Bluetooth is getting a significant feature update with the new LE Audio standard announced by the Bluetooth SIG at CES this week. Bluetooth LE Audio is intended to fix a number of issues that make the feature less capable and flexible than it ought to be while simultaneously improving audio quality.
First up: improved audio quality. Up until now, Bluetooth has used the SBC codec, described as “designed to obtain a reasonably good audio quality at medium bit rates while keeping low computational complexity.” Translation: It’s not very good. The new LC3 codec substantially improves audio quality while keeping bitrate low. If I had to guess, I’d guess that the codec is now a bit more compute-intensive than the last — we saw H.265 make a similar trade vis-à-vis H.264. At 160Kbps, every listener preferred the newer codec, but LC3 commanded a majority even at 345Kbps encoding.
Bluetooth LE Audio will natively support multi-stream audio. Right now, when your phone sends a Bluetooth signal to a pair of earbuds, the signal only gets sent to one earbud, which is then responsible for relaying the signal to the other earbud. If you’ve ever noticed that one of your earbuds tends to drain before the other, this would be the reason why — one earbud is working as a transmitter and receiver, while the other is only receiving. With multi-stream audio support, that problem is gone. This may help with audio latency; LE Audio won’t need to use software tricks to make the audio in your ears synchronize properly.
Another added benefit of multi-stream support is that multiple people will be able to tune into the same broadcast you are. This feature is called Broadcast Audio and allows audio streams to be shared with multiple people. A Bluetooth SIG representative told The Verge that hearing aid owners who attend a movie theater would be able to synchronize their hearing aids with the film.
“Location-based Audio Sharing holds the potential to change the way we experience the world around us,” said Peter Liu of Bose Corporation and member of the Bluetooth SIG Board of Directors. “For example, people will be able to select the audio being broadcast by silent TVs in public venues, and places like theaters and lecture halls will be able to share audio to assist visitors with hearing loss as well as provide audio in multiple languages.”
Formal support for hearing aids is being added to the LE Audio standard and the Bluetooth SIG sees this as an opportunity to integrate Bluetooth support into more products like televisions. Some of these features are places where Qualcomm and Apple have introduced their own innovations (Qualcomm with its AptX codec, Apple with the W1 processor that creates a better pairing experience), but the SIG is making them formal components of the standard.
The downside to this flurry of activity is that it’ll likely mean new devices to be purchased, and support won’t come soon. The LE Audio standard is going to roll out across the first half of 2020, which means we probably won’t see supporting devices until the holidays this year (best-case) or, more likely, early 2021.
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