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Qualcomm’s latest chips aim to radically improve noise cancellation

When well-implemented, active noise cancellation (ANC) can be a big plus on a set of wireless headphones or wireless earbuds. But the technology has its challenges, not the least of which is a fairly strict requirement for a tight seal, to keep outside sounds from entering the ear canal.

In an attempt to help headphone manufacturers deliver more effective ANC that requires a little less of the buyer in order to get it working well, Qualcomm has announced a new version of the feature that it calls adaptive active noise cancellation (AANC).

In addition to making existing ANC earbud designs more effective, it has the potential to let new designs — like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — deliver the same level of ANC without the need for silicone eartips that penetrate the ear canal.

It will be integrated into the company’s QCC514x Bluetooth chips, which already support longer battery life, ANC, and hands-free voice assistant access should manufacturers choose to implement the feature.

In addition to being able to compensate when an earbud doesn’t fit perfectly, AANC can also dynamically adjust to conditions as they change, which Qualcomm claims will make for a seamless user experience.

It’s not uncommon for ANC-equipped models like Apple’s AirPods Pro or the Amazon Echo Buds to ask buyers to take an in-app fit test. This is partially to ensure the best sound quality, but it’s mostly intended as a way to guarantee that folks will get the full effect of the earbuds’ ANC capabilities. Right now, the difference between a good fit and a great fit can be considerable in terms of ANC effectiveness.

With Qualcomm’s AANC, the hope is that these fit tests can become a thing of the past, or at least not a requirement for ANC that still performs acceptably well.

The news came during the IFA show in Berlin, Europe’s largest technology show, which kicked off (virtually) on Thursday.

As a way of introducing its AANC announcement, Qualcomm shared the results of its 2020 “State of Play” survey, in which it polled 5,000 smartphone users, ages 18-64 years, from the U.S., U.K.,Germany, Japan, and China, about their wireless headphone priorities.

The respondents indicated that sound quality and price were their top considerations. And while ANC only showed up in sixth place, comfort and fit were in the number three spot.

If Qualcomm’s AANC reduces the need for people to twist and shove earbuds into their ears to get a better seal, that’s going to make a lot of people happy.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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