The next generation of Bluetooth audio was introduced today. It might be a year or two before you’ll actually see it in headphones, but when it does arrive it’ll bring some welcome improvements. Among them is support for audio sharing between multiple devices and longer battery life.
Catching up to speed with Apple — The new standard is officially called “LE Audio,” as in low energy, and should mean that headphones can both last longer and shrink in size. Multi-stream audio support will allow for multiple streams to be transmitted from one device. This will enable the type of experience you might expect where several people can share in listening to the same music with their own headphones. But it could also enable experiences like that offered by Apple’s AirPods, which use the company’s own proprietary W1 chip to send separate streams to both earbuds.
Besides improved connection stability, those separate streams are what allow the AirPods to pause music when you remove one bud from your ear, as well as the ability to stream to a single bud when the other is removed. LE Audio will make it possible for other products to do the same.
Making competition easier — The new updates are important because they bring the Bluetooth standard closer in line with that proprietary Apple chipset. The company uses Bluetooth in combination with the W1 chip to offer features not available to other headphones, meaning headphones produced by companies other than Apple offer an inferior experience on iOS.
Apple’s lock on the W1 chipset makes it difficult for any other headset manufacturer to compete against the company for iOS users. Hopefully the new Bluetooth LE standard will be as good as Apple’s solution, but maybe that's wishful thinking. Everyone should hope for cheaper, comparable alternatives to the AirPods.
Specifications for LE Audio will be released in the second half of 2020, after which we can expect new hardware that will take advantage of it.