Although used for everything from lightbulbs, to video game controllers, to RC toys, audio remains the most popular use for Bluetooth, powering the endless array of wireless headphones flooding the market. So as we move into the next decade the Bluetooth Special Interest Group is introducing some key upgrades to the Bluetooth spec that promise to dramatically improve its performance with wireless audio gear.
The new Bluetooth standard will be known as LE Audio and one of the biggest improvements it will include will be a feature called Multi-Stream Audio. Bluetooth is currently limited to streaming audio to just a single device. That’s fine for portable speakers and headphones where both sides are connected with a wire, but for wireless earbuds, such as Apple’s AirPods, your smartphone can actually only connect to one side. That earbud then has to forward the audio stream onto the one in your other ear, which requires some clever software tricks to ensure everything remains in sync.
Multi-Stream Audio will solve that, as it will allow a single device, such as a smartphone, to stream flawlessly synced audio to multiple audio devices at the same time. The most obvious benefit is that it will be much easier to make wireless earbuds work more reliably, without any audio lag issues. But the feature promises to also benefit those who want to use their wireless headphones with multiple devices at the same time, such as a tablet, phone, and a laptop, streamlining the process of switching between each audio source without having to go through an annoying disconnect/reconnect process each time.
Bluetooth LE Audio will also make sharing a music stream with others possible. Users should be able to easily share audio from their smartphone with friends, as multiple sets of wireless headphones can be connected to a single source device at once, and each should receive the exact same audio stream in perfect sync with all the others. Further expanding on that idea is another new feature known as Broadcast Audio which allows a single audio source device to broadcast several audio streams to an unlimited number of wireless headphones, without any private pairing required.
Imagine sitting in a waiting lounge at the airport and instead of TVs blaring the news over their speakers, they’d instead allow anyone with wireless headphones to connect to the audio broadcast, even in multiple languages. It’s a feature that promises to improve the experience at movie theatres, gyms, and even shopping malls, leaving the holiday music only to those with wireless headphones who are eager to hear Jingle Bells again and again.
Even audiophiles might finally have a reason to embrace Bluetooth with LE Audio, as the new spec is introducing the Low Complexity Communication Codec—or LC3, for short—which promises better audio quality at lower data rates. Hardware makers will be able to adapt the codec as they need, but LC3 promises to require about half the bandwidth of the audio codecs Bluetooth uses now with improved sound quality.
It’s doubtful most users will be able to hear a difference, but they’ll definitely notice improved battery life, as the reduced data rate will also result in reduced power consumption for Bluetooth destination and source devices. This will potentially also allow companies to further reduce the size of wireless earbud devices, as smaller batteries will be needed to achieve the same battery life.
While Bluetooth LE Audio is officially being announced today, additional features and specifications for the next generation of Bluetooth will be revealed throughout the first half of 2020, as there will undoubtedly be improvements made for other wireless devices as well. The upgrades will be welcome, but unfortunately, they won’t be available to existing devices through a simple software upgrade.
New hardware will be needed, starting with the chips that should arrive sometime this year and that will soon after find their ways into devices. But once available to consumers you can expect the next generation of Bluetooth to be a big selling point, so it should be easy to know which gadgets will eventually support it.