Low Energy Headphones – An Overview

If you’ve bought a smartphone in the last year or two, you may or may not have noticed that the circular headphone jack is missing. Is this a terrible oversight on the part of smartphone makers that is going to result in the recall of a half billion devices? Not really. It’s actually the result of a little thing called “progress.”

A quick trip to the local tech expo will demonstrate pretty conclusively that headphone makers have finally cut the cord and embraced wireless technology. Or more specifically, low energy Bluetooth wireless technology. But most smartphones have had low energy technology built into them for years. So why are they only now abandoning the headphone jack?
Low Energy Headphones: Why Now?

People have been able to open their garage doors from halfway around the world for years. So why has it taken so long for wireless technology to reach the humble headphone? The answer is: it hasn’t. Wireless headphones have been around for a while. But until now, they’ve been battery vacuums sucking the life out of their poor, lithium-ion power plants. This has stunted their popularity.

Bluetooth Low Energy – or BLE for short – has been around since 2010, when it was introduced in conjunction with Bluetooth 4.0. Up to this point, BLE has mostly been applied to smart energy saving home devices such as lights, certain appliances and so forth. So why is it suddenly being applied to headphones? Well, to a large extent, you can thank Apple.

A couple of years back, Apple decided they were tired of waiting for headphone manufacturers to get on the low energy beam, and stopped adding the 3.5mm audio jack to their phones. This sent shockwaves through the headphone industry and sure enough, within a year, we began to see an increasing number of wireless headphones offering the low energy technology needed to make them practical.
How do Low Energy Headphones Work?

The BLE protocol depends on the user having both a “central device” and a “peripheral device.” The central device (in this case the smartphone) is typically the more capable one, with a more powerful processor, more memory, a larger battery and so forth. While the peripheral device (in this case the low energy headphones) is typically the less capable device. It simply receives and interprets data from the central device. In this case audio.

Low energy technology is asymmetric. This means one side of the equation takes on a larger portion of the work load. In this case, the bulk of the power supply responsibilities are shifted away from the headphones and their limited battery, to the smartphone and its more robust battery. This allows the user to enjoy much more listening time from their headphones.

As we mentioned, BLE is already integrated into most of the smartphones designed and sold in the last few years. So using your new low energy, open back headphones with your existing handset should not present a problem. As long as it was bought in the past, say, 2 or 3 years.

In addition, since most new low energy headphones are compatible with the new Bluetooth 5.0, you’ll also enjoy significantly greater performance from your cans. Range, for instance, will be as much as 800 feet. As opposed to the 200 feet you’d get from older versions of Bluetooth. And Bluetooth 5.0 also promises twice the data transfer speed (2 Mbps as opposed to 1 Mbps).
A Word of Caution

Although consumers have spoken with their wallets and snapped up the new low energy wireless headphones, many have done so without reading the fine print first (and there’s always fine print, unfortunately). As a result they’ve come face to face with the one significant drawback to BLE technology: in most cases it’s not compatible with classic Bluetooth technology.

That means, for instance, that your Bluetooth enabled smart watch won’t be able to pair with your new low energy headphones. There are a few cases where manufacturers have built devices that are compatible with both BLE and classic Bluetooth. But so far that dual compatibility has not made its way to wireless headphones.
Why All The Emphasis on Bluetooth LE?

As you’ve no doubt noticed, we’ve focused here on Bluetooth Low Energy technology. But finding ways to reduce energy consumption is a global effort these days. And as you may be aware, there are other forms of LE technology out there. Some headphone manufacturers have even chosen to design their products around these alternative LE technologies. But only a very few.

The vast majority of the new wireless low energy headphones on the market are BLE devices. That’s largely because most smartphones manufacturers have chosen to integrate BLE technology into their handsets over these other types of LE technology. This gives BLE a significant advantage right out of the gate. And it’s not a situation that seems likely to change any time soon.
The Bottom Line

Low energy technology has finally made wireless headphones a practical reality. The transition from wired to wireless headphones, however, has left the market in a state of flux. That’s because millions of consumers are still in possession of wired headphones they’re quite fond of, but that require the old 3.5mm jack.

In addition, some manufacturers have chosen to produce wireless headphones that don’t use Bluetooth LE tech (and so are not compatible with most new smartphones that come with BLE built right in). And in some cases, consumers are buying the new Bluetooth Low Energy headphones only to discover they aren’t compatible with their standard Bluetooth devices, like they thought they would be.

It’s a classic “best of times, worst of times” situation. But not one that’s entirely unexpected. After all, whenever a major technological shift occurs, there is always going to be a transitional period where legacy technology and new technology wind up butting heads. The good news is that, with a little patience, such situations always wind up resolving themselves.

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