Now that most smartphones don’t have headphone jacks, there’s no shortage of complaints about Bluetooth. This year at CES, the industry group in charge of defining the standard, the Bluetooth SIG, is introducing new features that should address some of them. Later this year, it will finalize new support for Bluetooth LE Audio, which is an umbrella term for a bunch of new features for Bluetooth devices.
The new features include higher-quality audio, hearing aid support, broadcasting to many people, and working better with wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, as is the way with all industry specs, it will take some time for these features to make their way into consumer products. The old joke that “Bluetooth will be better next year” still holds true.
The feature that will likely affect the most people is the new “Low Complexity Communication Codec,” or LC3. LC3 simultaneously reduces power consumption while increasing audio quality. Right now, the lowest common denominator for Bluetooth audio is the relatively old and relatively bad SBC codec, though many phones support Qualcomm’s proprietary codec, AptX.
In order to get SBC to sound good, you have to increase the bitrate, which increases power consumption. The Bluetooth SIG claims that, in its testing, users preferred the new LC3 codec, even at significantly lower bitrates.
The group is also finally beefing up official support for Bluetooth hearing aids. It has worked in conjunction with a European hearing instrument association to ensure broad support in the coming years, including working with TVs and other devices.
Hearing aid support is also possible because Bluetooth LE Audio includes a suite of other features that haven’t been possible before. For example, a new “broadcast” feature will theoretically allow an entire movie theater audience to use their Bluetooth headphones to tune in to the movie. I asked how, exactly, pairing would work in cases like these, and the answer seems to be “TBD.”
Other updates are more practical. Bluetooth LE will natively support multistream audio. That means wireless earbuds will be able to receive their own independent signal from a phone instead of having to communicate with each other. Multistream also will allow for easier sharing of Bluetooth audio among multiple users from the same source.
If that last feature sounds familiar, that’s because Apple already supports multistream with its own proprietary software and wireless headphones. So in a sense, these new updates from the Bluetooth SIG are an attempt to take specific features enjoyed by some (Qualcomm’s audio quality, Apple’s sharing) and make them part of the spec.
That’s all great, but unfortunately, there’s one experience that iPhones (and, to a lesser extent, some Android phones) have that isn’t getting built in: easier pairing.
One more “unfortunately”: I have to (again) remind you that this is an industry standards group. Bluetooth does a much better job of maintaining consistency across different manufacturers than other tech industry groups, but that doesn’t mean it can move as fast as you’d like. The group says that “Bluetooth specifications that define LE Audio are expected to be released throughout the first half of 2020,” which means that devices that take advantage of it will at best be available for holiday 2020, but 2021 is a much more likely time frame.