Feature: Qualcomm's Aqstic Could Be The Future Of Mobile Audio

Everyone around these parts are well-versed when it comes to Qualcomm. They are a very well-known entity in the mobile world and largely thanks to nearly every smartphone manufacturer looking to include their processor(s) on their phones. Especially at the top end. The Snapdragon 820 is the current in-thing processor and to highlight just how prominent this processor is, you will find it on the Galaxy Note 7 (US model) and Galaxy S7 (US model) from Samsung, the G5 and the V20 from LG, the Xperia X Performance from Sony and the HTC 10 from, well, HTC. In fact the new Pixel and Pixel XL which were just announced by Google also come running on a Snapdragon, although that particular processor is the even-newer Snapdragon 821. And this is just a glimpse of the lure of the Snapdragon processors as the 820/821 is just a small fraction of the Snapdragon range. You will also find a vast array of other smartphones running a vast array of Snapdragon processors as well. In short, they are for many, the go-to processors.

However, Qualcomm’s ambitions stretch far beyond just having a processor in the next big phone and their processors often stretch far beyond what many people simply associate the end-use of a processor to be. For instance, one of the big selling points of the Snapdragon 821 (besides the as-to-be-expected “it's quicker, faster and more efficient”) is the fact that it is partly designed with VR In mind. Hence why the Pixels include the Snapdragon 821, they are Daydream-ready smartphones and in no small part thanks to the SD821 which comes with added support for the Snapdragon VR SDK. And VR is just one example of how Snapdragon processors are expanding in their abilities. Another example comes from one area which is becoming increasingly important to smartphone owners - the audio capabilities of smartphones. After all, with the move towards streaming audio content and a smartphone’s intrinsic nature of being an everything-you-need product in your pocket, it is clear that for many, a smartphone is not just an audio player, but for some, their only audio player. And Qualcomm is acutely aware of this.

This is partly why the company announced its Aqstic audio codec back in June of 2016. This is an audio codec which is designed to ensure the listening experience on a smartphone is as good as it can be with support for playback up to 192kHz/24bit included. Recently, we were able to take part in a blind testing of Qualcomm’s Aqstic technology and the results were more than impressive. First off, and for background - the testing involved putting the HTC 10 (which comes powered by the Snapdragon 820 and Aqstic) up against an OPPO HA-1 reference DAC/headphone amplifier.

Both were set to the same level (or as close as can be) and both were playing the same tracks from the same point and a range of tracks that were designed to showcase a wide frequency range. The testing was simple, using a two-way (A/B) switching method the idea was to listen to the HTC 10 playing a track through a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones and then listen to the same track being played when routed through the OPPO headphone amp and using the same headphones - without knowing which is which, of course.

As you might expect, the listening experience through the dedicated headphone amp was so much better. After all, it is a dedicated unit, one which is designed to accentuate the sound and one which you do pay more for. The other was simply the built-in capabilities of a smartphone. Well, that is what you might expect to be the case but truth be told, the difference between them was negligible and to the point where you would have to have a very trained ear to be able to notice any difference at all, let alone be able to clearly say that one was better than the other. Interestingly, what became clear after repeated tests is that the performance of the Aqstic did seem to outperform the OPPO headphone amp. While technically (if you were to actually measure the difference), it probably didn't outperform the amplifier but the point is that after repeated tests it sounded better - which in the grand scheme of things is what really matters. Content was brighter, fuller and the full frequency range was just that bit more dynamic and exciting.

Now if you are wondering whether such difference matters with a smartphone, it does. You only have to look at the leading audio smartphones of 2016 and you will notice that there is a clear trend. The HTC line has always been a popular option for those looking for good quality audio from a smartphone and largely due to their BoomSound speakers. However, the HTC 10 did not come with true BoomSound, but it is still considered one of the better audio smartphones of 2016 - something which was very much commented on during our review of the HTC 10. The reason for the great sound on the HTC 10 and especially via the headphone output is the use and inclusion of Qualcomm’s Aqstic technology. Another prime and more recent example is the LG V20. This is a smartphone which seems purpose-built for audiophiles and is a smartphone which makes use of a dedicated 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC to achieve the heightened audio output. So it is clear that good smartphones need that extra push to really differentiate their audio capabilities - which is quickly becoming a selling point on its own, regardless of whether they come with a 3.5 mm jack port or not.

But here is where Qualcomm is making a meaningful difference as the HTC 10 does not actually include a third-party DAC (digital to analog converter), like the LG V20 - although it is worth pointing out the the V20 does also include the SD820. Instead it makes use of Aqstic as part of the Snapdragon 820 make-up. Which does neatly demonstrate that to achieve good audio results, manufacturers do not necessarily have to include a third-party DAC and consumers do not need to actively look to buy a smartphone that does include a dedicated DAC. Believe it or not, the Qualcomm Aqstic does perform extremely well and not just when compared to smartphone DAC technology, but also when compared to dedicated headphone amps like the OPPO HA-1. And that is a specific point worth reiterating. Qualcomm was not demoing their Aqstic technology against a third-party DAC in a smartphone, they were putting the tech up against a real deal home amplifier.

Again, while you may ask whether this really is something that matters on a smartphone, it does. Generally speaking, processors have always come with some form of codec support included. Although again and generally speaking, they have not really been that good. Hence manufacturers take a processor and look to bypass the codec support, tweak, include and add-to, all with a view to offering a better sound experience to their customers. While that is still the case and possible, the difference with Aqstic is that Qualcomm has raised the game and benchmark. There is no need anymore for manufacturers to look to third-party additions to improve the sound quality. What you are getting here with Aqstic is a seriously good and real-world comparable quality - one that is comparable to what you are more used to at home. It is just that good. Yes, the absolute aficionados will likely be able to notice some differences and may even pass the blind test when tested. But you can be sure that they will be listening hard and actively looking to spot the differences. Which is not quite the same as there being an obvious difference. As far as smartphone audio goes, Qualcomm is making a move and it is one which is backed up by the actual product. While consumers are already requesting their smartphones come with a Snapdragon processor, you should not be surprised to start seeing requests being made for Qualcomm’s Aqstic as well.

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About the Author

John Anon

John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]
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