Bluetooth audio is hardly cutting-edge. Bargain bin buds can be had these days for $15 on sale, and folks buy them in droves. But they're not all created equal — different models and different phones support different standards with different qualities. Qualcomm, with its fingers in basically every part of the smartphone pie, decided earlier this year to roll out a new Snapdragon Sound certification: a single badge you could look for that means "this thing does the good audio stuff." And today, the company has announced that Snapdragon Sound will support lossless CD-quality audio, which is all the rage these days now that Apple Music has it. But, even if you don't care about better audio quality, there's actually a tiny, hidden benefit to this change that I'm actually even more excited for.
To start, a bit of context. Most of you are probably aware of what aptX is. For the unfamiliar, it's a codec by Qualcomm that lets Bluetooth audio sound better than the usual mediocre SBC. The company has been improving aptX incrementally over the years with additions like aptX Adaptive. Today's new lossless standard is an extension of aptX that supports delivering even more bits to your ears.
I had the chance to sit down with Qualcomm's Jonny McClintock today at the company's event in NYC (full disclosure: they paid for the trip and gave me a sandwich and some coffee) to talk about the new lossless technology for aptX. While I hate to call it "straightforward," it is at least simple: Qualcomm's been able to plump out the bandwidth aptX can use to over a megabit, and with its current compression efficiency and other improvements, that's now fast enough to allow aptX to handle lossless audio — technically, lossless compressed audio, but there's no actual distinction in terms of quality. Qualcomm champions that aptX Lossless can handle up to CD quality (16-bit 44.1kHz), as well as superfluously higher lossy bitrates. On top of that, latency is reduced. We're told it's still somewhere around 80ms, but that's miles snappier than SBC, and I noticed the difference easily in a demonstration.
Ultimately, all this means is better Bluetooth audio quality — potentially better than the buds you're going to use it with can actually deliver. aptX Lossless is the feature Qualcomm is highlighting most in the announcement, but the foundation that this new technology is based on actually has another effect. That added bandwidth to handle all those extra bits for lossless audio comes courtesy of an overall signal improvement.
Qualcomm claims that Snapdragon Sound certified devices (paired with corresponding audio hardware) should be able to spit/receive a slightly better signal resulting in a roughly 20% increase in bandwidth at peak, and outside the noted audio quality improvements, that also means a slightly improved signal overall. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to hear that we'll have better audio quality on the go — though I doubt I'll care or hear the difference past CD quality — but it's that signal improvement that I find the most interesting.
It isn't Bluetooth's audio quality that leaves me dissatisfied most of the time, it's the stutters and disconnections that come with using a pair of buds on a train or on an RF-congested city corner. Coming from the simplicity and love of a good headphone jack, Bluetooth is still unreliable at times. But Qualcomm says this new lossless audio will actually make a dent in that too.
Part of the Qualcomm Sound certification involves extensive device testing. McClintock tells us that involves not just the usual pairing and standards-checking, but even tossing a device in a controlled RF environment and throwing a ton of interference at it. In the end, devices that pass muster claim to hit a higher standard that includes a 4db signal improvement over... something. Qualcomm admittedly hand-waved that bit away, implying that standard aptX was the comparison, though the company also said it didn't do the same RF testing previously. Either way, we're told it won't certify older or existing devices for Qualcomm Sound, either, which means we all have a wait ahead of us.
Now, a 4db change isn't a terribly large improvement, as any engineer will tell you, but it's notable and will have an effect. In some cases, it could be enough to let your phone stream audio a bit more reliably from your back pocket or in a 2.4GHz saturated part of town. On top of that, thanks to aptX Adaptive, the signal improvement means better potential quality across the full range of connectivity conditions.
It's been years since we gave up the headphone jack, and, for me, Bluetooth audio has been an imperfect surrogate, trading reliability and performance for convenience and... not much else. When I'm feeling cynical, I still see the market's transition as a boondoggle to simply squeeze more cash from us with another firmly required accessory. But if Snapdragon Sound can actually make Bluetooth audio reliable (as well as sound better), then it might have just gone from an audiophile-targeting sticker on future earbud boxes to something I actually care about.
The bummer, of course, is the fact that it's not really something I can test right now, or even plan to test for. Snapdragon Sound certified hardware is limited. The only phone that I even know of as advertising the badge in the US is Qualcomm's Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, an overpriced $1,500 ASUS-made device that no one should probably buy. The Honor 50 Pro, Honor 50, and Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra are also all Snapdragon Sound certified, according to Qualcomm. But then you also have to pair that phone with a set of compatible buds — Snapdragon Sound is an end-to-end solution that requires the right goods on both ends. I can't even find a complete published list of supported earbuds and headphones, though I know Master & Dynamic make a pair (which I used at Qualcomm's event), and Qualcomm advertises the Xiaomi FlipBuds Pro as compatible on its site. In all, some 30 vendors are on board to make products, but to date, these things aren't exactly available at Best Buy.
For most of our readers (if not most people, period), the benefits of lossless audio will likely be lost when paired with cheap truly wireless earbuds, but the perks of Snapdragon Sound extend beyond marketable terms like "deeper" or "fuller" sound. In two or three years, when earbuds and phones that support it are more widespread, you might also enjoy the simple pleasure of headphones that don't cut out quite as easily on a crowded subway platform.