The AudioFile: Bluetooth To Bite Less

Keith Haring poster

Next year, portable wireless audio is finally going to stop sucking. With the advent of the next generation of Bluetooth and improvements in miniaturization techniques, not to mention ever-increasing efficiency in power consumption, we’re going to see some pretty hot ear candy in ’08. Finally, Bluetooth audio will relinquish its crown as the world’s most annoying sound to this cartoon bird.

(Turn down your volume a bit before clicking that link above.)

Here’s how I felt about Bluetooth six months ago:

February 3, 2007

Dear Bluetooth,
I’m sorry to have to put this in a letter, but I feel it’s the only way I can express how I truly feel about you without getting hysterical. Okay, here goes: You’re just not living up to what I expect from you.

I wanted us to grow together as I found more excitement in the idea of low-power high-quality wireless audio, but you’re holding me back. I admit I listen to compressed MP3s sometimes, but your extra layer of compression and spotty synchronization only make things worse. When we hear music together, I like that it can be in stereo, but hearing crappy sound even in both ears still isn’t enough.

And I don’t mean to sound shallow, but when I’m out with you, everyone stares — not at me, but at you, with your blinking LEDs and your… size. You really should think about dropping a few half-inches, because it’s keeping me from being attracted to you. Speaking of which, you’ve really got to get better at pairing. I have real wireless needs!

I know your battery life just isn’t up to the task of being there for me consistently when I need you, but this is exhausting for both of us.

I hope we can work this out one day,

But now things are finally changing, and I’m starting to have feelings for Bluetooth again. That’s because it’s taking a few steps in the right direction towards fulfilling my wireless dreams.

On August 1, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) unanimously approved the next version of the technology, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR. That lets headsets and other BT accessories and phones, or music players hook up and do their secret handshake faster. It also doesn’t sap as much energy from batteries (or me).

The same day, a company called Open Interface North America (OINA) broke out their new lossless Bluetooth compression technology called SoundAbout Lossless. If you’re familiar with lossless compression, you already know it’s a very good thing for sound quality. It lets a phone or music player or whatever transmit a signal that reaches its destination (headphones, headset, tin-foil hat, etc.) without losing any quality. But it still fits into the transmission bandwith Bluetooth 2.x+EDR makes available.

Bluetooth has long had the attention of midrange and high-end headphone companies, so all this should mean companies like Sennheiser, Shure, and Ultimate Ears will release wireless earbuds sometime before next summer, and possibly sooner. (Etymotic’s relatively unsuccessful attempt with the hilarious-looking Ety-8 will presumably be followed up with a better-sounding — and hopefully better-looking — second generation.) Not to mention what this’ll do things like Bluetooth speakers and wireless iPod transmitters.

I’m telling you, if I had a wireless version of a sick set of earbuds like Shure’s SE 420 or Ultimate Ears’ 5 Pro that didn’t make me look like I’m commanding a Starfleet… Let’s just say that’s my picket fence dream. I can almost taste it.

Here’s looking at you, Bluetooth. But please, ditch that blinking blue light.