A few years back Bluetooth looked to be on its last legs. But times have changed and the protocol is fast becoming a communications technology of choice when it comes to wireless home audio. Jacob Harris reports.
If you asked an AV professional a few years back about the future of Bluetooth, the response would have very likely been a negative one. But, as a visit to any consumer electronics store will reveal, these days Bluetooth technology is finding its way into an ever-broadening array of audio devices.
“The older versions of Bluetooth didn’t have the frequency response for audio because it wasn’t designed for those kinds of applications,” says resi-linx founder and chief executive Mark Lissek.
When resi-linx first started looking at it, let’s say five years ago, there were a lot of PA system microphones and similar Bluetooth products coming out on the market but the protocol didn’t have the full range of frequency response it does today.
While the protocol’s inclusion in devices like headphones and portable speakers may come as little surprise, what seems less likely is its rising popularity as a direct input for in-wall, in-ceiling and outdoor speakers. Bluetooth is even being chosen over WiFi and it seems there are several reasons for this.
“It’s clear that the immense popularity of streaming services like Spotify has resulted in manufacturers lifting the standard of hardware. This has resulted in greater reliability, and while not perfect, it’s vastly better than even a few years ago,” says Altronics sales manager Dean Stephens.
“Bluetooth is convenient and also extremely simple to use and to pair. It takes no technical skill and many users are accustomed to pairing Bluetooth devices in their vehicles before using them at home. Modern homes are increasingly getting more compact and home owners are often looking for discrete, all-in-one devices.”
While wireless audio still has a way to go before it can compete with wired options from a fidelity perspective, wireless solutions do offer users unmatched convenience and versatility. And while at first glance WiFi might seem like the superior choice for this application, many industry professionals are naming Bluetooth as the protocol that can provide the higher quality stream.
“I actually think Bluetooth is better because it’s a proprietary one-to-one set up – basically, you either have the link or you don’t have the link. With WiFi there is considerable variability in the quality of the stream due to how strong the communication is and what else is pulling data from the network at the time. So my belief is that Bluetooth is a better streaming technology,” says Mark.
It’s not all sunbeams and rainbows when it comes to streaming music over Bluetooth though. One major limitation is range – it was designed as a short range communication after all. Bluetooth range can be adversely affected by obstructions (such as walls, door and fly-wire screens) in the surrounding environment, other wireless devices in the area and a host of other variables.
“Bluetooth chip manufacturers talk about 100m of range. If you were standing on one mountain top and your receiver was another, you’d probably get 100m out of it but it reduces pretty quickly (as does WiFi) when obstacles and interference come into play. We can usually get 25m but we’ve actually seen environments where 3m is all the range you can get. We’ve even seen people with products that would be lucky to do 3m at all,” says Mark.
“Obviously this can be an issue for outdoor speakers. It just depends on how big an area you’re setting up outside – so if your Bluetooth amplifier is sitting in an eave or just inside the house and you want to sit 30m away then obviously that is going to be a problem. You have to take note of the specifications of the product and ensure they’re considered in the design and again when you are actually installing it. I’ve seen people do silly things like install an amp in a cupboard at the back of a kitchen and then when the client wants to sit outside they have to leave their phone actually sitting on the kitchen bench for the system to work. This defeats the whole purpose of having Bluetooth – having your controller in your hand, being able to change the volume or song etc. without getting up,” says Mark.
This year Bluetooth will release enhancements for the technology which are touted to increase its range considerably while also increasing its IoT functionality. The enhancements will include a 100% increase in speed (without increasing energy consumption) and mesh networking that will enable Bluetooth devices to connect together in networks that will be able to cover an entire building or home, making it suitable for a multitude of applications including multi-room audio.
“Not only is it easy to use but it’s easy to install with little to no wiring needed. It’s a versatile product that enables home owners to easily individualise rooms with the flexibility to create different zones, moods and use multiple devices in different areas at the one time,” says Clipsal brand ambassador Bec Sparky.
When installing Bluetooth devices there are several things to take into consideration. Mark points out that a basic understanding of the limitations of Bluetooth – especially when working in larger spaces – should put integrators in good stead when installing Bluetooth devices.
“As long as integrators understand that the module – or at least the Bluetooth component of it – actually has some restrictions as far as range goes, and they are mindful of that, they shouldn’t have a problem. For example, if you have a set of Bluetooth flush mounted speakers in a big room and the table or couch seems likely to be closer to one of the speakers than the other, you would put the Bluetooth component (because only one speaker has the Bluetooth receiver and amp) closer to where people will be sitting,” says Mark.
By all accounts, Bluetooth is an extremely user friendly protocol and with the company seemingly focused on gaining a bigger foothold in the IoT market, consumers and integrators alike are likely to see it more often and in an ever widening array of use cases.