Many folks might use Bluetooth daily without ever wondering how it works. It’s a good example of how wireless technology can feel like magic. Thanks to an upcoming evolution of that tech called Bluetooth LE Audio, the experience of beaming signals from one device to another is about to seem a whole lot more magical.
First outlined by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (or SIG) in 2020, LE Audio is a new kind of Bluetooth standard with the potential to unlock all kinds of new audio streaming tricks once adoption is widespread enough. Things like sharing a song you’re listening to with another person’s earbuds nearby will be possible once companies like Qualcomm make compatible chips.
But since we’re not quite there yet, now is the time to brush up on what Bluetooth LE Audio actually is and how it can make your life better going forward.
What’s the difference between Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE Audio?
In the simplest terms possible, Bluetooth is the decades-old technology that allows you to do things like wirelessly connect a pair of AirPods to your iPhone. It’s not new, and though it’s regularly updated like any other technology to allow for higher data speeds and longer connection ranges, those upgrades are probably more noticeable to developers than they are to regular folks.
Bluetooth LE Audio broadly does the same thing, but it’s a new and specialized kind of Bluetooth that can transmit high-quality audio while drawing significantly less power than before. A general non-audio version of this called Bluetooth LE has existed since 2009, but it wasn’t really possible to adequately stream audio in a low-energy format until now.
Bluetooth LE Audio is fueled by the new Low Complexity Communications Codec, or LC3. A codec basically compresses audio to whatever size it needs to be for streaming. LC3 can transmit audio at an acceptable quality without draining as many resources as the classic form of Bluetooth.
To get an idea of what LC3 can do, scroll down to the audio testing section on the Bluetooth SIG’s website. If you click through the different bitrates (data speed measured in kilobytes per second, or kbps) in the LC3 section, you’ll notice the audio quality gradually gets higher as the bitrate gets higher. However, even at the lower end of the spectrum, such as 128kbps or 96kbps, the quality remains acceptable despite theoretically using less of your earbuds’ and phone’s battery in a real-world scenario.
What are the benefits of Bluetooth LE Audio?
The most obvious benefit of low-energy audio streaming is better battery life on Bluetooth LE Audio-enabled devices. Anyone who’s used Spotify with wireless headphones to power through their work day can attest to the amount of battery charge that can use up. That said, there are some less obvious and actually way cooler applications for Bluetooth LE Audio.
For example, the fact that LE Audio uses much less power means you might be able to more easily connect one pair of headphones to multiple devices at once without doing any manual Bluetooth juggling. Perhaps you could go from watching Netflix on your laptop to taking a phone call using the same earbuds without any hassle.
One other very cool potential application of Bluetooth LE Audio is what the Bluetooth SIG calls “audio sharing.” Imagine you’re listening to a song you think is totally fresh, or a podcast you think is super important, and you want to show it to someone nearby. With LE Audio, you should be able to broadcast that audio from one source (a phone, for example) to multiple pairs of wireless headphones at the same time.
What devices support Bluetooth LE Audio?
Time for the bad news: It’ll be a little while before most people can properly try out Bluetooth LE Audio. It’s a very new technology that has yet to be implemented in most relevant devices, like headphones, earbuds, and smartphones. One morsel of good news, however, is that Qualcomm announced in December that it had developed a wireless earbud chip with LE Audio compatibility.
In other words, it’s not quite here yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Eventually, it’ll be in the same devices that already use Bluetooth. Probably the most impactful and exciting new development, though, is that LE Audio will be compatible with hearing aids. Being able to connect hearing aids straight to a device like a phone or even a TV for a clearer audio stream right in the ear could be a real game-changer for those who need hearing aids.
For now, full Bluetooth LE Audio adoption is still a ways off, but there are still plenty of reasons to get excited. Whether it’s to assist those with hearing difficulties or just to bug your friends by trying to share a sick jam with them, look forward to enjoying LE Audio in the near future.
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