Poor Audiophile

Apple iPhone 7 wages war on Bluetooth: New W1 chip to define the future of wireless headphones

Apple’s new AirPods do not use Bluetooth.

It’s no surprise that Apple eliminated the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. While it’s been a staple feature since the original iPhone, we’d heard the rumor for a long time that the headphone jack was disappearing.

I am glad that it’s finally happened. The lightning connector on Apple’s devices is an incredibly versatile connector and can deliver power, remote control, and digital audio.  But, while many in the mainstream media hyper-focused on the elimination of the headphone jack, that’s not the real story here.

On the contrary, the real story is that Apple has seemingly waged war on Bluetooth’s limitations. And Apple’s message is clear: Bluetooth alone isn’t the future of wireless audio. The future is smart wireless. That future is based on Apple’s new W1 chip.  With the W1 chip and the communications protocol supported, you set up the new Apple Air Buds simply by opening the case near your iPhone 7. The AirBuds will instantly pair with your phone and with your Apple Watch. Nothing more is needed. Bluetooth alone can’t do that. Moreover, the pairing then uses Apple’s iCloud and propagates that pairing to every single Apple device you have connected with that Apple ID—computers, iPads, you name it. The bane of Bluetooth pairing and unpairing, conflicts, etc. is theoretically gone. That really is smart.

[Related:Will Apple’s AirPods be seen as the first networked heaadphones?]

As Apple’s Phil Schiller disclosed, it’s no surprise that Beats is making new headphones with the W1 chip and will be launching wireless versions next month. The new Beats Solo wireless will have 40 hours of listening time with the W1 chip.

Now, Apple didn’t say the audio resolution the W1 chip would be sending over Bluetooth. Apple merely used the term “high quality” without further qualification. We therefore can’t tell if the W1 chip is enabling some additional compression that’s good enough for streaming hi-res files natively or if files will be down-sampled and if so to what sampling rate. Apple inferred but didn’t explicitly state that the new chip and its protocol are more reliable and robust that typical Bluetooth connections (though the specs didn’t say if it’s a Class 1 or Class 2 Bluetooth device). Class 1 devices have a range of 100 meters, rivaling Wi-Fi. Time will tell.

Apple’s AirPods connect instantly when you put them next to your phone and connect to every other device you own through iCloud.

I, for one, am optimistic by this direction. Bluetooth alone has been a completely lackluster audio experience. There’s often digital noise and without aptX, it’s like going back to MP3s. It’s not my preference.

Does this mean that if you have Bluetooth headphones you’re out of luck? Well, yes and no. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus still support Bluetooth, but there’s no indication Apple is adopting the aptX Bluetooth codec to give you the illusion that plain old Bluetooth audio has a central future with Apple (anyone remember Apple’s war on Adobe Flash?).

Apple’s new AirPods are wireless earbuds based on the company’s new W1 chip

Sometimes radical ideas take time to catch on. The radical thing about the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus isn’t the fact that they don’t have a headphone jack. On the contrary, the real revolution is that Apple isn’t investing in someone else’s technology (and its limitations) to define the future of wireless audio. Bluetooth alone isn’t good enough. Like it or not, Apple is moving ahead on their own terms. Again.

[This article and its points have been updated to note that the published spec of the AirPods indicate that it uses Bluetooth]