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 Apple H1 chip is found inside the second generation Apple AirPods, touting a range of improvements in the ever-growing true wireless headphone market. While you might not want to buy into the Apple ecosystem and question their bang for buck, the convenience of Apple’s pairing system is 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, 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 3 hours rather than just 2, and up to 5 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. Although Bluetooth 5.0 does allow for audio streaming to multiple devices at once. Bluetooth 5 is primarily aimed at lower power consumption, and could be more important should the chip end up in other wireless devices.
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 is 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.
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. There’s also no active noise cancellation (ANC) support that we know of, meaning poor isolation from outside noises. If you’re after these features, you’ll want to look at other chips and headsets.
Some of the H1's best features, such as a strong connection and fast pairing, aren't available to Android users.
Alternative chips and products
If you’re keen to steer clear of the Apple ecosystem or fancy some different headphones, there are plenty of decent AirPods 2019 alternatives out there. Many also feature chips that offer similar or even superior levels of technology. The Apple H1 is certainly not the only game in town.
Broadcom is a big name in the wireless communications business and has its own range of true wireless audio chips. The BCM43014 powers the Samsung Galaxy Buds, which were announced alongside the Samsung Galaxy S10 series this year.
The BCM43014 is also a Bluetooth 5 chip, for what that’s worth, complete with an audio DSP and sensor hub technology for touch, IR, and proximity sensors. The chip supports fast scan and connection options to improve pairing speed. There’s no ANC with the Galaxy Buds, but the BCM43014 mentions the integration of advanced acoustic algorithms that reduce background noise, which could be available to other units.
The Galaxy Buds support SBC, AAC, and Samsung’s in-house Scalable Audio & Speech Codec. The programmable nature of the microcontroller CPU suggests that other codecs could be implemented on this hardware, but it’s not clear if there are other requirements here and implementation would be product-dependent.
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds certainly fit the bill as an AirPod 2019 competitor. There are many design and feature similarities between the two, although Samsung is lacking the always-on voice commands. The BCM43014 is a little more general purpose than Apple’s H1, but it’s comparable with what Apple is doing in terms of quality and features.
Qualcomm QCC and CSR series
Qualcomm is the big name in Android smartphone chips and has its own range of wireless audio SoCs too. In this observer’s option, this is where to look for some of the industry’s most cutting-edge audio features. 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, which you’ll find inside Bluetooth headphones, speakers, and dongles. Features include AAC, aptX, and LDAC codec support, noise cancellation, and voice detection.
The latest audio chip models in the lineup fall under the QCC branding. The QCC5100 is the flagship tier, offering aptX, HD, and low latency Adaptive codec support, along with Hybrid ANC, True Wireless Stereo Plus capabilities, and voice-activated Assistant controls. The dual-core DSP can be used for audio and sensor applications. This range is also incorporated into the Qualcomm eXtension program, which helps developers implement optional third-party audio technologies, from custom tuning algorithms to Sony’s LDAC codec. In terms of audio quality, low latency potential, and features, the QCC5100 goes well beyond the Apple H1.
The QCC300X series is the more affordable option. This series does away with noise canceling, only works with aptX classic, and isn’t in the eXtension program. Likewise, voice controls are out, and there’s just a single-core DSP unit which limits the processing available for sensors.
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, Qualcomm’s technology is more expensive than its rivals and some potential partners aren’t aware of its true wireless product portfolio. Bad news for those hoping that Qualcomm could haul the Android Bluetooth ecosystem out of its messy position.
For earbud manufacturers, there is a range of other options on the market too. Microchip, Nordic Semiconductor, RealTek, MediaTek, and others offer SoCs for wireless audio products. However, many are not as optimized for earbuds like the H1.
Most of these products, including the MediaTek MT2533 and Microchip IS2064, support SBC and AAC by default, but not more advanced codecs. LDAC is an option in some specific products, such as the IS2064GM-0L3. A few SoCs also include echo and noise suppression technologies, Bluetooth 5 for lower power consumption, and support for true wireless earbuds as well. However, this varies a lot between SoCs and few are offering quite the comprehensive level of features as Apple and Qualcomm.
There’s a diverse ecosystem of chips out there
Bluetooth audio SoCs are seldom talked about, partly because headphone product actually ends up determining which features are implemented anyway. The Apple H1 is designed with Apple’s specific vision of Bluetooth earbuds in mind. 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 is a huge range of available products, each sporting different capabilities and price point targets. In terms of packing in everything consumers may want, such as noise cancellation, voice commands, and high-quality codecs, Qualcomm has a very competitive range of products. Although the company perhaps can’t compete on price as well as Apple can with its in-house design team, which appears to be hampering adoption.
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.