In recent years, a question has arisen regularly: why does Apple modify its noise reduction algorithms? Two cases are emblematic, we will see, and a post on Reddit offers an interesting theory: the problem would come from a lawsuit with a patent troll.
The case of the AirPods and the suspicions hanging over Apple
The first case is quite special: with each firmware update for Apple headphones and earphones, voices rise to indicate that the noise reduction has been modified. The most recent, in particular related to the first generation AirPods Pro, directly induce a doubt: some believe that Apple could voluntarily reduce performance to highlight the new models. The problem is regular and affects all brands, even if they obviously deny it.
Some sites, like RTings Where Digital, occasionally test devices a second time to see if a measurable difference exists, which is not routine. In recent examples, RTings noted a degradation on certain frequencies on the first generation AirPods Pro with firmware 4A400 and on the AirPods Max headphones with firmware 4E71. But Conversely, Digital measured better noise reduction on the same headphones. In both cases, one thing stands out all the same: the algorithm has indeed been modified with the updates.
The absence of noise reduction in the iPhone 13
The second recent example is the removal of the noise reduction option during calls with the iPhone 13, an accessibility option that existed since the iPhone 4S. If the issue of a bug was raised initially, Apple later confirmed that the feature was not coming back, and it’s still missing from the iPhone 14.
A lawsuit related to Jawbone and a patent troll
facingcondor, on Reddit, has developed an interesting timeline, which shows that the changes are a priori related to a trial.
- May 2002: Jawbone, a manufacturer of earphones, begins to develop noise reduction technology.
- September 2011: Apple adds a noise reduction feature in the iPhone 4S, which uses multiple microphones.
- July 2017: Jawbone disappears, but part of its assets and patents are taken over by Jawbone Innovations, a new company.
- October 2019: Apple launches AirPods Pro, its first headphones with active noise reduction.
- October 2020: Apple launches iPhone 12, its latest noise-enabled iPhone.
- December 2020: Apple launches the AirPods Max headphones, which offer active noise reduction.
- September 2021: Jawbone Innovations attacks Apple (and Google) and accuses the company of using several patents related to noise reduction in some of its products (iPhone, iPad, AirPods Pro, HomePods).
- September 2021: iPhone 13 loses noise reduction in accessibility options.
- October 2021: Firmware 4A400 for AirPods Pro changes noise reduction algorithms.
- May 2022: Firmware 4E71 for AirPods Max changes noise reduction algorithms.
- September 2022: AirPods Pro 2 have a new version of noise reduction.
Nothing is official from Apple, of course, but the timeline is still interesting and shows that the changes at Apple came shortly after Jawbone Innovations complained. The legal proceedings are still ongoing, and several points tend to prove that we are faced with a patent trollthat is, a company whose sole purpose is to buy patents to make money by attacking other companies.
Aside from the fact that Jawbone Innovations doesn’t have a phone number and is located in a small office building, the lawsuit was filed in federal court in Waco, Texas, notoriously pro- patent troll. However, currently, users have lost access to certain functions and noise reduction has been modified in several products, probably because of this procedure.
Finally, we are not going to comment on the effect of the modifications on the AirPods Pro and Max: the feedback differs significantly according to the users and the tests carried out by our colleagues sometimes give opposite results. They only show one thing for certain: the algorithm has indeed been modified.