Bluetooth technology has been under development since the 1990s and uses over 79 channels in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band to transmit data. Today, the Bluetooth Classic variant only supports point-to-point communication for audio transmission.
A key further development is Bluetooth Low Energy (LE). It has already replaced Bluetooth Classic in most applications. Wireless audio streaming, e.g. for wireless headphones, speakers, or in-car entertainment systems, is now the last bastion of Bluetooth Classic (Fig. 1).
Bluetooth LE also uses the 2.4 GHz band, but – as the name suggests – is designed to operate with low energy. Beside point-to-point communication, it also enables broadcast and mesh topologies, thus laying the foundation for large-scale, high-speed device networks. Furthermore, it can be used for device tracking, making it an ideal addition to indoor GPS.
Focus on audio
The focus of the latest standard is also crystal clear: it is called Bluetooth Audio. The first version is based on Bluetooth Classic. However, its range of functions is limited as is the variety of possible applications. The second version, the new Bluetooth LE Audio, in contrast, enables the more flexible processing of audio signals. This represents an evolutionary step for existing applications, such as headphones and hearing aids, thereby creating new applications and markets for audio streaming.
LE Audio is based on Bluetooth LE and the power-saving Low-Complexity Communications Codec (LC3) developed by the Fraunhofer Institute. It combines higher audio quality than Classic Audio with low data rates and provides developers with an enormous amount of flexibility (Fig. 2). Moreover, various product features can be better matched, e.g. the provided energy savings can be used either to extend the battery life or to use smaller batteries.
LE Audio offers a range of interesting functions: With Multi-Stream Audio, multiple independent audio streams can be played synchronously between an audio source device and one or several audio receiving devices (audio sink function). This optimizes their performance significantly. For example, this results in a better stereo experience for wireless earphones. Users can also switch between various voice assistants just as seamlessly as between different audio source devices.
The Auracast function also allows users to send one or several audio streams from one audio source device to numerous audio sink devices. In contrast to the multi-stream function, however, the number of audio sink devices is unlimited here. This opens up an entirely new set of use cases for sharing audio experiences.
When an Auracast transmitter, such as a TV, smartphone, laptop, or similar, begins a broadcast, it contains one or several audio streams (e.g., left and right stereo stream) and an advertisement with information about the broadcast, such as name, content, codec configuration, etc. Auracast assistants, also Auracast-compatible smartphones, smartwatches, or assistive listening systems (ALS), scan for these advertisements. Users can then select a broadcast to join via their user interface (UI) – similar to connecting to a WLAN today. Once a broadcast has been selected, the Auracast assistant provides the receiver (e.g. headphones or earbuds) with the information it needs to join the broadcast.
With personal audio sharing, people will be able to share music and podcasts with others around them; for example, via their smartphone with family and friends within Bluetooth range. In the public sphere, for example, airports, railroad stations, bars, gyms, cinemas, and conference centers can share information or music with their visitors via Bluetooth Audio. This gives people the opportunity to enjoy the same music – on a larger scale even at “silent” concerts or discos. It also allows people to use their own earbuds or ALS to select the audio being broadcast by silent TVs, for example in a gym or waiting room, and to listen to a conference lecture, a talk, a church service, or a guided museum tour, and ensures they do not miss any announcements at an airport. And since several audio streams can be sent in parallel, multiple languages can be transmitted, for example. This is particularly interesting for lectures, conferences, and airport announcements.
LE Audio will guarantee significant benefits for people with assistive listening systems. They benefit not only from significantly higher audio quality than with traditional hearing aids, but can also use their Auracast-enabled ALS as wireless headphones, e.g. when using their smartphone. This helps to eliminate interference during a call, something that often occurs when the phone is held up next to the ALS. This can be achieved with a simple topology (Fig. 3, left).
The connection between phone and hearing aid is established through an audio stream, which also allows a return stream. The user can then use the microphone of either the hearing aid or the phone as the return channel. Since both directions of the audio stream are configured and controlled separately, both can also be switched on and off individually.
