Hearing the Future
Every so often a new wireless technology emerges that changes everything. We’ve seen this happen with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, and Bluetooth low energy. Now an updated version of Bluetooth low energy, called LE Audio, is poised to enter the market with this same world-changing potential—to change how and what we hear and how we interact with sound.
LE Audio is a set of new features and technologies that are part of Bluetooth low energy, also known as Bluetooth LE and commonly referred to as BLE. (Since the Bluetooth SIG, the organization that controls the Bluetooth trademark, frowns upon the term BLE I will use the more formal term Bluetooth LE in this article.) Bluetooth LE has already rocked the world once, creating the wearables market and enabling your phone to talk to everything from your glucose meter to your patio heater. LE Audio promises to improve the quality and performance of Bluetooth audio, and also introduces completely new topologies and use cases to enable the next generation of earbuds, hearing aids, and audio IoT devices.
Bluetooth audio is already ubiquitous today in phones, cars, headphones, and earbuds. But the current generation of “Bluetooth Classic” audio technology has its limitations. It is actually quite difficult to achieve a combination of good audio quality, low latency, and low power consumption. Using Bluetooth Classic in hearing aids has been a non-starter due to high power consumption, and achieving earbud ear-to-ear synchronization isn’t a problem Bluetooth Classic tried to solve. Product manufacturers have been able to achieve all these things through proprietary customizations. For example, we see both Apple and Google defining their own specs for hearing aid audio over Bluetooth LE. We also see products like headphones and earbuds use alternative codecs and various nonstandard protocol tricks to achieve higher audio quality, low latency, and synchronization.
These proprietary techniques brought compelling products to market but they sacrificed interoperability. My AirPods sound superb when connected to my iPhone but abysmal when connected to my Windows 10 notebook. Going the proprietary route also makes it more difficult for a product ecosystem to grow and flourish. When a connectivity technology enables everyone to build compelling products then everyone—phone manufacturers, accessory makers, and consumers alike—will win.
LE Audio proposes to solve the problems of audio quality, latency, and synchronization in standardized ways. Completely new transport layers for Bluetooth LE have been designed to deliver low latency and synchronization. Audio quality will be improved by introducing a new standardized codec called LC3. LC3 can produce much higher audio quality than Bluetooth Classic’s SBC codec at the same bit rate. Conversely, LC3 can produce the same audio quality as SBC at half the bit rate, thereby saving significant power. Standardizing these improvements will enable Bluetooth earbuds and hearing aids to improve upon today’s state-of-the-art in an interoperable way. Someday I hope my AirPods will sound great with both my iPhone and my Windows notebook.
Improving upon products that are already available today is only a small part of what will happen. It gets interesting when you consider a feature of LE Audio that is unavailable in Bluetooth Classic: Broadcast audio. Broadcast audio enables an LE Audio device to transmit one or more audio streams to an unlimited number of listening devices. Imagine, that with a couple taps on a phone, you can broadcast music or movie audio directly to a group of earbud-wearing friends. Audio sharing is going to be a thing.
For the hearing impaired, broadcast LE Audio systems will replace the expensive Telecoil systems used today in public buildings, train stations, and ticket counters to communicate directly to hearing aids. It’s easy to imagine how announcement systems could be expanded to service everyone. You’ll be able to actually understand those inaudible airport gate announcements when beamed directly into your headphones.
Other broadcast applications might not be so obvious. Consider hearing protection. Workers in factories, construction sites, and airports wear over-the-ear headgear to muffle sound in those noisy environments. This protects their ears but has the undesirable side effect of eliminating the ability to communicate via sound. With Bluetooth-enabled hearing protection a work site could broadcast announcements to hearing-protected workers, improving communication and safety.
More broadly, LE Audio will transform existing products and fuel the innovation of new ones. I’m admittedly poor at coming up with product ideas, so instead I’ll suggest some broad product categories that are ripe for innovation:
Any product that currently uses a microphone or speaker.
Any existing Bluetooth LE product that could use an audio link.
Any product that goes in, on, or around the ear.
Now is the time for product designers to think about LE Audio. How could a low cost, low power, high quality wireless audio link transform your existing product? What could you do with a wireless mic or speaker in a Bluetooth proximity tag? How could clothing, glasses, helmets, or jewelry use LE Audio?
When considering LE Audio, product designers also need to consider the ecosystem—what is talking to their product on the other end of the link. This usually leads to asking the following questions: When will Android and iOS phones support LE Audio? Should I support both Bluetooth Classic and LE Audio in my product? These are common questions we get from our customers at Packetcraft. It really boils down to this: When will an LE Audio ecosystem develop that can support my product? That is a question I will address in more detail in the second part of this article. The short answer is that the ecosystem could develop faster than many people think.