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Bluetooth Audio

a look at the state of the industry

Alex Klassen
Fall 2016

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Bluetooth Audio
The State of the Industry

Since its introduction in 1994 the bluetooth wireless protocol has become the
de facto standard in personal area network (PAN) communications technology.
Much of the momentum behind the adaptation of bluetooth was driven by the
telecommunications industry, who for various motivations pushed towards
handsfree cellular earpieces and headsets. As in many other technology areas, the
demand for the latest gadget led to continued output of wireless peripherals, from
simple keyboards and mice to an increasing array of so called smart life and smart
home devices which use bluetooth to communicate with their central unit. While
these moves have mainly been seen as wireless alternatives to traditionally wired
devices, the announcement by Apple in 2016 that their phones would no longer
ship with the heretofore ubiquitous headphone jack pushed the issue of wireless
audio to the forefront. To many consumers this move by Apple seemed little more
than a desire force consumers into further purchases of Apple products, while to
audiophiles it signalled a shift by a major producer into an area of wireless
technology that has struggled to live up to industry standards. This paper will
examine the difficulties faced by bluetooth developers in reaching high quality
audio standards and outline ongoing process in the sector. It will then provide the
details and results of a simple but instructive experiment conducted on a consumer
level bluetooth speaker.

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The Bluetooth protocol was developed in 1994 by Ericssonn and later gifted
to the IEEE working group designated as 802.15.1. As of 1998 the Bluetooth
working group was made independent of IEEE and since then the protocol has
been maintained by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). who released their
first standard in 2002. The position occupied by Bluetooth protocol is that between
low powered, long life applications such as medical technologies (identified as
802.15.4), and wireless area networks (WAN) used in wi-fi systems (designated
under the 802.11b working group). The protocol operates in the 2.4GHz range
which is an unlicensed though not unregulated band [1]. Bluetooth adopted a
frequency hopping algorithm in order to counter the high RF traffic at the 2.4
GHz range as well as providing an increased measure of security. While this
provided a robustness of security for bluetooth transmission, [1]cites it as (having)
been shown to reduce the performance of other (networks) considerably, if placed
close to a receiver.
A main cause for the early adoption of bluetooth for computer and cellular
peripherals was the ability of the host to negotiate multiple peripheral signals
simultaneously. This was achieved through the transmission of data through
packets which, depending on the codec could be delivered synchronously or
asynchronously. While these methods provided well for most low information
density applications, they wrought havoc on the reliable transmission of audio
signals. The historically standard SBC codec relied on Synchronous packet service
which ensured that packets would be delivered within a consistent time window
and be of a consistent size. This system leads to an inevitable extension of the
classic problem of digitized audio in that it is a further deviation from the nature of
audio as a constant signal. While the packets could be delivered within a reliable
timeframe they faced problems of interference which could only be met with the
introduction of an error correction system in the receiver. Adding error correction

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to the transmission meant adding latency on the receiving end as well as
accommodating the potential for retransmission of faulty packets, both of which
would add to latency in the system. Conversely, ignoring package errors would be
destructive in that the affected data would be compressed within the codec and
would have exponentially larger results once unpacked, leading to drop out.
Asynchronous data handling allowed for variable packet sizes and transmission
times, which while dealing easily with problems of error handling, proved
unsuitable for audio transmission. The only consistent means of addressing these
problems was to use a rapid stream of minimally sized packets, an alternative that
was still subject to interference and also had the negative effect of rapidly
decreasing battery life as it would cause receivers to be almost constantly on. Still
other considerations important to telephonic communication added increased
latency and transmission problems - these included noise cancelling, wind buffeting
reductions and echo reduction[3]. In total, these problems would lead users to
expect latency of up to 200ms and jitter of unto 50ms [4]. Finding that the
accepted frequency rate for telephonic purposes could be set at 8kHz helped to
offset some of these problems as packet size could be limited.

As late as 2014, these problems nagged the widespread adoption of


bluetooth for audio outside of telephony. A main barrier to its reception was the
need of gamers to maintain a lip sync latency rate of under 40ms [2] and while
strict latency didnt affect music listening, the promise of a CD quality audio
experience had not been consistently reached. Progress had been seen however,
since the highly praised arrival in 2009 of the aptX codec [4], offering an
alternative to the legacy SBC codec. The aptX codec, developed proprietarily by
Qualcomm has been demonstrated to reduce codec delay to 1.9ms [4]and a total
end to end latency of 40ms(McClintock 2016), meeting industry standards. Having

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been in active development for seven years the aptX codec has progressed a great
deal. Its evolution into the aptX HD codec promises Better than CD quality [4]
rivalling that of a 96/24 signal, and has been put to use in audio engineering
operations by George Lucass Sky Walker Ranch, The BBC and NHK of
Japan [4].

