Making Bluetooth Audio Sound Great

Posted on January 27, 2012 by Mike Foley

A wave of new Bluetooth speakers and stereo headphones has reached the market in the past 6-12 months, from pricey audiophile gear to inexpensive little wireless speakers you can toss into a travel bag. The sound quality of most of these products is excellent.

When I read about these new products in the news, I’ve occasionally noticed the reviewer or journalist making a comment like “…but they have Bluetooth audio.” The implication is that these products could sound better if they didn’t use Bluetooth technology for their audio connection.

Although some reviewers understand Bluetooth audio, others don’t know enough about it. There are many great implementations of Bluetooth audio in the market – good enough to please even the pickiest music lover. Bluetooth technology is not the limiting factor in how good a set of speakers, headphones, or a portable music player sounds. How good they sound is up to the manufacturer.

The audio quality of a Bluetooth device depends on several factors, including what parameters are used while implementing the A2DP profile, how well the product is designed, and the quality of materials used in the device.

For example, a tiny $50 portable speaker is never going to sound as good as a solidly built $500 speaker or TV sound bar in a large enclosure with high-quality tweeters and speaker cones. Even if both are wireless speakers that use Bluetooth technology, which one do you think is going to sound better?

The same applies to earbuds and headphones. It’s why some Bluetooth stereo headphones cost $500 and others cost a small fraction of that price.

For an example of a high-end audiophile product with Bluetooth technology, consider the Parrot speakers by Starck. We have a pair of these $1,600 speakers (pictured) in our offices here at the Bluetooth SIG, and they sound fantastic, whether I’m playing music streamed from my iPhone or listening to a movie sound track on Blu-Ray.

You don’t need to spend much to add high-quality Bluetooth wireless audio to your home entertainment system. For example, a Pioneer A/V receiver we also have in our office has a Bluetooth stereo adapter from Pioneer plugged into the back. It lets you stream music from any Bluetooth enabled phone, tablet or laptop. The sound quality depends more on what speakers you connect to the receiver than the Bluetooth connection.

Smart manufacturing and design choices

When engineers add Bluetooth technology to their devices, they have a choice of how to implement the Bluetooth audio specification. They can choose a high bit rate for the best audio quality or a lower bit rate to save on manufacturing costs. We allow some flexibility in the implementation in order to allow companies to produce products at different price points.

I was at a recent event at Apple where the company advised developers on how to use Bluetooth technology in their applications (see table 1-1 in this PDF download). If you listen to Bluetooth audio from an iPhone, iPad or iPod, it sounds very good. Apple is a great example of a company that knows how to implement Bluetooth audio in its products. More companies would benefit by paying as much attention to how they implement Bluetooth audio in their products.

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Mike Foley

Recognized worldwide as a go-to resource in the wireless industry.

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