Bluetooth is 20 years old and it's come a long way since the days of a great big earpiece that allowed you to take calls if you were willing to yell into it to talk back. Much of the progress comes from manufacturers, like Apple finding a good way to slingshot sound from one wireless earbud to another or Qualcomm splitting a stream in a way that allows more than one person to listen at a time. But the meat of it all comes from a group of people known as the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group).
Those are the people who formally announced Bluetooth LE Audio at CES 2020. On the surface it just looks like another minor update that won't make much of a difference to consumers, but what it can do — with equipment makers cooperation, of course — has the potential to change how we use our headphones and what we use them for.
Bluetooth operates on two different radios. The Classic Bluetooth radio uses more power to do things like push higher bitrate streams and extend the range of connected devices while the Low-Energy radio has traditionally been used for slower connections in things like IoT devices.
Low Energy used to mean low-bandwidth. That's the past and Bluetooth LE Audio aims to change it.
LE Audio aims to change some of that. Improvements have been made that will allow the Low-Energy radio to transmit better sounding audio at longer distances so the battery in your headphones and the battery in your phone will last longer.
The Bluetooth SIG claims that this will allow manufacturers to use Low-Energy for the same use cases that the current Bluetooth spec needs the Classic radio for and consumers will notice the benefit. It also says that this means brand new use cases for Bluetooth equipment can be created, so look out for some cool new ideas from companies that make speakers and headphones.
The LCE codec
An audio codec is a piece of equipment or software that can encode or decode (or both) a digital data stream. Bluetooth uses software algorithms that compress and decompress a digital audio data stream on the fly to turn a digital saved file into sound.
There are plenty of Bluetooth audio codecs. the one most people are familiar with is aptX from Qualcomm, but Bluetooth itself has relied on the SBC (subband codec) to provide "reasonably good audio quality" at a medium bitrate with the bandwidth limitations of Bluetooth in mind. Vendors can use other codecs and audio profiles, but support for SBC is mandatory.
LE Audio comes with a brand new codec called LC3. It's a low-power and low-complexity (this means the algorithms used to encode and decode it aren't going to need a lot of processing power) codec that aims to provide high-quality audio even at low data rates. Manfred Lutzky, head of audio communications at Fraunhofer IIS had this to say after testing:
Extensive listening tests have shown that LC3 will provide improvements in audio quality over the SBC codec included with Classic Audio, even at a 50% lower bit rate. Developers will be able to leverage these power savings to create products that can provide longer battery life or, in cases where current battery life is enough, reduce the form factor by using a smaller battery.
Better audio quality that uses less battery power is something that everyone wants.
Your true wireless earbuds are cheating. The audio for both ears is sent to one of them, then the channels are separated with the audio destined for the other earbud slung around your head. That's why even the best true wireless earbuds can get out of sync or stutter from time to time.
That's some great innovation from hardware manufacturers, but an even better way to do it would be to allow Bluetooth to operate with more than one data stream at a time, and that is exactly what Bluetooth LE Audio can do. It enables transmission of multiple and independent streams that can be synchronized at the source device (think your phone) and sent to one or more sink devices, like headphones or speakers or whatever.
This will also make things like taking a call or using a voice assistant better. Right now, if you're listening to music through your phone and get a call, the music mutes completely and the same thing happens when you press a button to call Google Assistant or Siri.
Imagine saying Hey Google where is the next gas station without missing the prompt to take the next turn from Maps.
Multi-Stream audio means that music can be quietly playing — or something important like navigation directions can, too — while you screen a call or ask Google where the next gas station is. This is another area where hardware makers can find new ways to make use of Bluetooth LE Audio.
An example would be a big screen at the airport playing the news and one or more Bluetooth broadcast channels in multiple languages that everyone can connect to in order to hear it. Or Bluetooth at the movies or a drive-in, which could offer a truly premium audio experience for the blockbuster you're seeing on the screen.
Bluetooth LE Audio can do a lot of things. And it now can do them on an all-new category of device — a hearing aid.
A codec is what's used to turn a file of data into sound and now your hearing aid can use one, too.
Imagine all the benefits of Bluetooth LE Audio and none of them interfering with the primary use of a hearing aid, which is being able to hear the world around you through sound amplification. You could listen to that big screen at the airport or take a phone call and still hear the person sitting next to you or a car horn or anything else that's happening without feeling isolated.
Seeing any new technology that provides safety, entertainment and productivity for people with special needs is wonderful. While this probably won't be the thing everyone talks about when discussing Bluetooth LE Audio, it may well be the most important thing.
By now you're probably wondering two things: when is this going to be in products that are actually for sale, and will my old Bluetooth gear work with my new?
The arrival of equipment that uses Bluetooth Audio LE is expected to start in the spring of 2020. That means headphones, true wireless earbuds, smartphones, Bluetooth speakers and everything else. The Bluetooth SIG doesn't force manufacturers to only use the latest version so we'll need to wait for announcements from companies that make the products individually.
And yes, your existing stuff will still work even if you buy something with these new capabilities. If you get new headphones with Bluetooth LE Audio, they will work with your current phone and vice versa. This is because the Bluetooth SIG does force manufacturers to provide interoperability with legacy equipment in order to be certified. Flex those muscles, SIG.
We're excited about Bluetooth LE Audio, too and we'll pass along any announcements as we get them.