In order to test the listening experience of bluetooth audio transmission at a


consumer level, I purchased a pair of TDK TREK micro speakers. While they
were a low cost choice, these speakers touted several experimental advantages.
They came equipped with both auxiliary in and out ports, enabling them to be
connected to testing sources and/or receivers. They were enabled with the aptX
codec, providing a look at a modern implementation of the bluetooth technology.
They also had the ability to be paired together forming a communicating speaker
pair. Before beginning my analysis, I have to say that I was particularly struck with
the ingenuity of the stereo connectivity, but given my research, did not hold high
hopes for its fidelity. The first experiment, done purely subjectively was to listen to
the speakers at varying distances from the source. As an audio sample I selected a
24 bit wav of Burn the Witch by Radiohead. Establishing a baseline quality at a
distance of under 1 foot I began walking backwards from the transmitting source. I
decided to ignore the general resolution of the sound as deficiencies could easily be
related to speaker design and completely separate from the effects of wireless
transmission. Stereo pair in hand I covered a distance of over 50 feet from the
source and only experienced one occasion of mutual dropout from the speakers.
That incident aside there was no noticeable loss of quality with distance. I then
took the wireless output of the transmitted signal and recorded it into a zoom
recorder at the 24bit 48khz rate of the recording. The setup of this scenario caused
havoc in the signal and completely disrupted the stereo transmission. Once things

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had calmed down I left the speaker and recording unit at a distance of 20 feet from
the source. Listening to the result and examining the waveform against the original
there seemed to be some loss of fidelity. However I could not be certain whether
this was caused by the bluetooth transmission or had been caused by the addition
of the wired capture of the zoom. Having already established the definite
possibility of dropout and jitter in the transmission from the listening experiment, I
decided to test the fidelity of the bluetooth signal versus the wired signal into the
speaker unit by passing through it pink noise output by the max/msp audiotest
unit. The resulting wave files, recorded in Reaper, were then fed into Sonic
Visualizer. The most striking results of the fidelity test were seen in the spectrogram
and are shown below.
The first image is the pink noise signal as sent directly from the generator to
the aux in port and fed back into the unit via the aux out port.

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The second image is that of a return signal from a wireless transmission at close
proximity (less than 1 foot) from the source. As can be seen, these is less consistency
throughout the spectrum, with notable changes in dB level at the 7000Hz and
9500Hz frequencies. There are also increased discrepancies in the resolution of
high frequency resolution.
Finally a recording was made of the signal at a distance of 10 feet. As can be
seen the changes in resolution continue their trends towards irregularity as the
distance is increased.

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It has been fascinating to follow this technology from its initial acceptance as a
marvel of modern gadgetry to its nadir and relegation to a tool for wireless point
and click sensors to its resurgence in the area of high resolution data transfer. As
the uses for bluetooth and other PAN technologies grow into the ever wider smart
world it will be instructive to keep the lessons learned from the first 15 years of the
bluetooth standard in mind. That high demand for consumer gadgets will often
push the quality of the products towards the lowest common denominator, and that
progress will be made slowly in the background but will only be brought to market
when the consumer demands it. That bluetooth is a remarkable technology is
beyond a doubt, whether it is put to its best use is a question that will be answered
in the market

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References
[1] Bluetooth and Wireless Networking: A Primer for Audio Engineers. Journal of the the AES
Vol. 50 No. 11. Nov. 2002. Pages 979 - 984.

[2]McClintock, Jonny. Stereo Bluetooth and Low Latency Applications. Presented at AES
137th convention, Los Angeles, October 2014.

[3] Spittle, Gary The Applications and Challenges of Processing Audio Over Bluetooth.
Presented at Music Everywhere - AES 23rd Conference. U.K. 2008.

[4]McClintock, Jonny Can Bluetooth Ever Replace the Wire AES Convention Paper 9538.
Presented at 140th Convention. Paris, France, June 2016

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