Bluetooth LE Audio is coming later in 2020, and it will radically expand what’s possible when using compatible devices like smartphones, wireless headphones, and even hearing aids. Introduced today at CES 2020 by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the new Bluetooth specification includes the ability to share audio wirelessly from a single smartphone to many Bluetooth headphones. It also includes a new standard audio codec known as LC3 that the group claims will sound better and use less power than the previous standard, called SBC.
LE Audio is a specification for streaming audio using a Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) chip. It marks the first time that BLE chips have been officially used for this purpose — in the past, they’ve only been used for low-bandwidth data communication in products like health monitors or smart home sensors.
For consumers, the most exciting aspect of LE Audio is its audio sharing features. With a compatible smartphone and Bluetooth headphones, more than one person can listen to the same music, something that Bluetooth hasn’t been able to do in the past. Newer Bluetooth headphones use a feature called multipoint, that allows them to be connected to two source devices at the same time, but the reverse (one source device connected to multiple headphones) hasn’t been possible using Bluetooth 5.0.
These “shared” Bluetooth streams can be made private so that only those who you invite can listen in, but they can also be made public. Public LE Audio streams would be accessible by anyone who has an LE Audio-compatible set of headphones and is in range of the source device.
Private shared streams are perfect for when you want to listen to a podcast with a friend as you both ride the bus or travel by plane. Public shared streams open up a wide variety of scenarios. Movie theaters could use them to offer secondary audio tracks in different languages. Museums and art galleries could use them for audio tours, and fitness clubs or airport lounges could use them for broadcasting the audio from TVs. In fact, LE Audio could become a standard feature of new TVs in the future.
The one-to-many nature of audio sharing in LE Audio also opens up the doors to a whole-home audio experience using Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi, something that hasn’t been widely implemented so far.
Conventional Bluetooth audio creates a single link between a source device like a smartphone and a set of wireless headphones. For wireless headphones, it’s a reliable technology because the headphones split the stereo signal into separate channels and a physical wire connects the two sides. With true wireless earbuds, it’s trickier. Typically, one of the earbuds must act as the wireless connection to the phone and then create a secondary wireless connection to the other earbud.
This arrangement often results in poor connections, with one or both earbuds dropping signals. LE Audio simplifies this considerably by letting phones create separate connections to each earbud. The specification keeps these separate streams in near-perfect sync, which should simultaneously improve both connection reliability and audio lag (the time it takes for you to hear the audio signal).
Another benefit will be having a choice over which earbud you use when using just one of them.
There are already plenty of hearing aids on the market that take advantage of Bluetooth to let those with hearing difficulties stream audio from their smartphones or other devices. With LE Audio, Bluetooth hearing aids are formally supported within the specification. LE Audio hearing aids will be able to last much longer between charges, as well as connect more easily to different sources. “Within a few years, most new phones and TVs will be equally accessible to users with hearing loss,” said Stefan Zimmer, secretary-general of EHIMA, the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association, in a press release.
LE Audio brings with it a new codec for delivering digital audio called LC3 (Low Complexity Communication Codec). With LC3, the Bluetooth SIG claims that manufacturers and developers will be able to deliver the same or better audio quality as standard Bluetooth audio while using only half as much power.
The comparison is to SBC (Sub-band Codec), the codec that all Bluetooth audio devices must support. Companies can continue to use other codecs like aptX or AAC over LE Audio if they want, but these codecs haven’t been optimized to save on power consumption, which might give LC3 the edge when it comes to creating wireless headphones that last for days between charges, not hours.
LE Audio is a separate implementation of Bluetooth audio. It uses different hardware and software and, as such, it isn’t compatible with existing Bluetooth audio. That said, many Bluetooth products already contain both types of radios — sometimes embedded as a single chip — so we may see LE Audio and classic Bluetooth options exist within the same products for a while.
Eventually, it’s expected that LE Audio, with its many advantages over the existing Bluetooth audio standard, will become the new way to create wireless audio products going forward.
Bluetooth LE Audio begins its official rollout today. The Bluetooth SIG expects the first LE Audio products will be available within 12 to 24 months. Public venues and locations are expected to start using the LE Audio public sharing feature within 36 months.
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