Different Bluetooth Versions: What You Need to Know

Man Wearing Headphones (From:Pexels).
Man Wearing Headphones (From:Pexels).

We take a closer look at the different Bluetooth versions and how they affect your wireless listening experience.

Since its inception, the core idea of Bluetooth has essentially remained the same. Yet the technology itself has undergone numerous enhancements.

In audio data transmission alone, each Bluetooth version has shown immense improvements.

But how exactly do all these Bluetooth versions differ? And with the recent introduction of version 5.2, is upgrading your gear a must?

Man Wearing Headphones (From:Pexels).
Man Wearing Headphones (From:Pexels).

To help answer that question, we’ll give you a rundown of the advancements seen in the different Bluetooth versions over the years. We’ll also talk about related factors that can affect your headphones’ sound quality and performance.

The Different Bluetooth Versions

Bluetooth logo (From:Wikipedia).
Bluetooth logo (From:Wikipedia).

Before we get into the specifics – here’s a little Bluetooth history.

The name “Bluetooth” was taken from King Harald “Blåtand” Gormsson, a Danish king known for uniting Denmark and Norway. The king was nicknamed “Blue tooth” on account of a single rotting tooth in his mouth that was bluish-gray.

According to the founders of Bluetooth SIG, the name was meant to be temporary until the team could think of something “cooler”.

The development of Bluetooth technology was initiated by Ericsson Mobile CTO Nils Rydbeck in 1989. The first version was eventually standardized in 1994 by Jaap Haartsen, an engineer and researcher at the same company.

Here’s a quick look at the different Bluetooth versions throughout the years.

Bluetooth 1.0-1.2 (1999)

Bluetooth was designed to replace the RS-232 computer serial port. This was widely used for connecting PC peripherals like modems and printers. In the succeeding years, Bluetooth 1.2 was eventually integrated into different devices. Some of these are wireless headsets, mobile phones, laptops, cars, and digital cameras.

Main features

Bluetooth 1.0a and 1.0b featured peak data transfer speeds of around 732.2 kb/s, with a connection range of 10m or 33ft. Version 1.2 improved on this by increasing the data transfer speed to 1 Mbps. Other enhancements include:

  • Quicker device discoverability and pairing
  • Improved Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH) which lessened signal interferences
  • Implemented Extended Synchronous Connections (eSCO) for improved voice quality

Drawbacks

Despite the improvements, Bluetooth 1.2 didn’t have enough bandwidth to transmit high-quality audio. And understandably so since, at the time, Bluetooth was primarily meant for calls rather than music.

Bluetooth 2.0-2.1 (2005)

The arrival of Bluetooth 2.0 marked a period of significant growth. This is due to the increased global demand for Bluetooth-enabled devices. Among these devices were the first Bluetooth-enabled stereo headphones.

Main features

The most notable improvement in version 2.0 was Enhanced Data Rate (EDR). This increased the data transfer rate up to 3 Mbps. Other enhancements include:

  • Increased connection range of 30m or 100ft
  • Lower power consumption and longer battery life for wireless devices
  • Improved pairing system with SSP (Secure Simple Pairing)

Drawbacks

Sound quality remained mediocre, though. This is because most devices were using the SBC codec. Known for its subpar digital file compressions, this yielded poor sound quality, prone to audio delays.

Bluetooth 3.0 (2009)

Bluetooth 3.0 + HS (High Speed) came with a Wi-Fi connection capability that allowed faster data transfer speeds. This allowed better audio data transmission. As well as the transfer of larger amounts of data such as video.

Main features

One of the most significant changes in Bluetooth version 3.0 was its ability to use a Wi-Fi connection to transfer data, which it did at speeds of 24 Mbps. Other enhancements include:

  • L2CAP Enhanced modes and alternative MAC and PHYs for transferring large digital files
  • Enhanced Power Control e wireless devices to adjust power levels as needed. This helps maintain a good Bluetooth connection
  • Unicast Connectionless Data facilitated the quick transfer of smaller amounts of data

Drawbacks

The downside of Bluetooth 3.0 was its high power consumption. It quickly drained the batteries of the Bluetooth-enabled devices.

Bluetooth 4.0-4.2 (2010)

Fitness Tracker (From:Unsplash).
Fitness Tracker (From:Unsplash).

Bluetooth 4 brought forth Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or Bluetooth Smart. Bluetooth Smart allows smaller devices like fitness trackers, hearing aids, and headphones to stay paired longer using less power. Bluetooth Smart Ready allows primary devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones to act as connection hubs that could send and receive data from Smart devices.

Main features

Bluetooth 4.0 improved more than its power consumption. The introduction of the aptX codec also enhanced audio data transmission. This is due to its higher bitrate and efficient lossy compression algorithm. Other enhancements include:

  • Increased connection range to 60m or 200ft
  • Less interference between Bluetooth and 4G/LTE signals
  • Improved pairing and re-pairing of devices
  • Increased packet capacity and data range for IoT devices
  • Improved data transmission with Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH)

Drawbacks

Smart Ready devices can easily pair with devices using older Bluetooth models. But they are best paired with other Smart Ready devices. This is for them to benefit from the new energy-saving feature of BLE.

