Bluetooth Audio Roundup

bluetooth logo Bluetooth Audio Roundup

Due to working in the forest with cable hating trees for a few weeks a few months ago I ended up with a cellphone with a broken headphone jack. This lead me to declare official war on wires and since then I have been all wireless when on the run.

Going all Bluetooth was certainly something I thought twice about before I started doing. The technology doesn’t have that good a reputation and especially sound quality was rumoured to be rather bad. Since then I’ve tried a lot of Bluetooth devices, headphones and receivers – some of which have ended up on ABi as reviews. Read on for a full roundup on how the last few months of wireless life has been like, with all the pros and cons related to Bluetooth technology.

Matching Devices

the first thing I learned about Bluetooth technology was the importance of both the transmitting and the receiving device. With wired setups, the player you use do have an impact on how well the headphones will sound, but for the average consumer the headphones will make a much bigger difference. That’s not the case with Bluetooth. Range, stability and sound quality matters greatly with both the transmitting device and the headphones used.

My Nokia E51 proved once and for all that even though Bluetooth is in theory digital transmissions, the way devices code the audio and handle the entire transfer of data makes a big difference – and that’s not a compliment. After trying several Bluetooth enabled MP3 players and ending up with a Sony A820 it became very clear that if you’re going to use Bluetooth on a daily basis you should invest in a device that is stable. The A820′s sound quality is greatly superior to all my A2DP cellphones and it is also way more stable. As was the case with other MP3 players I tried such as the Samsung T10.

For headphones I tried a variety of both standalone headphones and normal wired headphones I moded to use Bluetooth receivers. After a disappointing encounter with some handsfree companies’ headphones I was reluctant to try any more of those, but after reading good reviews of the Jabra BT620s I ordered a pair and have used them ever since. trust me when I say that you should not judge Bluetooth technology by trying one headphone with one player – the differences between headphones and between players are huge.

Range

Another thing that has become very obvious to me these last few months is the importance of range. As with sound quality and stability, range depends on both the player and the headphones used and is perhaps the most crucial aspect of Bluetooth audio as it can render your setup useless.

First of all, Bluetooth technology doesn’t like water. Humans happened to be mostly water and that can cause some major issues. Having the player in your pocket may lead to some headphones not getting a signal at all and that’s really bad. An armband or lanyard will save the day in these cases as they are closer to the head and won’t need to go through that much body, but not everyone is willing to go that far – after all, Bluetooth is to get the player out of the way.

Second, Bluetooth audio likes to be inside. As a direct result of the “don’t like water” aspect, the Bluetooth signal prefers to bounce off walls to get to your head. When you’re outside there normally aren’t many walls around and the range of the setup drops drastically. With my Sony, there is a sound quality setting that directly affects range. High quality, normal quality and connect priority will give you short, medium and long range respectively. While my cellphones don’t have too much trouble with this (as they seem to have only one setting and it’s definitely not “high quality”) my Sony falls out almost immediately when I go outside if the player is in my pocket and the high quality setting is on. Turning the setting down to normal or connect priority fixes this, but it also lowers the sound quality drastically. Bottom line, if you’re planning on using your Bluetooth setup outside, make sure you have a player with a strong transmitter and headphoens with a big enough antennae or you’ll be stuck with low quality sound or no sound at all.

AVRCP

Abbreviations cause a lot of confusion with Bluetooth technology and not everyone know the meaning of various Bluetooth profiles. While Bluetooth support on a device does mean it can do some things with Bluetooth, it doesn’t mean that any Bluetooth feature will work. Bluetooth features are dependent on Bluetooth profiles, which put (extremely) simple are abbreviations that tell you whether or not your device supports a specific feature. For instance, A2DP means Advanced Audio Distribution Profile and shows whether or not your device can handle stereo audio over Bluetooth.

AVRCP is the other Bluetooth profile that matters for Bluetooth music listening and stands for Audio/Video Remote Control Profile. This is the feature with Bluetooth audio that I’ve become the most dependent on in these last few months. What this does is basically to let you control you player from the headphones. Play/pause, next/previous track and volume up/down can all be controlled from most Bluetooth stereo headphones, just look for the AVRCP marking.

With an AVRCP headphone you can basically put the player in your pocket and leave it there, all the controls you need are on your ears. This is extremely useful if you’re in a situation with people that have yet to grasp the concept of headphones and insist on speaking to you when it should be rather obvious that you can’t hear a thing. While normally you would either take the headphones off or try to find the player in your pocket, take it off hold and pause the music, you can simply tap the pause button on your AVRCP headphones and be alert in a fraction of the time. Naturally the volume and track skip controls are also very useful as they also require you to pick up the player and take it off hold, and trust me this is a commodity you get used to very quickly. When I now use wired headphones I find myself tapping the side of the headphones where the playback controls are on my BT620s and sigh when I realize there are no controls there. It’s quite possible the aspect of this technology I’ve become most used to and have most trouble living without.

