The biggest Bluetooth audio upgrade in years is coming to headphones soon

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We are on the cusp of a new generation of wireless headphones that are more energy efficient, sound better and support new 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 today.

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Bluetooth LE Audio was announced as early as early 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 specification’s completion today means manufacturers can now start adding support for the standard to their devices. It means the first compatible products should be available before the end of the year, the Bluetooth SIG says.

“Today is a proud day for the Bluetooth SIG member community,” said Mark Powell, CEO of the Bluetooth SIG. “Our members have overcome the many challenges presented to them in recent years to complete the largest specification development project in the history of the Bluetooth SIG. LE Audio is pushing the boundaries of what is possible for the wireless audio market.”

There are several elements to Bluetooth LE Audio, but the one that will probably affect most people is the new LC3 codec, which was designed as a much more efficient way of transmitting audio. That means either 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 here). A lower bit rate means lower power consumption, which should translate into longer battery life.

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The biggest bluetooth audio upgrade in years is coming to

A mockup of how Auracast can let users choose an audio source such as a Wi-Fi network.
Image: Bluetooth SIG

LC3 is just one of the features that come under the LE Audio umbrella. Another important aspect is the ability to connect multiple audio devices to a single source with a feature that burns it as Auracast. This could be as simple as pairing two headphones to a single phone, or pairing multiple earbuds to a single TV in a public place like a gym. The Bluetooth SIG website describes how users can search for audio sources as you would for a Wi-Fi network, or otherwise connect by scanning a QR code or tapping an NFC-compatible surface.

Other features include better support for true wireless earbuds, as Bluetooth LE Audio allows each individual earbud to maintain its own separate connection to the source device. And it is also hoped that, combined, all the features of LE Audio will be a huge 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 coming months. But what is currently unclear is whether we need to buy completely new devices to enjoy the benefits. The Bluetooth SIG website notes that it’s possible that some existing devices will be updated to support Bluetooth LE Audio (and early support for the standard is already available in the Android 13 beta), but I suspect most people won’t get it until now. will benefit from buying upgraded hardware.

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