomm’s highest audio support claim here is 16-bit CD-quality ‘losslessly’ and an impressive Bluetooth range of up to 200m. So Bluetooth (inclusive of 5.4 and LE) will still step in when a wi-fi connection isn’t available, a switch that Qualcomm says will happen automatically and seamlessly.
How do you get it all? Buy it – when it arrives. Sadly it won't be coming to any earbuds or devices you have right now. You’ll need a phone powered by the company’s also box-fresh Snapdragon 8 Gen 3, a platform which should start shipping in devices next year, plus a set of wireless earbuds or headphones (current Qualcomm Snapdragon Sound partners include Audio-Technica, Bose, Edifier, Fiio, LG, Shure – so things look good there), which should also arrive next year.
Exactly how seamless that handoff between wi-fi and Bluetooth will work in the wild remains to be seen (although it's not the first time we've heard of such a thing – see plucky underdog HED Unity) and whether you'll actually be able to detect the uptick in audio quality is of course another consideration. That said, I cannot wait to try it – and when it arrives, it'll leave Apple's current lineup of Bluetooth-only AirPods looking a little… old hat.
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Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.