Thanks to the next-generation Bluetooth LE Audio, the latest Bluetooth devices won’t only sound better and last longer, they’ll also be able to easily share audio with other listeners and even receive broadcast transmissions in airports, museums, auditoriums, and more. Unveiled Monday at CES in Las Vegas by the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group), the new set of Bluetooth capabilities should start coming to phones, tablets, headsets, and even public venues within the next 12 to 18 months.
The LE Audio standard boasts the new LC3 (short for Low Complexity Communications) audio codec, which offers a boost in audio quality over SBC (the current default Bluetooth codec) while using the same amount of bandwidth.
Even better, the new LC3 codec is capable of serving up the same audio quality as SBC while using only half the power, which means Bluetooth LE Audio has the potential (depending on how it’s implemented) to wring a lot more battery life out of your Bluetooth audio devices. And yes, Bluetooth LE Audio will still support such optional, higher-quality codecs as Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX HD.
Another important Bluetooth LE Audio feature is its multi-stream capabilities, which for the first time will allow for multiple audio streams between Bluetooth audio devices.
Bluetooth multi-stream audio should pay dividends when it comes to truly wireless earbuds, allowing for phones, tablets, and other Bluetooth audio sources to connect directly to each earbud, which should make for better audio synchronization and stereo imaging. Currently, Bluetooth devices can only connect directly to a single earbud, which in turn connects to the second earbud, a less efficient process that can lead to a loss of synchronization and “wandering” audio elements in a stereo sound image.
Multi-stream Bluetooth audio will also make it easier for a single Bluetooth headset to connect simultaneously to, say, a phone and a PC, while also letting you wake up Alexa, Google Assistant, or another digital assistant without interrupting the audio stream.
Bluetooth SIG officials seem especially bullish about Bluetooth LE Audio’s personal and location-based broadcast capabilities, which could lead to some fascinating applications when it comes to public venues like airports and concert halls.
On a smaller scale, Bluetooth Audio Sharing lets you share what you’re listening to with other nearby Bluetooth users. While plenty of headset manufacturers have already come up with their own solutions for sharing Bluetooth audio with nearby friends, the arrival of LE Audio will mark the first time that Bluetooth has natively supported audio sharing.
Beyond personal sharing, LE Audio will also support what the Bluetooth SIG is calling “location-based” sharing, which means venues such as airports, stadiums, and museums will be able to wirelessly broadcast (for example) boarding announcements, music, audio descriptions, and more to an unlimited number of Bluetooth users. That means instead of renting a headset at a museum or straining to hear a boarding announcement at your terminal, you could simply tune into a shared Bluetooth stream.
The greater power efficiency and audio quality of Bluetooth LE Audio will also allow direct support for hearing aids, a possibility that becomes even more enticing when combined with Bluetooth’s audio sharing features. For example, airport announcements and audio for movies could be transmitted directly into a Bluetooth hearing aid.
Existing Bluetooth Low Energy radios will support Bluetooth LE Audio, although it will be up to device manufacturers to enable Bluetooth LE Audio features on current devices.
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Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.