Future tech

How Bluetooth’s next step could usher in a new world of connectivity

Advent of Bluetooth Low Energy will open up exciting new door for personal tech devices, increasing battery life for wireless headphones and earbuds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 5:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 6:05pm

Bluetooth audio is set for a notable shift, and it could help usher in a new generation of headphones.

The ubiquitous wireless standard will move all audio applications onto a new, low-energy radio, called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), by the end of next year, according to Mark Powell, the executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG).

The forthcoming Bluetooth 5.0 update, which claims to quadruple the range and double the speed of low-energy connections, could be seen as a “foundational release”, according to WiFore’s Nick Hunn, who is helping develop the technology.

The idea is for that to set the stage, mostly benefiting Internet of Things devices, then layer the audio functionality on top.

The 5.0 change could bring a few new benefits to wireless headphones and speakers. Since BLE is designed to consume less power, it would theoretically result in much improved battery life. In a blog post, Hunn claims BLE audio could enable smaller headphones such as Apple’s AirPods to last for “days, not hours”.

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Powell says the range updates coming with Bluetooth 5.0 would apply to audio as well.

He also notes that a user could stream BLE audio to multiple devices at once. This would make it easier to create a multiroom audio system over Bluetooth, Powell says. It would likely sound worse than a Wi-fi based system such as a Sonos, but it’d seemingly allow it to be longer-lasting and more portable.

Though Powell says the new standard will apply to all audio devices, the biggest benefactor of the change could be fully wireless earbuds like AirPods.

Two of the most common complaints levelled against devices like those are minuscule battery life and choppy connections. Trading the classic, power-hungry Bluetooth audio profile (dubbed A2DP) for BLE would seem to help with the former. Being able to send that stream to two earbuds simultaneously – instead of the usual process of sending audio to one earbud, which then recycles it to the other – would seem to make the latter more reliable.

The switch to BLE audio could create a more level playing field in the near future, but it’s possible that we’re nearing a situation similar to what Apple does with Lightning today, where companies pay Apple to use a solution that’s more polished on its devices.

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Both Powell and Hunn say the upcoming Bluetooth update is an extension of work that’s been done with transmitting BLE audio to hearing aids, so it’s worth noting that Apple has already developed a proprietary take on that technology, which the company does license to others.

Bluetooth SIG is the industry body that oversees and promotes the development of Bluetooth as a whole. It counts hundreds of tech companies as members, and has the likes of Microsoft, Intel, and Apple on its board of directors.