In the topology (Fig. 3, right), the phone sends a separate left and right audio stream to the ALS in the left and right ear, respectively. Compared to the connection with an audio stream that then also establishes a second wireless connection with the other ear, latency is thus significantly reduced. This is evident when it comes to the lip synchronization of movies or music videos, etc.
The return streams can also be implemented separately, which further adds to the complexity. These parallel, synchronized streams to two independent audio devices go far beyond what conventional Bluetooth audio profiles can handle.
Hardware for new listening experiences
Despite being based on Bluetooth LE, LE Audio still requires its own hardware. Nordic Semiconductor offers the nRF5340, an all-in-one SoC (system-on-chip), which is ideally suited for Bluetooth LE Audio applications, thanks to its dual-core processor – consisting of the 128/64 MHz Arm Cortex-M33 application processor with 1 MB flash memory and 512 kB RAM, and the 64 MHz Arm Cortex-M33 network processor with 256 kB flash memory and 64 kB RAM – and an extended temperature range of –40 to +105 °C.
For an even easier entry, Nordic has come up with the nRF5340 Audio Development Kit (DK). It supports all Auracast functions and is configurable. As a USB dongle, it can send or receive audio data from a PC; further, it can be used as a business headset or as true wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds. The Audio DK essentially consists of the nRF5340 SoC, the nPM1100 power management IC, and Cirrus Logic’s CS47L63 audio digital signal processor (DSP), which is optimized for direct connection to an external headphone load and is ideal for mono-only and direct speaker output earphones.
Also based on the nRF5340, Nordic has developed Thingy:53 with the support of Rutronik. The multi-sensor prototyping platform with multi-protocol short-range wireless connectivity ensures reduced time-to-market for embedded applications with machine learning (ML). Thingy:53 is equipped with multiple motion and environmental sensors, the nPM1100 power management IC, the nRF21540 front-end module, a power amplifier/low-noise amplifier, and a 1350 mAh Li-Poly battery. This allows embedded ML models to be run directly on the device to use the sensors for speech recognition, for example. Certain motions or sounds wake nRF5340 from stand-by mode, leaving the platform in power-saving sleep mode for a long time.
Moreover, Rutronik’s product portfolio also includes modules based on Nordic’s nRF5340 chip. Insight SiP’s ISP2053, for example, integrates semiconductor and passive components, including the antenna structure, into a miniaturized module measuring just 8 mm × 8 mm × 1 mm, thanks to its system-in-package (SiP) method. It is, therefore, ideal for applications that offer very little space. The module is fully certified and supports not only Bluetooth Audio but also all other profiles of Bluetooth LE, Long Range, and Mesh, as well as NFC, Thread, ZigBee, and direction finding using AoA/AoD (angle of arrival and angle of departure). Starting with Bluetooth 5.0, all Insight SiP pin-compatible modules will facilitate migration to the latest Bluetooth generation.
Users who do not require the compact design of the Insight SiP module may find MS45SF1 from Minew to be a competitively priced alternative. As an officially licensed design partner of Nordic, Minew also uses nRF5340 for MS45SF1. The module comes with an integrated PCB antenna and is also fully certified.
Bluetooth LE Audio is blazing a trail to a new, completely networked audio world of headphones, earbuds, or ALS, as well as smartphones, laptops, TVs, and other audio devices. The introduction of native LE Audio support in Android 13 will certainly boost the interest of audio device suppliers in the new Bluetooth version. In its “Bluetooth Market Update 2022”, the Bluetooth SIG expects strong growth in earbuds and headphones through LE Audio and forecasts the sale of more than 600 million devices by 2026. Last but not least, Bluetooth LE Audio will, without doubt, have a massive impact on the current market for ALS and auditory acoustics. The further development ensures affordable hardware with the option of audiogram adjustment, such as frequency (equalizing) and phase correction. And everything is simply controlled via a phone app.
For more information and a direct ordering option, please visit our e-commerce platform at www.rutronik24.com.
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