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Qualcomm's stealth software upgrade may make your next noise-canceling headphones a lot better

The silicon giant is updating its QC514X Bluetooth audio system-on-a-chip with its Adaptive ANC technology that it says works even with "open" earbuds.


When it comes to earbud-style headphones, a lot of people don't like having ear tips jammed in their ears, instead preferring a more "open" design. But while open earbuds like the standard AirPods can be very comfortable to wear for hours on end, they allow a lot of ambient noise to leak in, making them difficult to use in noisy environments. And noise-canceling technology can't really help, either: To date, active noise-canceling (ANC) technology requires a tight seal for it to be effective, which is why so many have turned to the AirPods Pro and their noise-isolating design. 

That's the Catch-22 of earbuds: The comfort of an open design with a hit on sound quality or the near-total isolation of active noise cancellation, but with those ear-tips jammed in your ears. But now Qualcomm claims it's no longer an either/or proposition, thanks to an upcoming software upgrade to its high-end QCC514X ultra-low-power Bluetooth audio system-on-a-chip

Read more: Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds of 2020

The new feature is called Qualcomm Adaptive ANC, and it's designed to work with any earbuds, whether they're noise-isolating or have an open style like Apple's standard AirPods. Qualcomm says its active noise-canceling technology "dynamically adjusts performance" and creates more "consistent sound quality" regardless of whether you have a tight seal or not. It does work better with earbuds that fit more snugly, company reps said, but it's not reliant on a tight seal to be effective to a certain degree.

I haven't tested any earbuds with the new Adaptive ANC, and Qualcomm doesn't expect earbuds that employ the updated QCC514X to hit the market until 2021. In fact, earbuds that feature the QCC514X chip announced back in March are only trickling out in the next few months.

 Read moreBest true wireless earbuds of 2020

"We cannot pre-announce our customer launches," a spokesperson said. "We would expect products in the market in the next six to nine months. Although it would be possible to upgrade [existing products with QCC514X chip] in the field, we are focusing on releasing products from the outset with the new feature."

It would be a major breakthrough if it was able to cancel out a significant amount of ambient noise -- and also prevent a big dropoff in sound quality -- without requiring a perfect seal that's often increasingly uncomfortable over time. Samsung recently released its Galaxy Buds Live earbuds that feature an open design combined with an active noise-canceling technology Samsung calls "ANC for Open Type." I didn't find the Buds Live's noise-canceling effective, however (it's quite mild) so I'm a bit skeptical that Qualcomm's variation will truly work -- or at least come close to the quality of the noise-canceling you get with in-ear earbuds like Sony's WF-1000XM3 and Apple's AirPods Pro

But I'd love to be wrong, so I'm looking forward to trying these Qualcomm-powered headphones once they eventually become available.