What is Bluetooth LE audio?
Low Power Bluetooth (LE) audio is a new standard for low power Bluetooth audio transmission. It is separate from Bluetooth 5 Yes 5.1. Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a community of more than 34,000 companies that produce and design products using wireless technology, announced Bluetooth LE at CES 2020.
In addition to low power consumption, the new low-complexity communications codec (LC3 for short), which was jointly developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits and Ericsson, promises improvements in audio quality over the existing SBC Bluetooth codec.
«Extensive listening tests have shown that the LC3 will provide improvements in audio quality over the SBC codec included in Classic Audio,» said Manfred Lutzky of Fraunhofer IIS. «Even with a 50% lower bit rate.»
Bluetooth LE Audio also introduces several new features, including multi-stream audio, the ability to «transmit» via Bluetooth across multiple devices, and future integration with hearing aids for easier accessibility options.
Bluetooth Low Energy hasn’t been around for a while?
Bluetooth Low Energy is not a new technology, but Bluetooth Low Energy Audio is. Low-power integrated circuits have emerged since 2009, but overcoming the barrier of high-bandwidth requirements for audio transmission has required another decade of development.
Many products on the market, such as portable items, smartphones and medical devices, already use standard Bluetooth LE . However, these devices transmit relatively small amounts of data without the added complexity of managing audio latency and compression.
The LC3 codec is located in the Bluetooth LE Audio center. Now that Bluetooth SIG has standardized for low-power sound, we can expect device manufacturers to support it in future products.
New features you get with Bluetooth LE Audio
Bluetooth LE Audio is not just about improving energy efficiency. The technology allows for some exciting new features while enhancing existing Bluetooth audio standards.
Connect to multiple sources at once
With Bluetooth LE Audio, you can connect a single pair of headphones to multiple devices at the same time. This should allow you to receive sound from multiple sources without having to jump between devices.
This is made possible by the way in which several streams have been implemented in the new LE Audio standard. Today, device manufacturers have to overcome the limitations of a single stream when designing wireless headphones. In the case of truly wireless headphones, for example, a single headset connects directly to the source.
This can lead to higher latency, uneven sound and decreases due to forcing both headphones in a single channel. Many of the tricks needed to implement active voice assistants and two-way audio communication will no longer be needed due to synchronized multi-stream sound.
In practice, this can allow you to do things like listen to a baby monitor, pick up a phone, and use a smart assistant like Alexa, all in a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Connect a source to multiple Bluetooth devices
In addition, you will theoretically be able to connect to an unlimited number of devices within range from a single source. This is similar to (but better than) the new feature «Share sound» from Manzanita, allowing AirPods and Beats owners to share sound with two sets of headphones.
Due to the way the standard was designed, the audio source will not be interrupted when you connect a new device. This will allow the listeners to come and go as they please.
If you ever wanted to host your own silent disco, Bluetooth LE Audio will make it easier than ever.
Stream Bluetooth audio as well as Wi-Fi
Based on the ability to stream audio to multiple Bluetooth listening devices, you can compare the new «streaming» feature to Wi-Fi. Similar to scanning a public space, such as an airport, for available wireless networks, Bluetooth LE Audio will allow you to listen to broadcasts in a similar way.
You can password protect the broadcast if you want to broadcast privately or leave it open to anyone who wants to listen to it.
These broadcasts could make it easier to tune in to foreign languages in a movie theater or listen to the sound of a disabled TV in an airport lounge through headphones. You can take a sightseeing tour and, if the museum uses this technology, you can enjoy the sound of the tour guide on your own headphones.
Better accessibility for people with hearing loss
Bluetooth LE Audio is fully compliant with hearing aid development standards and could make it possible to transmit sound directly from a source to a hearing aid, or even in an entire room full of hearing aids.
Over the next decade, most TVs could be equipped with modern hearing aids, making them ideal for millions of people with hearing loss, right out of the box.
What does Bluetooth LE audio mean for devices?
Because Bluetooth LE Audio using the LC3 codec is about twice as energy efficient as Bluetooth audio using the existing subband codec (SBC), it makes two things possible for devices that implement the technology.
First, the devices could be smaller without sacrificing running time, and second, the battery life could be significantly improved without additional size or weight.
However, Bluetooth LE Audio will coexist with the Classic Audio standard. It is up to the device manufacturers to implement the right technology for this job.
However, sound with a higher bit rate is likely to sound better with Classic Audio SBC, so don’t expect all the latest Bluetooth headphones to switch to the new low power standard.
When will Bluetooth LE audio hardware be available?
Since the new standard was announced in early January, there are still no devices on the market to support it. Bluetooth GIS said this will change in 2020 as manufacturers launch their devices on the market.
However, don’t expect to see the «streaming» features of LE Audio implemented for several years. The technology is not expected to be fully launched until 2021. It will also take some time to get to the locations, but by the time they do, there should be plenty of compatible devices on the market.
A revolutionary technology
Bluetooth Low Energy Audio is a breakthrough in wireless audio transmission technology that could change the way we interact with the world.
I should hope for more Smartphone manufacturers are giving up the headphone jack because technology like LE Audio is making its way onto the shelves.