Smart home technology is shaping up to be the next big thing in consumer electronics, and this trend is requiring not only new solutions from product designers, but also from chip and component manufacturers. To meet the new demands of today’s smart speakers, wireless headphones, and new interfaces like USB Type-C, Qualcomm’s Voice and Music division has just unveiled a range of new audio related products at a developer conference in Shenzhen, China.
The new product announcements include a high-end flash chip for wireless speakers and headphones, called the CSRA68100, along with a new range of Bluetooth SoCs for entry and mid-tier products, which will fall under the QCC3XXX family. For new wired connections, Qualcomm is catering to the growth in USB Type-C devices with its new WHS9420 and WHS9410 SoCs, and there’s a new DDFA class-D amplifier for more powerful speaker setups. Qualcomm also unveiled its smart audio platform, which is based on existing Snapdragon technologies, designed to provide the additional processing power demanded by today’s smart home speakers.
Bluetooth headphones and speakers
Taking a closer look at Qualcomm’s latest wireless speaker and headphone chips, the new CSRA68100 and the entry-level QCC3XXX familiy both come supporting Bluetooth 5.0, ensuring standard compatibility with the latest wireless products and upcoming smartphone software releases. Qualcomm also says that it’s keeping an eye on the upcoming 5.1 specification, which will have some more interesting implications for the way that Bluetooth support audio. Importantly, the full product range supports Qualcomm’s aptX codec, so audio quality will be the same even if you’re using a compatible device based on an older Bluetooth standard.
The high-end CSRA68100 boasts a 24-bit 192 kHz codec with both inputs and outputs, enabling support for voice controls. The codec can deliver just under 1 watt of power, making it suitable for in-ear headphones, or can be paired up with an external amplifier to drive more power hungry loads. The chip also includes dual 32-bit DSPs, capable of performing processing on incoming and outgoing audio channels. These DSPs are OEM programmable, allowing them to implement their own processing algorithms or use Qualcomm’s own solutions, which supports features including voice controls, far-field echo cancellation, sensor processing, and other audio post processing needs. In terms of performance, Qualcomm says that the chip’s DSP capabilities are now four times greater than its predecessor, the CSR8675.
The high end CSRA68100 boasts 24-bit 192kHz audio, DSP, NFC, Bluetooth Low Energy, battery charging, and UI interface capabilities in a single chip package.
The high-end chip also include NFC support for quick pairing with other wireless devices, support for regular Bluetooth and Low Energy profiles, a LED driver section and capacitive touch controller to support UI elements, and integrated power management features. Qualcomm sees Bluetooth headphones as a particularly quick growing market opportunity, and this chip certainly packs in high-end features that OEMs and consumers are after.
The entry-level QCC3XXX doesn’t feature all of these top-end capabilities, but is designed to bring previous high-end features to lower cost devices and enable more OEM differentiation in budget oriented products. The range consists of eight SoCs, three designed for Bluetooth speakers and five for various headset applications. All of these chips support Qualcomm’s aptX wireless codec, Bluetooth 5.0, ambient noise cancellation, and Qualcomm’s TrueWireless technology.
“Hearables users also want all-day performance and battery life from their earbuds and personal assistants. In Q1 2018 we aim to launch a new family of low-power Bluetooth audio SoCs which are highly optimized for intended use in compact, feature rich devices.” - Anthony Murray, senior vice president Qualcomm Voice and Music
Although wireless is probably capturing more immediate marketing attention, we’ve also seen a growth in the number of devices, particularly smartphones, that are now offering audio over USB Type-C. Sometimes at the expense of the common 3.5mm audio jack. Qualcomm’s new WHS9420 and 9410 SoCs are designed to cater to headphones and other USB Type-C connected devices that will take audio inputs from smartphones.
The WHS9420 is the higher-end option, integrating ambient noise cancellation alongside support for 24-bit 192 kHz audio files via Qualcomm’s top-tier DAC output. Again, this chip can be paired up with additional amplifier components, such as Qualcomm’s new DDFA chip which we’ll discuss next, to drive more powerful speakers. The WHS9421 lacks the advanced noise cancelling features, but retains support for high resolution audio files, making it a more cost effective option.
DDFA Class-D amplifier
In order to scale up its technology to larger products, Qualcomm has also unveiled details about its latest Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier (DDFA). The power efficient class-D design and patented closed loop architecture should offer performance that’s closer to linear amplifier designs, making it an interesting proposition for high-end products.
By opting for a low power class-D design, rather than AB, and allowing OEMs to configure output transistors for various power points Qualcomm is targeting its technology across a greater range of products. This can include portable speakers, through to home cinema soundbars, and potentially even high-end headphones. In the future, Qualcomm plans to offer a DDFA option with up to 20W of output power straight from the chip too.
Qualcomm’s next generation DDFA will be available on its CSRA6620 SoC first. Audiophiles interested in some specifications will likely be pleased by an SNR and dynamic range at 113db, THD+N at <0.002%, and a residual noise of 35μVrms@ 1Khz. The SoC also supports 384 kHz audio and DSD 64/128 inputs.
Perhaps the biggest trend emerging over the past year has been the snappy adoption of smart home speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo range and the Google Home hub. We’re sure to see a growing number of these products on the market going forward, and Qualcomm’s new Smart Audio Platform may end up powering a number of them. The platform support both Linux and Android Things operating systems.
The Smart Audio Platform is designed to facilitate speedier development and commercialization of these systems, and is based on Qualcomm’s existing Snapdragon 425 (APQ8017) and Snapdragon 212 (APQ8009) mobile platforms. Of course, these designs have been optimized for audio use in this instance, cutting out the integrated modem and camera capabilities, and reducing the display and GPU silicon footprint. But this platform retains important Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities, as well as additional processing power.
The combination of a quad-core CPU, DSP, and Always-Aware capabilities makes Qualcomm's Smart Audio Platform well suited to virtual assistant speaker products.
By offering developers a platform with more powerful quad-core Cortex-A53 or A7 CPU choices, combined with the company’s Hexagon DSP capabilities and optional All-Ways Aware technology, this platform is able to do more than your typical audio SoC. The platform can run a wide range of applications and the software stack will be much more configurable, allowing OEMs greater differentiation. Voice recognition, 32-bit 192kHz music streaming, VoIP, running smart voice assistants, and even voice biometric capabilities are possible with this extra processing power.
On top of the advanced processing capabilities, Qualcomm’s Smart Audio platform offers noise cancellation, support for the growing portfolio of AllPlay equipped speakers , 24-but aptX HD wireless audio, and other proprietary features. There’s support for displays, touch controls, and configurable speaker output power too.
In the future, Qualcomm envisions that developments being made in the mobile space regarding machine learning and heterogeneous compute, as seen on its top-tier Snapdragon 8XX platforms, could make its way to its smart speaker and home platforms too. Machine learning being a particularly useful tool for voice recognition and speaker identification.
Qualcomm is already a big name in the smartphone market, but these announcements show the company is equally as committed to supporting emerging trends in the audio and smart home markets too. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see how OEMs leverage these technologies to create interesting new products for us consumers.
Qualcomm expects that its early partners may announce products making use of these new technologies as early ass Q1 2018. However, most products will be targeting the holiday season next year, so might not appear until Q3 or Q4 2018. The Smart Audio Platform is expected to be available in Q3 2017.