Smarter wireless earbuds and so-called “hearable” solutions are coming your way fast, but they won’t all have the same primary purpose. Some companies will focus on their hearable’s streaming audio quality, others on hands-free conversations, and still others, a newer group, on hearing assistance and real-world environmental audio enhancement and control. What all wireless earbuds need in order to provide a satisfactory customer experience, however, is the ability to keep both earpieces in sync. To that end, Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors has introduced MiGlo NFMI, an ear-to-ear wireless component that coordinates the sound between ears.
MiGlo is actually a new brand name for what NXP told Digital Trends will be a future suite of micro-circuitry components for the hearables industry. NXP’s vice president and general manager, Bart De Loore, stressed that NXP will not produce an end-user product — meaning the firm doesn’t sell to everyday users. Instead, NXP’s customers are manufacturers who will integrate NXP MiGlo solutions into their own hearables and wireless earbuds, and then build other components themselves or buy them from other companies. The MiGlo Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) component can make a big difference in your wireless experience, which is why it’s the first component in the new MiGlo brand.
Since several of the companies scheduled to introduce new hearing assistance-focused hearables in the first half of 2017 are using the MiGlo NFMI, we wanted to write about ear-to-ear wireless performance and mention the issues and how you could benefit when it’s done well. The inclusion in the NXP press release of enthusiastic statements about NXP NFMI from brands like Alpha Audiotronics, Bragi, Doppler Labs, and Nuheara, all hearables manufacturers and in some cases direct competitors with each other, caused us to take notice.
What is NFMI?
While MiGlo is NXP’s latest release, NFMI is nothing new. Short for Near Field Magnetic Induction, NFMI is an ultra-low-power wireless technology used to sync wireless earbuds together. According to NXP’s De Loore, Bluetooth’s 2.4 GHz signal doesn’t transmit as well through your head as does NFMI. So hearables may use Bluetooth for a wireless connection to your smartphone, but NXP says NFMI is better between your ears. NXP has a history with the technology, and both wireless technologies can coexist in the same device.
“NXP has been providing proprietary NFMI technology to the hearing instrument industry for nearly a decade,” said NXP’s senior vice president and general manager, Asit Goel. “NFMI has proven to be a reliable and safe solution to wirelessly stream audio and data ear-to-ear in a medical product that is extremely demanding in terms of power consumption and solution size.”
According to NXP, MiGlo NFMI provides wireless ear-to-ear connection without signal dropout and without using much power, so you shouldn’t notice interrupted sound, and batteries should last a relatively long time. NFMI has “low latency audio transport,” which means lip synchronization won’t become an issue, for example. NFMI also tightly controls left and right audio synchronization, says NXP, allowing stereo music to line up correctly.
Manufacturers using NXP’s NFMI tech seem to agree. “Skybuds are the pioneer in using NFMI in earbuds. We want to offer our customers the gold-standard in audio quality with [an] uncompromised connection,” said Jamie Roberts Seltzer, CEO and co-founder, Alpha Audiotronics.
“We adopted NXP’s technology to deliver flawless audio streaming at lowest power consumption in The Dash, said Bragi CEO Nikolaj Hviid. “Our upcoming product, ‘The Headphone,’ will use NFMI as well to support high-quality audio listening for up to six hours.”
“We needed a proven solution to handle the unique constraints and requirements of building an in-ear computer, and NXP’s track record as an industry leader in NFMI made them a natural choice,” said Noah Kraft, CEO and Co-founder at Doppler Labs.
“Thanks to NXP MiGLO our earbuds have the potential to be smarter with features more commonly associated with computers, not headsets,” said David Cannington, Co-Founder of Nuheara.
Over-ear and on-ear wireless headphones and headsets don’t have the same ear-to-ear issues as wireless models because they’re physically connected via a wire inside the headband. Creating true wireless earbuds is much trickier. We’ve previously evaluated products using some form of near field magnetic induction technology with mixed results; The fact is, most true wireless earbuds currently on the market are still struggling to overcome their awkward stage when it comes to consistent connection. However, since most products use a combination of regular Bluetooth and NFMI to create an ear-to-ear solution, it’s hard to say which signal is to blame for occasional connection issues.
There’s no doubt that, along with preserving battery life, the biggest challenge facing true wireless earbuds and hearables in the near future is simply staying connected and in sync. Other proposed solutions to wireless consistency issues include Bluetooth that connects both left and right earbuds to the source simultaneously, without the need to connect them to each other, or to travel directly through your skull. For now, though, NXP is betting its MiGlo NFMI technology will be the leading technology of choice to help usher us into the true wireless future.
Updated 12-21-2016 by Ryan Waniata: Added information about our own experience with true wireless earbuds using some form of near field magnetic induction technology.