Bluetooth’s New LE Audio Is Here to Fix Your Headphones

Ever wish you could start your own silent disco, or have the audio from a faraway TV beamed directly into your ears? Well, here comes Bluetooth to your very specific rescue.

Today at CES, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group announced that a few new capabilities will be coming to its namesake technology. These enhancements will be rolled into Bluetooth as a set of features known as LE Audio. That LE stands for “low energy,” and the goal for the update is to allow a standard Bluetooth signal to better manage and share wireless audio streams between devices without overworking the batteries in your phone, your smartwatch, or your headphones.

If the name seems familiar, it’s because low-energy features have been enabled in Bluetooth since 2012. Formerly called Bluetooth Smart and BLE, low-energy Bluetooth allows devices with lower bandwidth requirements—like wearables, fitness trackers, or environmental sensors—to stay connected without draining battery life as quickly. Wireless audio devices, however, have always had higher bandwidth needs, and thus, higher power requirements.

As the name implies, LE Audio will allow devices to transmit sound streams across the low-energy spectrum, but it will do so using a new compression algorithm that maintains the same high audio quality you get from Bluetooth right now. Manufacturers who build products to match the new set of specifications can design wireless products that get nearly double their current play time, or even shrink the battery to reduce the overall device size.

Wild Wireless West

The move comes in response to the surge in popularity of wireless gadgets. (AirPods, we’re looking at you). As Bluetooth devices have become ubiquitous, the technology’s ability to keep up with multiple devices has flagged.

“With these more recent advancements, developers have really stretched Bluetooth audio to its limits,” Bluetooth SIG vice president of marketing Ken Kolderup said in a briefing. “In order to deliver some of these new things like voice control in earbuds, vendors have had to really get creative in how they use the Bluetooth standard.”

Take a pair of wireless earbuds for example. Both sides don’t usually receive a signal at the same time. With the current iteration of Bluetooth, known as a single-stream connection, one bud connects directly to the transmitting device, then slingshots that signal around to the other ear. This can often result in a delay in sound between the two ears, stuttering audio, or a dropped connection. And with only one stream, any new audio source will interrupt whatever is currently playing. So if you’re connected via Bluetooth to both your phone and computer, one signal will step on the other.

LE Audio aims to fix all that. Multi-stream support means you’ll be able to connect to more than one audio device (or earbud) at the same time, without interrupting the audio stream of anything else that’s already connected. This should make for smoother switching between sources. That way, you’ll be able to listen to music on your phone and have Alexa shout into your ears at the same time.

Double Up

Multi-stream also enables someone to “broadcast” a Bluetooth signal. One source device can stream audio to a theoretically unlimited number of devices. The possibilities are about as plentiful your imagination can provide. You might tune into real-time language translation at a movie theater, or start your own micro-pirate radio station. Kolderup envisions a world in which every device in a public place beams out a Bluetooth signal that you can hop onto at any time. (You’ll just need to sort through the hundreds of “available devices” that will inevitably present themselves to you.)

“At airports, at gates and lounges, at sports bars and restaurants, at gymnasiums and waiting rooms—many of these locations now have televisions installed and they’re largely silent,” Kolderup said. “Now imagine being able to walk into any of those locations and, from a standard headset, being able to scan for and tune in to the audio from one of those TVs.”

But Bluetooth’s new features stand to benefit more than just polite ravers and people who enjoy wearing headphones in crowded sports bars. Smaller, longer lasting batteries and the ability to connect to almost any conceivable audio source could usher in a new era of accessibility for people with hearing impairments. Rather than merely amplifying external sounds, hearing aids could receive audio streams straight from the source in a way that conserves energy. Kolderup says that the LE Audio specification has been designed with full support of hearing aid development standards.

“Ultimately, this now means that we can bring all those benefits of Bluetooth audio—calling and listening and watching and so forth—directly to hearing aids,” Kolderup said.

Kolderup says we should expect compatible products to emerge later in 2020, with the integration of LE Audio listening options in venues within the next three years or so.

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