Look ma, no wires: Apple may launch wireless ‘AirPods’ headphones in the fall

Apple Earpods headphones left
If rampant rumors are to be believed, it’s all but a foregone conclusion that Apple’s iPhone 7 will omit a 3.5mm audio jack in lieu of its proprietary Lightning connection. That presents a problem for folks who to want to charge their iPhone and listen to music simultaneously since the iPhone 7 reportedly has a single port. One solution is Bluetooth headphones, and Apple may already be ahead of the game: Forbes reports that the iPhone maker may launch new wireless headphones, called “AirPods,” that pack an in-house, “custom designed” Bluetooth chip later this year.

Apple’s tailor-made Bluetooth module is reportedly a refinement on technology the company acquired in 2013 as part of its purchase of Passif Semiconductor — a computer chipmaker specializing in “switch-based wireless transceivers with low power consumption and a small footprint.”  The current design focuses on power efficiency, reportedly, and is compact enough to fit within earbuds comparable in size to the Motorola Hint and Bragi’s Dash headphones. And development is quite far along: Forbes reports that Apple intended to debut the new wireless earbuds as early as last year, but chose to delay them after hitting unexpected “performance snags.”

Forbes’ source wasn’t able to confirm whether Apple would ultimately ditch its earbuds’ Bluetooth tech in favor of a third-party solution. Alternatively, the company could opt to delay them further — potentially until next year.

The former would be in keeping with Apple’s modus operandi. Typically, Apple taps external vendors like Qualcomm and Broadcom to supply the cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth radios that power its smartphones. But as Forbes notes, Apple has internalized much of its silicon sourcing in order to reduce costs and accelerate its research efforts. Apple’s A7 chip, for instance, which debuted in 2013 in the iPhone 5s, was the smartphone industry’s first 64-bit chip.

That Apple is pursuing Bluetooth headphones of its own isn’t a new rumor, exactly. Earlier this year, 9to5Mac reported the Cupertino, California-based firm was “prototyping a completely new set of Bluetooth earphones” ahead of an unveiling in the fall, potentially alongside the rumored iPhone 7. The publication described the headphones as “completely wireless” — i.e., without a physical cable connecting the left and right earbud — with a noise-cancelling microphone system that tightly integrated Siri, Apple’s digital voice assistant. They reportedly were to ship with a carrying case that doubles as a rechargeable power pack, 9to5Mac reported, and would be positioned as a “premium” alternative to the company’s wired EarPod earbuds.

In its report, 9to5Mac cautioned that “battery life concerns” could end up altering the project’s time frame.

Power woes have dogged even titans in the headphone space. Korean electronics giant Samsung’s Gear IconX, Bluetooth earbuds that sport biometric sensors and stream music from a mobile device, have a quoted battery life of 90 minutes. The Motorola Hint, meanwhile, lasts about three hours off a charger.

The pressure is on for Apple to release a competitive answer. According to market research firm NPD, Bluetooth handsets made up 54 percent of total U.S. headphone sales in the first half of this year — a 42 percent increase from the same period a year ago.

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