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A2DP: The state of Stereo Bluetooth Technology

IMG_7250Recently, Gizmodo posted a side by side comparison of many bluetooth headsets. In the post, author John Herrman, talks about the status of A2DP technology itself and whether an investment in a stereo bluetooth is worth the price tag. I have reviewed two of these headsets in the past (the MOTOROKR and the Jabra HALO) and I thought I might add my two cents about the status of A2DP technology and whether the lack of wires is worth the wallet bite.

Technology:

  • Range: Like any electrical signal, the bluetooth audio signal gets weaker depending on what medium it travels through. When traveling through a metal (copper) wire with insulation the signal loss will be minimal. But when traveling through the air signal loss will be much greater. One way to get around this problem is by boosting the power of the signal to make up for the loss through transmission. However, when the signal is created via a battery powered cell phone, the range of the signal is limited by the power of the battery. The biggest problem with current A2DP technology is the compromise it has made when it comes to the allowable distance between your cell phone and the A2DP headphones. The most likely use for A2DP technology is by those who wish to keep their cell phones/iPods in their pockets while listening to music. However, between the moving around of the cell phone/iPod when in a pants pocket and the distance from the pocket to the headphones, both tested bluetooth stereo headsets lost signal quite frequently, making the listening experience unusable.
  • Sound Quality: When the iPod first came out, audiophiles complained that the quality of the music reproduced was inferior to that of the original analog signals. But with the success of the iPod, we saw that most people just don’t care as long as the quality of the music is decent and listenable. iPods and stereo bluetooth headphones are products that are meant for people on the go, who are expecting a satisfactory mobile listening experience–not a mobile symphony reproduced in a sound studio. With that said, both the MOTOROKR and the HALO produce some pretty decent sound (with the HALO winning out between the two). You can’t expect a crazy amount of bass considering the size of bluetooth stereo headphones (decent bass needs decent space), but they both make a pretty good effort. While sound quality can be improved in the future, I don’t think that it is the biggest problem with mainstreaming A2DP stereo headphones.
  • Control Functions: Because the A2DP stereo bluetooth headphones are supposed to allow a user to keep his or her cell phone or iPod safely put away while listening to music, it is imperative that there be a way to control both the volume and simple control functions of the audio source from the headphones themselves. But because the headphones sit atop the user’s head, the controls must be pressure sensitive. Otherwise, you may find yourself pushing a button into your head in order to change a song. With the MOTOROKR S9HD, that was the exact problem. The buttons were a hard push and located on the ear itself–hurting my ear every time I tried to push a button. The HALO however fixed this problem with a soft push button and a touch sensitive controller. All in all, the control technology seems pretty usable thus far and not in need of much improvement.
  • Portability: This is one of the main drawbacks of current A2DP headphones. A2DP headphones are predominantly used on the go. In that sense, they have to be easy to take out of a pocket, use and put away. However, all A2DP headphones reviewed thus far were way to big to fit normally into a pocket (unless you want to provoke endless “is that a pair of headphones in your pocket or…” jokes). Unless you are going to leave them around your neck for storage, you have to carry around a bag to put these away–making the whole mobile listening experience less fluid. In the future I hope to see a pair of wireless earbuds that I could just drop into a pocket and forget about, but until then carry a bag.

Price Point: With the limitations on range, A2DP headphones are nice, but not nearly good enough for every day use. This makes it hard to justify a heftier price tag for a nicer pair. I mean what good is a nice pair of headphones if they don’t really do what they are supposed to. So until a reliable range is increased for pocket distance, I suggest buying a cheaper A2DP headset to play with or holding off completely.


8 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. Regular mono non-A2DP headsets do quite well as wireless headphones too — certain headsets produce really good audio — and they let you be aware to the world in one ear, and let you listen as well.

  2. I’m sure you’re aware of the existence of small bluetooth headphone receivers that let you use earbuds such as the Jabra BT3030?

    Granted, the whole ‘dogtag’ look isn’t for everyone but who says you need to wear it in full view? When working out I clip it to an armband or my waistband. When in transit I stick it in my shirt pocket or clip it to my shirt, facing in.

    • That is definitely a good point. Especially since the tag sits lower and is closer to the phone/iPod. But I focused on full headsets for the review, not receivers that allow you to plug in your own earphones. Another big difference between the tag receiver and the full fledged BT headphones is the wires. Still having wires go into your ear almost makes the BT headphones pointless. You might as well just use a tiny iPod shuffle as a tag.

  3. They need only as much range as the wired stereo headset they are replacing. Asking for more is asking for compromising of battery life and/or size.
    Besides, these things receive. If the audio is dropping out, that’s more likely the fault of the transmitting device (phone) than the headsets? I dont get dropouts on my BB music gateway with either 9530 or 9630 so I’m wondering what was wrong with your testing setup? BT easily ranges 30 feet or more.

  4. The saying is “my two cents.” Just sayin’….

    The motorola S9 is a great sounding headset. It doesn’t match wired quality, but is acceptable for talk or music in a active/workout environment.

  5. I have just bought the Sony DR-BT21 A2DP headphones (also sold as DR-BT21ik which comes with a bluetooth iPod dongle). I don’t think it is as well known as other headphones but it has good reviews. They are neckband style heaphones that fold down into a nice little package and have volume and track control buttons as well as the standard multi function headset button.

    The audio quality is great, I paired it to my iPhone 3G which now supports A2DP and it was up and running in seconds, I also took a call which was very clear and the other person had no trouble hearing despite the mic being on the right earpiece. The previous/next track button is the only thing that doesn’t work on the iPhone because Apple implemented only part of the AVCRP protocol (play/pause/stop). Using the iPod dongle all features work as it’s relaying the commands through the dock connector but it’s less elegant.

    With my Samsung NC10 running Windows 7 I was up and running in about a minute, I simply paired it and Windows contacted Windows Update for the drivers. The netbook has a Broadcom chipset and uses the WIDCOMM software which installed an iTunes control utility when installing the headset, it allows all of the headset buttons to work with iTunes. It works perfectly under Windows 7, as soon as it detect the headset it switches all audio to it, I’m not sure if that is new in Windows 7 or if it’s in Vista too (I didn’t keep Vista around long enough to find out).

    Regarding your comments about signal loss, I think the actual transmitting device is as much to blame as the headphones. I’ve tested my heaphones with an iPhone 3G, a Samsung NC10 netbook and a USB bluetooth dongle. The phone and netbook could easily keep a signal at up to 10 meters, the USB dongle struggled at even 1 meter due to it’s tiny antenna etched on the circuit board. Also remember that A2DP is using more bandwidth than the standard headset profile so it’s going to be more susceptible to dropouts in poor signal quality.

    Overall I’m very impressed with A2DP, especially when you have good support in the modern operating systems and latest smart phones.

  6. I think I will get a Samsung NC10, it looks really great and has good specs. Or does anybody know a notebook with similar specs?

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