Battery Life

A lot of people have major issues with Bluetooth with regards to battery life. Not only does it drain the battery of your player, it also requires you to charge and keep track of the headphones. So is this a major issue? Yes and no. It really depends on your devices, like usual. If you have a pair of headphones with 5 hours of battery life and a player that isn’t too power efficient as well, it will definitely be an issue.

Personally I’ve not had a problem with it with my usage. Normally I use my Bluetooth audio setups at work, which means 7 hours audio with video during lunch break. Both the Sony and the BT620s goes on for way longer than that without complaining and I’m not dependent on having them charged fully before i head off. With some of the Bluetooth receiver’s I used before I got the BT620s however, I ran out of battery on the receiving end several times – it isn’t fun. When it comes to charging I have no problem with slapping a cable into both player and headphones when I get home, they will charge themselves after all. So bottom line is that if you have access to a charger and get devices that have enough battery life for your daily use, it shouldn’t be a problem at all.

Sound Quality

Finally we’re down to what I’m sure most of you want to know – Bluetooth sound quality, is it any good? Well, like always it depends on your two devices; good headphones will sound bad with a bad player, and a good player will sound bad with bad headphones. As I mentioned earlier the player/headphone relation is much more important than with a wired setup. If either of the two devices are bad, it will sound bad – not mediocre, but bad.

I also stated my concerns when I first tried headphones made by cellphone manufacturers and handsfree manufacturers and this is another problem that have given Bluetooth it’s bad reputation. To be frank, people with music phones don’t care THAT much about sound quality anyways, so why should the Bluetooth headphones that these manufacturers make focus on something people don’t seem to care about? Considering the market of Bluetooth headphones, the answer to that question seem to be “they shouldn’t”. A lot of them don’t. However they’re not all that bad and more and more headphone manufacturers come out with Bluetooth headphones. While I (pointlessly) wait for Sennhe
iser to release a Bluetooth version of the PX100, at least Sony and companies like Koss have started to sniff the Bluetooth tree. I’m also not going to say that ALL headphones made by cellphone manufacturers suck, because there are exceptions. My dear Jabra BT620s is the living proof and best of all they cost about $35 on Amazon.

There’s also a thing about Bluetooth audio that will confuse more people than is necessary; Bluetooth version and stream format. Basically, the version of Bluetooth used decides the bandwidth available and more bandwidth equals the potential for better sound quality. The audio format that the devices stream the sound in also makes a difference. While your file might be MP3 or even FLAC, most players convert the audio to A2DP SBC format before transmitting to the headphones. By most I mean almost all as you’ll most likely not find a combo that will allow you to stream in native MP3, but it is possible. My advice with both of these “issues” is to ignore them – there are Bluetooth 2.0 devices that sound bad and there are Bluetooth 1.2 devices that sound good. As for streaming format so few people know of this that you’ll be lucky to find any information about it whatsoever.

By now I’m sure most of you get it – sound quality depend on range, quality setting, devices used, streaming format, Bluetooth version and so on. But if all of that is covered, is Bluetooth audio good enough? My answer would be yes. 99.9% of MP3 player users aren’t so picky about the sound quality that they need the best of the best, and the remaining 0.1% most likely never hit the “continue reading” button on this article anyways. Bluetooth sound quality isn’t as good as a wired connection, but if you cover all the basics of a good setup it’s still good enough. I’m perfectly happy with my BT620s’ sound quality and imagine most people would be. It has everything I need sound quality wise especially since it’s a portable rig we’re talking about. I still use my Beyerdynamic DT770 at home and it sounds much better, but when I’m out and about with ambient noise everywhere anyways my main concern is to have decent sound quality not a portable sound studio.

Conclusion

If it’s one word that describes using Bluetooth it would be “compromise”. You make a lot of compromises when going to Bluetooth; range, sound quality, battery life, price – but in return you get the freedom to move, not get stuck on trees (!) and the ability to control everything from your ears and leave the player in the pocket. I was very unsure on how my experiment would go but after being wireless for so long the compromise to me is worth it by a long shot. Using wired headphones makes me want to bang my head into a wall and if I had been wearing wireless headphones I would have had the freedom to do so. I recommend that anyone who at one point in their life have looked at the cable mess created by their music rig and gone “bah” try the wireless route for a little bit, even if it’s only borrowing equipment, as I’m pretty sure there are many people out there that could benefit from the wireless experience.

17 Comments

Utew on October 26, 2008 4:34 PM

Excellent piece, Andreas.This is a great reference article that should answer just about all questions people have in regards to BT Stereo practicality. I couldn’t agree more with either your views or your experiences. My whole purpose of using BT headphones for audio, is the elimination of wires and the obvious encumbrances of such.Yes, there is an SQ compromise, but as you mentioned, ambient noise masks a great deal of the audio quality loss, which IMO is an acceptable trade-off for wire-free portability.The dearth of BT/wireless options are something that gripes me to no end and I would like to see more products on this front along with improving stereo wireless technology. (Kleer non-withstanding).Thanks again, for a great write-up.. hope this becomes an easily accessible reference here at ABi.. as it should be linked to frequently, for those considering going the BT route.

