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What does the Apple H1 chip mean for audio? Does Android have an alternative?
The market for true wireless earbuds is gradually picking up steam, and figuring out which one to buy is becoming a bigger challenge. Apple’s AirPods stand out from the crowd, not always for the best reasons, but the company excels at branding, as we know. So much so that fans will happily talk about Apple processor capabilities, including the little chips tucked into its headphones, such as the Apple W1 and newer H1 model.
The H1 chip is found inside a range of Apple audio products, including the regular AirPods, the AirPods Max, and the Beats Studio Buds. At the time of its release, Apple touted the chip to include a range of improvements in the ever-growing true wireless headphone market. And even though you might not want to buy into the Apple ecosystem, the ecosystem’s pairing system and convenience are hard to ignore.
What does the Apple H1 do?
Let’s back up a second and consider what exactly the Apple H1 chip does. It’s not a processor in the smartphone or PC sense, so it’s not running a complex operating system or powering a display. No, the H1 is a streamlined chip designed for just a few tasks. Apple keeps the innards of its chip a secret, but we do know that it includes a modem for handling Bluetooth connectivity, a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) for decoding the compressed audio stream, and a co-processor (possibly a second DSP) for handling sensor information.
A highly optimized processor can make significant battery savings over a more generic design. As a result, the Apple H1 boasts some battery life improvements over the W1. Talk time reaches up to three hours rather than just two, and up to five hours of audio playback. There’s new support for voice-activated Siri commands (in addition to a double-tap), and Bluetooth 5.0 support, up from 4.2.
Bluetooth 5.0 support isn’t meaningful for headphones quality as audio codec profiles still utilize lower transfer rates. That said, Bluetooth 5.0 does allow for audio streaming to multiple devices at once and also lowers power consumption over its predecessor. Finally, the Apple H1 is also used for features such as noise cancellation, adaptive EQ, and spatial audio on some devices like the AirPods Pro.
The Apple H1 chip enables features such as noise cancellation, in-ear detection, and device switching.
On the plus side, latency is 30 percent lower between the H1 and W1. This is good news for mobile gamers. Apple also promises that connection times when switching devices are now twice as fast. So you can hop between your Apple Watch or iPad faster than ever before. The chip’s sensor support also means that it can detect which AirPod is in your ear, so it only uses the microphone you’re actually wearing when making calls.
Some of the H1's best features, such as a strong connection and fast pairing, aren't available to Android users.
That’s all very smart, but the Apple H1 doesn’t support everything that serious audio users may desire. AAC is the only audio codec on board. There’s no third-party proprietary aptX or LDAC, which offer superior quality on Android handsets. So that’s a big “no” to higher resolution audio and minimal compression.
Alternative Bluetooth chips and audio products
If you’re keen to steer clear of the Apple ecosystem or fancy some different headphones, there are plenty of great Apple AirPods alternatives out there. Many also feature chips that offer superior levels of technology, thanks to advancements in noise cancellation tech and specialized codecs like AptX Low Latency. Put simply, the Apple H1 is certainly not the only game in town.
Qualcomm QCC and CSR series
Qualcomm is the big name in Android smartphone chips and has its own range of wireless audio SoCs too. If you’re looking for some of the industry’s most cutting-edge audio features, Qualcomm’s chips are usually your best bet. The list includes high-quality codec support in the form of aptX and optional LDAC, feedforward and feedback Hybrid ANC, and ultra-low power consumption.
Much of Qualcomm’s audio efforts are spun out of its acquisition of aptX from CSR back in 2010, before buying the entire company in 2015. Qualcomm sells a wide range of audio chips under the CSR naming scheme. Features include support for AAC, aptX, and LDAC codecs, noise cancellation, and voice detection for assistants.
Unfortunately, Qualcomm’s QCC range of products has not appeared in many true wireless headphones to date. According to sources who have spoken with us in the distant past, Qualcomm’s technology is more expensive than its rivals and some potential partners aren’t aware of its true wireless product portfolio.
Mediatek, Broadcom, and others
According to a teardown conducted by the Japanese publication EE Times, the Sony WF-1000XM4 uses a Mediatek MT2822 chip — likely with some modifications to accommodate Sony’s proprietary noise-canceling algorithm. The inclusion of a Mediatek SoC also explains why Sony doesn’t offer Qualcomm’s AptX codec. MediaTek chips also power wireless audio devices made by Amazon, JBL, Lenovo, and a handful of other companies.
Other industry behemoths in the audio chip business include Chinese manufacturers BES and Broadcom. The original Samsung Galaxy Buds used a Broadcom chip, while the newer Galaxy Buds 2 house a BES-made chip.
There’s a diverse ecosystem of chips out there
Bluetooth audio SoCs are seldom talked about, partly because audio brands actually end up determining which features are implemented anyway. The Apple H1 is an exception because it is designed with Apple’s specific vision of Bluetooth earbuds. That’s great in some ways, as it has produced a power-efficient design with a pretty comprehensive list of features. However, the best features are reserved for those who buy into Apple’s broader product ecosystem and it doesn’t support everything that high-end audio consumers may want.
Outside of Apple’s ecosystem, there’s also a huge range of available products, each sporting different capabilities and price point targets. Features such as noise cancellation, voice commands, and high-quality codecs can now be found even in mid-range offerings.
The bottom line is that there are definitely competitive SoCs to the Apple H1 out there for Android users. However, very few companies talk about the chip powering their headphones, instead preferring to focus on the end-user features.
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