20 years of Bluetooth audio

“When you think about the history of Bluetooth, especially audio, you really have to go back to the mid-to-late ’90s.”

Chuck Sabin is a Bluetooth expert. As CEO of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), he oversees market research and planning as well as business development. It’s also leading the charge for new uses for Bluetooth Auracast audio streaming. In other words, he’s the perfect person to talk about how far Bluetooth has come—from the days of mono headsets used only for voice communication to modern devices capable of lossless quality music streaming.

In the mid-90s, cell phones started to become a thing, and of course there were regulations regarding their hands-free use in cars. Sabin previously worked in the mobile communications industry, and he remembers how expensive and intrusive early hands-free systems were in vehicles. Bluetooth originated from cell phone companies working together to cut the cord to headphones because it was difficult to use audio accessories that weren’t yet wireless in the car. One of the first mobile phones with Bluetooth was from Ericsson in the late 90s, although an updated model didn’t make it to consumers until 2001. In the same year, the IBM ThinkPad A30 became the first laptop with built-in Bluetooth. At the time, the main purpose of short-range radio technology was for voice calls.

Bose introduces the Bose Bluetooth Headphone Series 2 Bose introduces the Bose Bluetooth Headphone Series 2

Bose Bluetooth Headphone Series 2 (Bose)

“You had a lot of people who ended up with these mono headphones and boom mics,” he said. You know, the ones we’ve probably all made fun of – at least once. Most of these were massive and some had obnoxious flashing lights. They’re certainly a far cry from the increasingly inconspicuous wireless headphones available now.

As a specification, Bluetooth continued to evolve, with companies using it for music and streaming audio. To make it easier to listen to music, the connection between the headphones and the connected device should be faster. Compared to a voice call, seamless streaming required Bluetooth to support higher data rates along with reduced latency. While Bluetooth 1.0 was a special challenge, version 2.0 began to achieve speeds necessary for audio streaming in excess of 2 Mb/s. However, Sabin says the 2.1 specification, adopted by the Bluetooth SIG in 2007, allows all streaming audio capabilities to be used in cars, phones, headsets, headsets, and more. was when it was applied.

Of course, it would still be a few years before wireless headphones became popular. In the early 2000s, headphones were still connected directly to a cell phone or other source device. With Bluetooth becoming a standard feature on all new phone models, as well as its inclusion in laptops and PCs, consumers can count on wireless connectivity being available to them. Even then, to download music to a phone, you had to download it to a memory card, as dedicated apps and streaming services wouldn’t be a thing until the 2010s.

“The utility of having a device that you always carry with you has evolved,” Sabin said. “Bluetooth is finally riding this wave of continued support by enabling the phone to be used as a wireless streaming device for audio.”

Bragi Dash true wireless headphonesBragi Dash true wireless headphones

Bragi Dash true wireless headphones (Photo by James Trew/Engadget)

At a time when wireless headphones are gaining popularity, in 2015 several companies came up with a new offering: true wireless headphones. Bluetooth improvements have meant reduced power requirements, leading to smaller devices with smaller batteries – and still providing the performance needed for true wireless devices. Bragi made a big leap hour consecutive CES With Dash headphones. The ambitious product had built-in music storage, fitness tracking and touch controls, all of which greatly reduced the three-hour battery life. Maybe the company was a little overzealous, but it set the bar high, and eventually similar technologies will make it into other true wireless products.

“Product companies are really starting to push the specification to its limits,” Sabin said. “There was a certain amount of innovation going on [beyond that] on how to manage the demands of two wireless headphones. Bluetooth’s role, he said, is more to improve the performance of the protocol as a means of inspiring advances in wireless audio devices.

He was quick to point out that for the first few years, true wireless buds only received the Bluetooth signal in one ear and then sent it to the other ear. Therefore, one will always drain the battery faster than the other. In January 2020, the Bluetooth SIG announced LE Audio at CES as part of version 5.2. LE Audio provided lower battery consumption, standardized audio transmission and the ability to transmit to multiple receivers or multiple headphones. LE Audio won’t be ready until July 2022, but it offers a minimum latency of 20-30 milliseconds, compared to 100-200 milliseconds with Bluetooth Classic.

“All the processing is now done on the phone itself and then transferred independently to each of the individual headsets,” continued Sabin. “It’s better performance, better form factors, better battery life, and more. will continue to provide because the processing is done at the source level. [on] individual headphones.”

The increased speed and efficiency of Bluetooth has also led to improvements in overall sound quality. Responding to market demands for better audio, Qualcomm and others have developed various codecs, such as aptX, that extend what Bluetooth can do. More specifically, aptX HD provides 48 kHz/24-bit audio for wireless high-quality listening.

“One of the elements that went into the specification, even on the classic side, was the ability to sideload different codecs from companies,” Sabin said. “Companies can then market their codecs to be available on phones and headphones to provide enhanced audio capabilities.”

LE Audio standardizes Bluetooth connectivity for hearing aids, leading to a greater number of supported devices and interoperability. Use cases range from adjusting the headphones, with or without active noise cancellation or transparency mode, to the user’s special hearing or general hearing aid needs, to simply being able to hear valuable information through headphones or a hearing aid in public.

“Bluetooth is becoming indispensable for people with hearing loss,” he said. “You’re seeing built-in hearing capabilities in consumer devices, not just medical-grade hearing aids.”

Sony Electronics' CRE-E10 self-fitting OTC hearing aidsSony Electronics' CRE-E10 self-fitting OTC hearing aids

Sony’s CRE-E10 OTC hearing aids (Sony)

Sabin also noted how the development of truly wireless headphones has played a key role for people with hearing loss and helped reduce the stigma surrounding traditional hearing aids. Indeed, companies like it Sennheiser and Sony have introduced assistance-oriented headphones that are no different from the devices they make for listening to music or making calls. Of course these devices do too, it’s just that their primary purpose is to help with hearing loss. Boom, it happened has been going on for yearsmade even easier by the 2022 FDA policy change that allowed over-the-counter sales of hearing aids.

One of the latest developments for Bluetooth is broadcast audio, better known as Auracast. Sabin described the technology as “sounding out your world,” which is what happens when you hear otherwise silent televisions in public. You simply select an available broadcast audio channel on your phone, such as a Wi-Fi network, to listen to the news or game on TV at your leisure. Auracast can also be used for PA and gate announcements at airports, better listening at conferences, and sharing a secure audio stream with a friend. Companies Like JBL they build it into their Bluetooth speakers so you can connect unlimited additional devices to share sound with the push of a button.

“You see it in speakers, you’ll see it in surround sound systems and full-house or party-in-a-box scenarios,” he said. Sabin also noted that out-of-home applications can simplify logistics for events because Auracast audio comes from the same source before being sent to a PA system or connected headphones and earphones without delay. Sabin said the near-term goal is for Bluetooth audio to be as common as Wi-Fi connectivity in public spaces, thanks to things like Auracast and the constant evolution of the standard.

Even after 20 years, we still rely on Bluetooth to take calls on the go, but both audio and sound quality have improved dramatically since the days of headphones. Smaller, more comfortable designs can be worn all day, giving us constant access to music, podcasts, calls and voice assistants. As consumer preferences shift to always-on headphones, the desire to fit in with our surroundings instead of blocking them out has grown. “Mute your world” is now all the rage, and since the late 90s, the development of Bluetooth technology through LE Audio continues to adapt to our audio preferences.

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Note Engadget’s 20th Anniversarywe’ve been revisiting products and services that have changed the industry since March 2, 2004.

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