Plenty of neat new products have been unveiled at CES this year, kickstarting a number of new trends for 2019. One unfortunate absentee from the list are Bluetooth earbuds sporting Qualcomm’s TrueWireless Stereo Plus technology. We did spot the Mavin Air-X brandishing support, but that was essentially it.
TrueWireless Stereo Plus is a big deal for wireless earbuds and it’s a crime that it’s not being more widely adopted. In a nutshell, it improves battery life between recharge times by connecting both buds to the phone, therefore preventing the master bud from discharging faster than the other. The more basic TrueWireless version also supports master earbud swapping to help save on battery life in a similar fashion. Connection quality also improves as transmission doesn’t have to pass around your skull and latency is lower due to the absence of retransmission. Finally, pairing is simpler as both earbuds connect as a stereo pair rather than individually.
The technology was first announced shortly after Qualcomm’s QCC5100 chip back in early 2018. The company also announced the lower cost QCC3026 alternative in June, which supports a subset of the bigger chip’s features. There has been plenty of time for manufacturers to take Qualcomm’s reference designs and get them into consumers’ hands.
Why isn’t this idea taking off?
Part of the problem is that this isn’t necessarily an easy feature to explain to customers, or even manufacturers if you’re in Qualcomm’s position. There’s no obvious way to tell the difference between a TrueWireless and Stereo Plus pair just by looking at them. Branding helps a little, although Apple’s W1 chip probably grabs some attention simply because of the Apple branding, few audio enthusiasts care about processors. Ultimately, most consumers are looking at metrics like battery life and sound quality, rather than harder to quantify metrics like connection quality, ease of pairing, and what chip happens to be onboard.
Secondly, TrueWireless Stereo Plus currently only works with Snapdragon 845 and upcoming 855 powered smartphones. There are a lot of compatible phones in circulation now, but many more consumers own mid-range phones that include other Snapdragon chips. In Western markets, a huge number of wireless audio consumers are playing back content from iPhones too, which don’t support any of Qualcomm audio technologies including aptX. Once again, audio fragmentation is hurting some of the better innovations to have appeared in the Bluetooth space.
Ultimately, the technology isn’t widely supported enough to make it a must-have feature for Bluetooth earbud developers, which is a shame. Qualcomm could help by bringing TrueWireless Stereo Plus support to more cost-effective SoCs this year, such as its Snapdragon 600 series.
With development and component costs falling and USB Type-C headphones appeared to go nowhere, we may yet see more TrueWireless Stereo Plus headsets appear later in the year. Fingers crossed.