Tech Tonic | Bluetooth’s constancy has given us the soundtrack to life - Hindustan Times
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Tech Tonic | Bluetooth’s constancy has given us the soundtrack to life

Mar 15, 2024 05:25 PM IST

After defining how we listen to audio at home, in the office and in the car, it is now time for the wellness space to derive simpler solutions from Bluetooth

It is so ubiquitous in our lives, but we barely even notice it. Last week I wrote about undersea cable infrastructure that ensures internet connectivity. This week, I’ll take forward the idea of the unsung heroes of connectivity and talk of Bluetooth wireless technology, which sits in the same category: Keyboard and mouse connected to your PC or tablet, the music you listen to on wireless headphones, your TV remotes (older ones have RF or radio frequency tech, newer ones use Bluetooth), big speakers at home streaming the tunes, or calls and music in your car — these are barely some of the use cases underlined by the Bluetooth technology. It makes life convenient and we appreciate that.

A recent, pivotal moment for Bluetooth, was the release of the LE Audio capabilities. As you may have probably guessed, LE means low energy. This is great news for phones and paired wireless headphones, earphones and earbuds.(Pixabay) PREMIUM
A recent, pivotal moment for Bluetooth, was the release of the LE Audio capabilities. As you may have probably guessed, LE means low energy. This is great news for phones and paired wireless headphones, earphones and earbuds.(Pixabay)

Bluetooth’s beginnings are as intriguing as its ambiguous potential. Many of us perhaps wouldn’t have realised that the name was inspired by King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, best known for uniting Denmark and Norway in 958 AD, who had a dead tooth that had turned blue. The Bluetooth logo we see today is a melding of Scandinavian runes (alphabet native to the Germanic people), the Younger Futhark runes Hagall (ᚼ) and Bjarkan (ᛒ), which were Harald’s initials. Surely, not many of us realised the Viking influence on modern technology.

It has been around in phones since 1999 (that was Bluetooth 1.0; buggy, slow and largely limited to sluggish file transfers), yet developed quickly. Range, bandwidth, stability of connection and transfer speeds, all improved with time. Remember those Bluetooth earpieces with long-ish stalks where the mic sat? A far cry from the discreet wireless earbuds now — the best illustration of the importance of generational updates. When was the last time you remarked, “Oh no, Bluetooth isn’t connecting”, as you prepared for a meeting on Microsoft Teams, armed with your favourite wireless earbuds? Likely, you can’t even remember. That’s where we are at now, with a technology that continues to make life comfortable for us.

A recent, pivotal moment for Bluetooth, was the release of the LE Audio capabilities. As you may have probably guessed, LE means low energy. This is great news for phones and paired wireless headphones, earphones and earbuds. It has been around in devices for a couple of years now, and the basis for claims is that earbuds can deliver six hours of runtime on their own and up to 30 hours or so when topped up using the charging case. The key to this? Accompanying hardware (read, chips) advancement now means streaming processing is done on the source device (phone, tablet, music player or PC) rather than the playback device (headphones, speakers, earbuds).

The demand for high-resolution audio over wireless must be credited to Qualcomm for developing the aptX and aptX HD codecs as well as Sony’s High-Res audio codec, the LDAC. Apple, too, has since made its contribution with the ALAC format, available in two distinct quality formats in the Apple Music streaming platform (a user can choose which one).

Bluetooth’s ever-growing competence is the reason why smartwatches and genuinely affordable true wireless earbuds (there are some genuinely nice-sounding ones around 4,000 and beyond) are selling in millions, every year. India alone saw a record 134.2 million wearables shipped in 2023, and that was a 34% growth over the year prior, according to research by the International Data Corporation (IDC).

Beyond consumer tech, the next frontier for Bluetooth as a technology is to be the foundation for medical-grade technology. There has been movement in the last few years, likely the first sparks we need. A couple of years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the creation of a new category of hearing aids that don’t require a medical examination and prescription. Sennheiser has since made a product called the Conversation Clear Plus, which are $850 (around 70,000) hearing aids, but don’t look like how we’d expect them to – their design, as slick as any cool wireless earbud. Tech company Sonova, which bought Sennheiser’s consumer audio business, uses its own chip to process dialogue enhancement.

They are significantly more expensive than traditional hearing aids, but we have a direction to build in.

Sony’s similar moves with the CRE-C10 and CRE-E10 products are even costlier — $1,000 and $1,300 respectively — offering a premium for their incredibly small design. These aids have a self-fit test for understanding which frequencies a user’s ear has trouble hearing, alongside volume control functionality.

These remind me of the Bose Sleep Buds, the first generation (there has been a second-gen since; haven’t used that), which I had the luxury of testing a few years ago. Those were some of the most peaceful nights of sleep I’ve had in years (bad sleep quality, a nightly fixture). Beyond more and more earbuds and smartwatches, it is the health and wellness space that needs Bluetooth-based tech to step in and help. Prices will have to correct, sooner rather than later.

Vishal Mathur is the technology editor for Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology on the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.

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