Bluetooth 5.0: New and Improved!

I have issues with Bluetooth. I see it as a force of nature, a veritable tsunami, against all that good sound quality stands for. That is because that oh-so-convenient wireless link limits functionality and degrades audio fidelity. Now, with the advent of the 5.0 spec, Bluetooth is poised to expand its dominance. But, the spec also has a glimmer of hope for us audiophiles.

First, let's talk about the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. One of their many cool features is enhanced Bluetooth capability; in particular, these are the first phones to use the new Bluetooth 5.0 spec. Compared to Bluetooth 4.2, 5.0 can send data twice as fast (2 megabits/second) and four times as far (maybe up to 800 feet, depending on obstacles), and has eight times the data broadcasting capacity. This will greatly improve functionality, and beef up signal integrity over longer distances.

There's something else. Most Bluetooth speakers are dumb. You pair with one, and that's it. If you want to pair with another, you sign off and switch pairing. That greatly limits their utility. More sophisticated WiFi-based speaker systems, which can provide terrific transmission fidelity, often let you run multiple wireless speakers, controlling them individually and managing them as a system. Now, Bluetooth 5.0 allows mesh networking.

With mesh networking, Bluetooth 5.0 will let devices move data across a group of connected devices, in a IoT-type arrangement. You don't need a central hub or gateway, just Bluetooth 5.0. When this is fully implemented, in a smart home for example, many devices could talk to each other, regardless of which ones are currently on the network. I don't know if 5.0 supports it, but it would be keen if you could set up independent left- and right-channel speakers. For now, the Samsung Galaxy S8 will support two headphones simultaneously.

There is one more important tidbit. Reportedly, Bluetooth 5.0 has the potential of better sound quality thanks to new data compression technology. The S8 doesn't support that and in any case, legacy Bluetooth devices such as headphones and speakers won't support it. Still, a new codec with higher audio quality would be good news. When I get confirmation and more details, I will do follow-up post.

I'm not a fan of current Bluetooth technology, but a higher-fidelity Bluetooth, along with the increased functionality, might help me to finally love Bluetooth.

brianh's picture

hello Mr. Pohlmann. I'm glad to see you promoting fidelity over convenience. My recollection may be faulty, but I remember an article you wrote, for this magazine, years ago, when MP3s were all the rage. I remember you promoting them as a great thing. I recall at the time my disappointment that even a writer for an audio magazine is accepting of this lower quality form of music reproduction.
I'm still one of the holdouts, clinging to the ability to buy my music on physical media, but I do rip my music using lossy compression, to put on my phone for mobile listening. I use bluetooth headphones and am ok with the sound quality. hopefully the industry will always have a niche of people who care about quality over convenience. I for one am happy to see 4k bluray support in the marketplace, after so many articles about the death of physical media.

John_Werner's picture

Not knowing the original mandate of Bluetooth I can imagine it was more designed for those folks I see with their earpiece worn as if it's part of their body. I imagine theiy're making big deals and have to be connected at all times to their phone so deals can be singed, sealed, and delivered. In other words fidelity wasn't the main priority. Like a lot of tech it got co-opted for purposes never originally intended such as the unstoppable wave of Bluetooth speakers. To it's credit it evolved a bit with some improvements sonically, but as Ken is wise to call out it falls flat as a true audiophile wireless medium due to compression and other limitations. The bottom line is that the market has spoken and wireless audio is only going to become ever more ubiquitous. With that an improved audio experience is a must. Is 5.0 going to be a worthy bridge bringing together both the casual and audiophile community? Of course that remains to be seen, but it does appear there is traction toward that goal. Pohlmann did not mention the bit-rate or compression scheme as it would appear that hasn't been revealed. It's important that he mentioned the need for multiple speakers connected simulataneously with a minimum 2-channel requisite. While I'm certainly not sold this will be great bridge for the ultimate audiophile wireless solution it will, likely, be a positive step in that direction. We've got to remember TV started out at around 300-lines (or less) black and white with little other aspirations to which imaginative engineers kept the same basic system with increased resolution and added color making it a technology that remained, at it's core, unchanged for over 50-years until the advent of digital HDTV. Bluetooth is on that path and it's improvements, and ultimately higher quality replacement, will be welcomed. This seems like a waypoint on that journey which will, we all hope, move much faster. We all know what we really need is a minimum of full-resolution multi-channel wireless sound with video capability. That's a band-width hog of course and not really the intention of Bluetooth as it was envisioned.