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What’s the Difference Between Bluetooth LE and Bluetooth Classic Audio—and How Will It Impact Hearing Aids?

March 12, 2020
Bluetooth LE Audio improves upon Classic Audio in a number of ways, and the opportunities for developers are exciting. Check out some potential use cases for the new audio standard.

This article appeared in Electronic Design and has been published here with permission.

The theme for World Hearing Day 2020 was simple: “Don’t let hearing loss limit you.”

This is sometimes easier said than done for the 455 million people worldwide that have disabling levels of hearing loss, and the number will rise to 900 million by 2050. Though hearing aids and hearing-loss prevention and treatment techniques have improved over the years, people with hearing loss may still feel restricted in certain situations, like when trying to engage in a conversation with several people talking over each other or watching a video without subtitles.

Audio is Blue: A New Way to Experience Hearing

This year’s World Hearing Day focused on encouraging people with hearing loss to continue participating in public and social life. And the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has worked closely with the hearing aid industry to define and introduce LE Audio, the next generation of Bluetooth wireless audio, to help advance this mission.

LE Audio, announced in January, is a new Bluetooth audio standard that improves Bluetooth audio for all, including the growing number of people with hearing loss. Thanks to its low energy consumption, high sound quality, and multi-stream audio functionality, LE Audio will help enable a more seamless integration of hearing aids and other audio technology.

Dr. Stefan Zimmer, Chairman of the Board of the German Hearing Aid Industry Association (BHVI), believes the new audio standard will positively impact people across the world.

“Far too often [those affected with hearing loss] withdraw from their social and professional environment. This does not have to happen,” says Zimmer. “LE Audio will be one of the most significant advancements for hearing aid and hearing implant users.”

How Does LE Audio Differ from Classic Audio?

With the introduction of LE Audio, Bluetooth audio will support two modes of operation, the current mode, now referred to as Classic Audio, and LE Audio. As the names suggest, Classic Audio operates on the Bluetooth Classic radio (also referred to as Bluetooth BR/EDR), while LE Audio operates on the Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) radio. LE Audio will improve the performance of the same audio products and use cases supported by Classic Audio, including wireless calling, listening, and watching.

Significantly, LE Audio will also support the development of standard Bluetooth Hearing Aids. In addition, it will introduce exciting features that will enhance their performance as well as an entirely new use case—Bluetooth Audio Sharing—which is expected to enable the next generation of Assistive Listening Systems (ALS). This will make hearing assistance not only more accessible, but the places we go and the world around us will be more friendly to hearing aid users.

The Importance of Standardization

Support for Bluetooth technology in hearing aids to date has been based on proprietary implementations. As a result, relatively few hearing aids include Bluetooth technology and compatibility is limited. By standardizing support for Bluetooth technology within hearing aids, LE Audio will lead to the availability of more Bluetooth hearing aids and enable true global interoperability.

Thanks to the standardization that LE Audio will enable, people with hearing loss will be able to realize the same benefits of Bluetooth audio enjoyed by users of standard Bluetooth headphones and earbuds.

Audio Sharing

While current Assistive Listening Systems, such as inductive loops, have provided tremendous benefit to people with hearing loss, they suffer from a number of challenges that have limited deployment, including quality, cost, spill-over, interference from other devices, and privacy issues. In addition, telecoil systems are optimized for speech, which means music can sound distorted. They’re often most effective at a certain angle, too, which may require the user to hold a device (like a telephone) in a way that could be awkward or uncomfortable.

Bluetooth Audio Sharing will enable an advanced new type of ALS with higher audio quality and greater privacy that avoids spill-over challenges. It will also be significantly easier and cost less to deploy.

Here are just some of the ways you might see Bluetooth Audio Sharing in action in the future:

  • At a movie theater, the audio track would send audio directly to hearing aids.
  • Hearing aid users will be able to receive direct announcements at public venues like train stations or airports via their hearing aids.
  • Multiple friends will enjoy music played on a smartphone through their Bluetooth headphones and hearing aids at the same time, helping hearing aid users tune in and be part of a shared music experience.
  • Audio from home TVs or public TVs, such as those in waiting rooms, terminals, and sports bars, could be streamed directly to hearing aids or earbuds.

CES 2020 provided a glimpse of the future, as Nuheara unveiled its IQstream TV, a hardware accessory device that connects directly to a television. The user can then balance the volume of the TV sound with ambient sounds and conversations or simply focus on the TV itself.

These actions are all controlled independently from anyone else in the room. The user can give themselves as immersive an experience as they’d like. For example, if other people in the room were talking too loudly during an episode of Schitt’s Creek, you could isolate the broadcast without disrupting their conversation. Indeed, when one of us shines, we all shine.

In the future, LE Audio will make this more mainstream. The technology could work with a more extensive amount of Bluetooth-enabled products and also be installed directly into a TV, rather than an external device.

“Location-based Audio Sharing holds the potential to change the way we experience the world around us,” says Peter Liu, Architect, Wearables Systems, Bose Corp. “For example, people will be able to select the audio being broadcast by silent TVs in public venues, and places like theaters and lecture halls will be able to share audio to assist visitors with hearing loss as well as provide audio in multiple languages.”

Removing the Stigma of Hearing Loss

On average, people with some degree of hearing loss wait seven years before seeking help. Spending nearly a decade without the full ability to hear is partly a result of the stigma around hearing loss.

The introduction of LE Audio also brings a new, high-quality, low-power audio codec called LC3 (Low Complexity Communications Codec). LC3 offers lots of possibilities for hearing aid manufacturers and users. Listening tests have shown that LC3 provides superior audio quality over the subband codec (SBC) included with Classic Audio, even at a 50% lower bit rate (see figure). Developers and hearing aid manufacturers can leverage the power savings provided by LE Audio to design products that provide longer battery life or, in cases where current battery life is enough, reduce the form factor by using a smaller battery.

In this way, LE Audio will assist hearing aid manufacturers in designing devices that are more discreet or that more closely resemble earbuds that have become increasingly mainstream. Both trends have the potential to help remove some of the stigma around wearing a device in our ears and reduce the time it takes for people experiencing hearing loss to take action.   

Audio for All, with No Limitations

A big theme of World Hearing Day 2020—and, by extension, for World Health Organization and Bluetooth effort—is inclusivity, reminding all of us that being hard of hearing shouldn’t limit anyone. Hearing aids can significantly improve how people with hearing loss engage with the world. LE Audio’s standardization of Bluetooth Hearing Aids and its introduction of Bluetooth Audio Sharing have the potential to further improve the quality of life for hearing aid users, remove limits, and empower people with hearing loss to feel more confident and connected in their daily lives.

David Hollander is Senior Director of Marketing for the Bluetooth SIG.

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