Audio has long been home court for Bluetooth® technology. Earlier in the year, forecasts showed that annual shipments of Bluetooth audio devices are expected to grow 1.4 times between 2022 and 2026. More recent predictions indicate that there will be 3 billion annual LE Audio device shipments by 2027, suggesting a rapid adoption. 

LE Audio is a revolutionary innovation in Bluetooth® technology. On top of upgrading performance with lower latency, lower power consumption, and higher sound quality, LE Audio also adds additional broadcast audio capabilities to bring consumers a more extensive and creative wireless audio experience. In the first half of this year, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) released a new audio capability, Auracast™ broadcast audio. It not only enables one-to-many personal audio sharing on the consumer side, but it can also be applied in airports, shopping malls, cinemas, and other public venues to enhance the way people engage with their surroundings.        

As Bluetooth® audio continues to advance in quality and functionality, more integrations of the new LE Audio standard within products are steadily taking place with an increasing number of application solutions emerging. Nordic Semiconductor actively embraces this new era of wireless audio by continuing to explore and lead innovation in LE Audio products and solutions to bring cutting-edge Bluetooth audio technology to the market.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Finn Boetius, product marketing engineer for Nordic Semiconductor. He shared insight into Nordic’s plans for LE Audio product and solution implementation as well as future development strategies.

Q&A With Finn Boetius From Nordic Semiconductor

 
What products and solutions has Nordic Semiconductor developed using LE Audio?

Nordic Semiconductor has a proven track record in designing energy-efficient wireless SoCs (system-on-chip) and has taken this even further with the nRF5340’s dual processor architecture. One of the application processors is optimized to deliver high performance and addresses wireless connectivity together with the other processor that is optimized for low power consumption to easily meet demands for high computing power. As a result, the SoC offers the ideal combination of low power consumption and high performance to meet the needs of LE Audio.

To complement the SoC and simplify the development workflow, Nordic Semiconductor released a development kit that contains everything needed for LE Audio projects. It is available in several configurations, e.g., as an earbud or broadcast receiver or in true wireless stereo (TWS) applications. For most use cases, such as wireless headsets, designers require two or more development kits for the headset and the audio source respectively.

The above SoCs and development kits developed by Nordic Semiconductor have helped several device manufacturers, including Sennheiser, one of the world’s leading audio brands, to bring the best LE Audio and Auracast™ devices to market.

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What market challenges have these solutions addressed?

Nordic Semiconductor has developed solutions that lay a solid foundation for wireless audio transmission applications. Use cases include true wireless stereo (TWS) applications, such as earbuds and headsets, as well as more specialized audio products like hearing aids. LE Audio products have significantly higher sound quality in wireless audio at almost half of the power used in Bluetooth® Classic Audio, thus doubling the playback from the same batteries.

Key to this performance is the LC3, LE Audio’s Low-Complexity Communication Codec, one of the most advanced audio codecs available today. It offers tremendous flexibility, covering everything from voice to high-quality audio. By supporting sample rates of 8, 16, 24, 32, 44.1, and 48 kHz and sample resolutions of 16, 24, and 32 bits, LC3 can encode speech and music at various bitrates. This flexibility in bitrate allows developers to trade-off sound quality with power consumption to extend battery life or reduce battery size.

Moreover, extensive listening tests by the Bluetooth SIG have shown that LC3 offers better audio quality than previous Bluetooth audio codecs at all sample rates, providing equal or better audio quality at half the bitrate.

Among LE Audio’s many features, its broadcast mode allows one or more audio streams to be broadcasted to an unlimited number of end devices. With Nordic Semiconductor’s range extender, audio can be wirelessly transmitted over distances of up to one kilometer.

Other applications include terminal devices that can broadcast audio from a normally muted public screen to a receiver in public venues such as gyms or enable live translation into several different languages at the same time in a conference room or cinema. LE Audio will also support  a new generation of assistive listening systems.

What are the most promising features for  Auracast™ broadcast audio and LE Audio?

Nordic Semiconductor was involved in the development of the Auracast™ standard from the beginning. We were so impressed with Auracast™ broadcast audio’s potential that we designed the nRF5340 SoC for all Auracast™ roles. We included several useful audio features in this SoC, including those with capabilities to better synchronize audio streams and transfer audio data. nRF5340 Audio DK supports developments using all Auracast™ features.

There are obvious use cases like broadcasting and sharing audio from mobile phones, tablets, and TVs, as well as headphones and earbuds, but everybody has those in mind.

“I am impressed with the potential of LE Audio to provide improved audio quality and longer battery.”

Another area where Auracast™ broadcast audio has potential is in audio induction loop replacement in public places. Auracast™ broadcast audio can transmit audio to multiple devices at the same time, which can be useful for providing audio information in public places such as museums, airports, or train stations. There are a lot of very interesting broadcasting use cases. I hope we will see some truly innovative products in this segment.

The most promising new use cases for LE Audio are those that require low-power consumption and low-latency audio streaming. One of the most impressive features of Le Audio is its ability to support multiple audio streams, which makes it well-suited for group listening and conference call applications. .

Additionally, LE Audio is designed to work well with hearing aids, which can provide improved sound quality and longer battery life.

Overall, I am impressed with the potential of LE Audio to provide improved audio quality and longer battery life while still being able to support multiple audio streams and connect to a variety of devices, which makes it a versatile technology for different use cases. The potential of LE Audio to replace audio induction loops in public places is also a niche but interesting use case for this technology.

What new LE Audio-based developments will Nordic Semiconductor explore in the future?

Nordic Semiconductor already supports all LE Audio features and roles and provides hardware, software, firmware, and development tools to facilitate product design. We will continue to work with our customers to bring LE Audio and Auracast™ broadcast audio products to market. 

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