My memory is vague on this... I remember being in a room with someone from Sweden telling us about King Harald of Denmark, how he took over from Gorm the Old and proved especially effective at getting different tribal groups to work together. I can’t really remember my reaction to the technology these Swedes were planning to name after Harald — ‘Bluetooth’ — though I do remember becoming impatient as the press conference dragged on; this new wireless technology clearly didn’t have the specifications to transmit music, even at the level of the quality-killing MP3s which were just then turning the internet into a lo-fi peer-to-peer file-sharing bonanza. The presenters themselves didn’t seem sure what it was for, and there was absolutely no buzz that this might be ‘the next big thing’. So far as I can recall, I didn’t even write it up.
Fast-forward to the last few years, and Bluetooth has been increasingly inveigling its way into audio applications. Even at its early low rates there was enough bandwidth to transmit telephone-quality audio, and this — together with an unusually broad group of companies behind it — helped the technology become embedded into every smartphone (and most stupid ones). It was ideal for hands-free phone-speakers, especially in cars, where now, of course, it is a legal necessity in many countries for taking phone calls while driving.
With that link established, music transmission to the same car speakers was an obvious development, assisted by a stereo Bluetooth profile and ever-increasing bit-rates. Bluetooth speakers for the home then appeared; we’ve heard a great number of them, headphones too, and some have produced enjoyable audio up to a certain level. But not hi-fi.
The arrival of aptX was promising, and remains so. It’s been around for several years, and is often misunderstood as a ‘lossless’ Bluetooth codec capable of CD quality, which it isn’t — it uses 4 x data compression (twice as much as is generally considered possible for lossless) and might be better described as “near-CD quality”, something close to a 320k AAC/MP3 file. That’s pretty good, but to take advantage of aptX, the codec must be installed in both the playback device and the smartphone/tablet — aptX at only one end is no good; both devices will fall back to a lower standard.
Working out the result of this two-sided handshaking isn’t easy; my thanks this month go to a number of engineers who have fielded my enquiries and helped tease out details — Roger at Musical Fidelity, Bernard at Cabasse, also representatives for aptX, Arcam and NuVo. Two of these five told me their hi-fi units would fall back to the standard SBC codec in the absence of aptX in the handset, while two others indicated that iOS6 devices should be able to operate at a halfway house of 256k AAC. Since none of the five devices I use to test music streaming (iPhone 5/iPad 2, LG Optimus G for Android, out-of-date HTC Mozart for Windows 7.5) has aptX, I must have been listening either to SBC or AAC256 through various Bluetooth devices this issue, and I tell you — it didn’t sound like the Bluetooth grunge we have been warning people against all these years. In the best cases it just sounded like good hi-fi.
This is partly down to the advances in Bluetooth, yes, but I suspect the crucial element is that real hi-fi companies have now had a good look at Bluetooth and applied their own expertise to tease the best possible results from it. Just as a good DAC is down to more than the chip itself, and a good TV is down to more than just the panel, a good result from Bluetooth will be down to how the data is handled once received — good old-fashioned hi-fi engineering in the new age of data management.
Our reviews aside, the best way to judge whether any given Bluetooth quality is good enough for you is, of course, to hear it. I’m sure any local hi-fi shop would be delighted to provide a demonstration, while the upcoming Australian Audio & AV Show in Melbourne (Oct 18-20) will have plenty of wireless solutions in individual rooms where you can sit and listen and ask questions, comparing not only Bluetooth but competing AirPlay and bespoke wireless systems as well.
Our cover headline sums it up — we just couldn’t believe this was Bluetooth. Looks like King Harald is finally coming of age.
Jez Ford, Editor,