Wings on October 26, 2008 8:06 PM

Very good article. Thanks for the info.

GunSpeed on October 27, 2008 2:20 AM

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with BT!I might only get interest on BT when it merges or shares wifi frequency channels.The potential is high :)

IanD on October 27, 2008 7:08 AM

Good article. ThanksOne thing I’d like to see reviewed at some point is aftermarket BT “dongles”, e.g. iBluon. This would be useful for those of us who are thinking of BT but don’t want to get new players.

JSV on October 27, 2008 8:41 AM

Just curious, does the AVRCP volume control actually changes the volume on the source itself or does it changes the amplification gain directly on the headphones?

Sean on October 27, 2008 9:50 AM

JSV – I’d say the volume controls change the gain on the headphones.AVRCP allows track control (play, pause, next etc.)But it would only make sense for the volume controls to only affect amplification gain surely?

Andreas Ødegård on October 27, 2008 11:52 AM

When using AVRCP, the volume control on the player is disabled. When using A2DP capable headphones only, the volume is controlled from the player. Some players (phones) are buggy and disable the onboard volume control even on non-AVRCP devices leaving you with no volume control at all. Im not sure where the AVRCP volume change takes place, but since only one volume control affects the output with AVRCP it doesnt really matter. I would think its the headphones though as Sean says

Dirquist on October 27, 2008 3:44 PM

Im still holding out hope for Kleer Technology and leave bluetooth behind. I cant find any reviews of the Kleer devices. The only ones I know about thought are the Sen MX W-1 and the Sleek SA6.

matt on November 9, 2008 2:54 PM

i use a samsung yp-p2 16gb with jbl 610 headphones http://www.jbl.com/home/products/product_detail.aspx?prod=JBLREF610BLKP&Language=ENG&Country=US&Region=USA&cat=MME&ser=HMM&featureid=12362and i haven never had a set of wired headphones that cmpare with the sound quality!granted they aren’t cheap but you get a lot for what you payt for.i know the samsung yp-p2 is good.my only qualm is that when i press pause, the current samsung firmware causes the device to shut off after a minute on pause!

apt-X on November 27, 2008 11:53 AM

one issue not mentioned above is “latency” – the time it takes to encode and then decode the stereo audio stream. have you noticed the “lip-sync” error when watching video with paired Bluetooth headphones? now here’s some good news. there is a better alternative to the default SBC (Sub-Band Codec) codec for Bluetooth A2DP: the apt-X audio codec delivers high-fidelity, low-latency (

apt-X on November 27, 2008 11:56 AM

one issue not mentioned above is “latency” – the time it takes to encode and then decode the stereo audio stream. have you noticed the “lip-sync” error when watching video with paired Bluetooth headphones? now here’s some good news. there is a better alternative to the default SBC (Sub-Band Codec) codec for Bluetooth A2DP: the apt-X audio codec delivers high-fidelity, low-latency (

Pepe on December 3, 2008 7:50 AM

I used to use a pair of iTech BlueBand R with a cheap Nokia 3110c, and was pretty satisfied with the sound quality… Until I started using the Sansa Clip xDThough I guess I learned a lot from this review. I would love to have tried my Bluetooth headphones with a Sony A820 but, sadly, I lost them a few days ago… I guess that’s another problem with having wireless headphones; anyone can get them without you noticing =p

Pepe on December 3, 2008 7:57 AM

I got a question though…Is there a difference between the volume of the headphones and the volume of the source?My classmate uses a pair of Motorola HT820s with a Samsung YP-T10, and whenever he decreases the volume on his headphones, it doesn’t necessarily decrease the volume of his T10…So I guess the volume of the source and the volume of the headphones are two separate entities? Is that correct?

cLy on April 11, 2009 7:43 AM

To use any other codec beside SBC, both the device (transmitter and receiver, mobile phones and headphones) has to support the codec. There are several portable audio players and headphones that does support streaming mp3, AAC and atrac over a2dp but i cant find any that supports Apt-X codec except for very few bluetooth headphones/speakers outhere.

psikey on August 11, 2009 11:28 AM

Try some SE DS980 bluetooth earphones (IEM type) and you’ll try the best there is IMO.With my W960i phone, Walkman A829 & PC they sound fantastic.Not on a par with my Shure SE530′s but then again, none ever would be.

ashiiya on September 22, 2009 4:18 PM

Nice article ^^ I was wondering whether or not to get BT headphones, but after reading this, I have even more to consider, because it’s more than just being wireless.Thanks for all the details, it helped a lot ^^

hotma on January 30, 2010 3:39 AM

The good player good headset combo certainly applies. I however have been using my Nokia E51 paired with a SE HBH-DS980, it pairs easily and the SQ is upto par especially with 192kbps encoding (i prefer wma format).i use it when riding my motorbike and ussually put it in the compartment beneath the seat, no loss of signal or degrading SQ noted.Hell i can even receive calls when riding the bike without any discomfort at all!!The only drawbacks?:> no filename or id9 tag can be identified (SE vs NOKIA issue?)>degrading battery life (now only 2.5 hrs per charging)peace…

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