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Bluetooth audio’s biggest upgrade in years is coming soon to headphones

August 26, 2022

First announced in 2020, the LE Audio spec has now been completed.

We’re on the cusp of a new generation of wireless headphones that are more power-efficient, sound better, and support novel new features like being able to connect an “unlimited” number of devices to a single source. That’s thanks to Bluetooth LE Audio, an umbrella term for a collection of new features for Bluetooth devices that the Bluetooth standards body is officially announcing the completion of today.

Bluetooth LE Audio was announced way back at the beginning of 2020, and the Bluetooth SIG had originally hoped that supporting devices would be released before the end of that year. But, after a significant delay due to the pandemic, the completion of the specification today means that manufacturers can now start adding support for the standard to their devices. It means the first compatible products should start becoming available before the end of the year, the Bluetooth SIG says.

“Today is a proud day for the Bluetooth SIG member community,” says CEO of the Bluetooth SIG Mark Powell. “Our members overcame the many challenges placed on them these past few years to complete the largest specification development project in the history of the Bluetooth SIG. LE Audio extends the boundaries of what’s possible for the wireless audio market.”

There are several elements to Bluetooth LE Audio, but the one that’s likely to impact the most people is the new LC3 codec, which is designed to be a much more efficient way to transmit audio. That either means much higher audio quality at the same bit rate than the current baseline SBC codec, or even (the Bluetooth SIG claims) slightly better audio quality at less than half the bit rate (listen for yourself right here). A lower bit rate means lower power consumption, which should translate to longer battery life.

LC3 is just one of the features that sits under the LE Audio umbrella. Another key aspect is its ability to connect multiple audio devices to a single source with a feature it’s branding as Auracast. This could be as simple as pairing two pairs of headphones to a single phone, or pairing numerous earbuds to a single TV located in a public space like a gym. The Bluetooth SIG’s website outlines how users will be able to search for audio sources like you would for a Wi-Fi network, or else connect by scanning a QR code, or tap an NFC-enabled surface.

Other features include better support for true wireless earbuds, since Bluetooth LE Audio allows each individual earbud to maintain its own separate connection with the source device. And it’s also hoped that, combined, all LE Audio’s features will serve as a massive benefit for future hearing aids.

Between Bluetooth LE Audio, and Qualcomm’s recently announced aptX Lossless standard, Bluetooth audio looks set to take a big step forward in the months ahead. But what’s currently unclear is whether we’ll need to buy entirely new devices to enjoy the benefits. The Bluetooth SIG’s website notes that it may be possible for some existing devices to be updated to support Bluetooth LE Audio (and early support for the standard is already available in Android 13’s beta), but I suspect that most people won’t benefit until they buy upgraded hardware.

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