Bluetooth Audio’s Biggest Upgrade: Coming soon to headphones

That’s an appreciation to Bluetooth LE Audio, an umbrella term for a cluster of new features for Bluetooth gadgets that the Bluetooth standards body is officially proclaiming the completion of today.

We’re on the verge of a new generation of wireless headphones that are better power-efficient, sound better, and help novel new features like being able to link an “unlimited” number of gadgets to a single source.

Bluetooth LE Audio was revealed way back at the start of 2020, and the Bluetooth SIG had initially expected that supporting devices would be released before the end of that year. But, after a considerable delay due to the pandemic, the specification is completed today. As a result, the manufacturers can now begin adding support for the standard to their devices. The Bluetooth SIG says it represents the first compatible products that should become available before the year’s end.

“Today is a scornful day for the Bluetooth SIG member community,” states the CEO of the Bluetooth SIG, Mark Powell. “The members overcame the many challenges set on them these past few years to complete the most extensive specification development project in the history of the Bluetooth SIG. As a consequence, LE Audio extends the limits of what’s possible for the wireless audio demand.”

There are many elements to Bluetooth LE Audio, but the one that’s likely to impact the most is the new LC3 codec, which is designed to be a much more efficient way to transmit audio. That means much higher audio quality at the same bit rate as the current baseline SBC codec or even slightly better audio quality at less than half the bit rate. In addition, a lower bit rate means lower power consumption, which should translate to longer battery life.

LC3 is just one feature that sits under the LE Audio umbrella. Another critical aspect is its ability to connect multiple audio devices to a single source with the quality of its branding as Auracast. It could be as simple as pairing two pairs of headphones to a single phone or pairing multiple earbuds to a single TV in a public space like a gym. The Bluetooth SIG’s website outlines how users can search for audio sources like you would for a Wi-Fi network or connect by scanning a QR code or tapping an NFC-enabled surface.

Other features include better support for genuinely wireless earbuds since Bluetooth LE Audio allows each earbud to maintain its separate connection with the source device. And it’s also hoped that combined, all of LE Audio’s features will be a huge benefit for future hearing aids.

Between Bluetooth LE Audio and Qualcomm’s recently reported aptX Lossless standard, Bluetooth audio darts to take a big step ahead in the months ahead. But what’s unclear is whether we’ll need to buy completely new devices to enjoy the advantages. The Bluetooth SIG’s website states that it may be feasible for some existing devices to be updated to support Bluetooth LE Audio. Still, most people won’t benefit until they buy upgraded hardware.

Bluetooth Low Energy is a personal wireless site network technology designed and sold by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Bluetooth SIG) sought at novel applications in the beacons, security, healthcare, fitness, and home entertainment industries. It is independent of classic Bluetooth and has no compatibility, but Bluetooth Basic Rate/Enhanced Data Rate (BR/EDR) and LE can coexist. Nokia developed the original specification in 2006 under the name Wibree, which was incorporated into Bluetooth 4.0 in Dec’2009 as Bluetooth Low Energy.

Bluetooth Low Energy is planned to provide considerably decreased power consumption and cost while holding a similar communication range compared to Classic Bluetooth. In addition, mobile operating systems, including Android, Windows Phone, iOS, and BlackBerry, as well as Windows 8, Windows 10, macOS, Linux, and Windows 11, natively support Bluetooth Low Energy.

Bluetooth Low Energy differs from the previous Bluetooth Basic Rate/Enhanced Data Rate (BR/EDR) protocol. Still, the two protocols can be supported by one device: the Bluetooth 4.0 specification allows devices to enforce either or both of the LE and BR/EDR systems.

Bluetooth Low Energy utilizes the same 2.4 GHz radio frequencies as classic Bluetooth, which lets dual-mode devices share a single radio antenna but uses a more straightforward modulation system.

Bluetooth Smart Ready marks a dual-mode device compatible with classic and low-energy peripherals. Bluetooth Smart tells a low energy-only device that requires either a Smart Ready or another Smart device to function.

With the May 2016 Bluetooth SIG branding data, the Bluetooth SIG started phasing out the Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready logos and word marks and retreated to the Bluetooth symbol and wordmark in a new blue color.

The Bluetooth SIG identifies several markets for low-energy technology, particularly in the smart home, health, sport, and fitness sectors.

In 2001, researchers at Nokia decided on various scenarios that contemporary wireless technologies did not address. So the company began producing a wireless technology adapted from the Bluetooth standard, delivering lower power usage and cost while underestimating its differences from Bluetooth technology. The outcomes were published in 2004 using the name Bluetooth Low-End Extension.

The technology was sold as Bluetooth Smart, and integration into version 4.0 of the Core Specification was concluded in early 2010. The first smartphone to execute the 4.0 specification was the iPhone 4S, released in October 2011. Several other manufacturers released Bluetooth Low Energy Ready gadgets in 2012.

The Bluetooth SIG officially revealed Bluetooth 5 on 16 June 2016 during a media affair in London. One shift on the marketing side is that the point number was declined, so it is now just called Bluetooth 5. This decision was created to “simplify marketing, and communicate user benefits more effectively.” On the technical side, Bluetooth 5 will quadruple the span with increased transmit power or coded physical layer and double the speed by using optional half of the symbol time compared to Bluetooth 4.x. In addition, it provides an eight-fold increase in data broadcasting capacity by increasing the advertising data length of low-energy Bluetooth transmissions compared to Bluetooth 4.x, which could be important for IoT applications where nodes are linked throughout a whole house.

An ‘advertising packet’ in Bluetooth vocabulary is the information exchanged between two gadgets before pairing, i.e., when they are not connected. For example, advertising packets are what let you see the name of a Bluetooth device before you can pair it. Bluetooth 5 will increase the data length of this advertising packet. The size of this packet in Bluetooth 4.x was 31 bytes.

The Bluetooth SIG officially released Mesh Profile and Mesh Model specifications on 18 July 2017. Mesh specification enables Bluetooth Low Energy for many-to-many device communications for home automation, sensor networks, and other applications.