Bluetooth 5.0-5.2 (2016)

The latest Bluetooth version, Bluetooth 5, was released in July 2016 and focused on providing a better operation framework for IoT devices.

Main features

Bluetooth 5 provides an increased bandwidth capacity of 2 Mbps. It also extended the connection range to up to 240m. Plus, it comes with Low Complexity Communication Codec (LC3). This is a new audio protocol that transfers audio data at lower bitrates without sacrificing audio quality. Other notable improvements include:

  • Less power consumption
  • Increased message capacity
  • Backwards compatibility with Bluetooth 4 versions
  • Dual Audio feature allows you to connect to two different devices at the same time
  • Addition of Slot Availability Mask (SAM) which further lessens interference with LTE

Drawbacks

To fully benefit from these new features, your peripherals need to support Bluetooth 5 as well.

Yes, you can still use a Bluetooth 5 device with a Bluetooth 4 device. But if you want to avail of that extended range or Dual Audio feature, you’ll need to make sure your smartphone or laptop can support it, too. Otherwise, your Bluetooth connection will simply revert to the lower version.

Bluetooth 5.2 was released in January 2020, so only a limited number of headphones were known to be outfitted with the new version at the time of writing.

Bluetooth 4 vs. Bluetooth 5: Which Should You Go For?

The first Bluetooth-capable stereo headphones were launched in 2004. But they didn’t become a feasible option for wired headphones until the 2010s. This was right around the same time Bluetooth 4 was released.

Bluetooth 5, on the other hand, wasn’t released until 2016. This means it’s likely you’re currently using headphones equipped with some version of Bluetooth 4.

If so, you might be asking: is it necessary to upgrade to Bluetooth 5? To give you a bird’s eye view of the differences between the two versions, you can refer to this table.

FactorsBluetooth 4Bluetooth 5
SpeedSupports around 1mbps2x faster and supports around 2mbps
RangeUp to 10m indoorsUp to 40m indoors
CompatibilityGood for any phone modelsCan work with any phones but best for newer phone models
(Galaxy S8 and up, or iPhone 8 and up)
Power RequirementMid-highLower
ReliabilityLowHigh

Speed

When it comes to speed, the difference between Bluetooth 4 and 5 is a no-brainer. The former has a maximum speed of 1 Mbps, while the latter clocks in at 2 Mbps. The higher bandwidth allows faster data sharing with less lag and quicker response times between devices.

Range

Bluetooth 4 has a range of up to 60m (10m indoors), while Bluetooth 5 can maintain connections up to 240m (40m indoors). This increased connection range and higher speeds are good news for wireless headphones. It can let you enjoy your music at farther distances with fewer audio dropouts.

Compatibility

Bluetooth 5 is backwards compatible with Bluetooth 4 devices. This means you can easily use a pair of Bluetooth 4.2 headphones with a 5.0 phone.

But some newer enhancements in Bluetooth 5 won’t work with 4.2 devices. An example of that is the Dual Audio feature of Bluetooth 5. It allows you to connect two pairs of headphones to a single phone. Or play music from one phone on two different speakers.

So, if your audio device only supports 4.2, it’s still best to go for the same version of headphones. And if you own a Bluetooth 5 phone, and you want to make the most of its features, it’s best to upgrade your peripherals to Bluetooth 5 as well.

For reference, when connecting to Mac, remember that they use Bluetooth 5 on 2019 models and up. While for Windows 10 PCs, it highly depends on the Bluetooth adapter equipped to your device.  

Power requirement

Compared to other Bluetooth versions, Bluetooth 4 did see improvements in power consumption. However, its performance still falls in the mid-high range. Bluetooth 5 further improved this by boosting its data transmission speed and range. As a result, devices require less power to send and receive data, ultimately prolonging battery life.

Reliability

Bluetooth 4 has a lower message capacity of 37 octets and an actual data payload of only 31 octets. In contrast, the message capacity of Bluetooth 5 goes up to 255 octets long. This means more efficient data transmission and less broadcast time.

Signal reliability is enhanced with Bluetooth 5 due to improved frequency hopping and Slot Availability Mask (SAM).

Improved frequency hopping means that Bluetooth 5 can use a wider selection of channel sequences in comparison to the 12 sequences used by Bluetooth 4. The introduction of SAM determines when an LTE channel is transmitting data. It also helps Bluetooth devices avoid these specific channels. Together, these two features lessen signal interference, thus maintaining your Bluetooth connection.

Other Factors That Contribute to Bluetooth Performance

Devices (From:Unsplash).
Bluetooth Audio Devices (From:Unsplash).

Aside from the Bluetooth versions, there are other Bluetooth characteristics that affect your Bluetooth headphones’ performance. Here’s a quick discussion on them:

Bluetooth profile

Bluetooth profiles are a set of specifications or rules that determine how a device can be used. Nowadays, you can delegate many tasks to your wireless headphones. Some of such are making and receiving calls or controlling music playback. These tasks require a specific Bluetooth profile to function correctly, so it’s good to understand what each profile does.

  • HFP (Hands-Free Profile): Allows the headphones to make calls and access phone features like number redialing, call waiting, and voice dialing.
  • HSP (Headset Profile): Allows users to make and receive calls, hang up, and adjust the voice volume via their headphones.
  • A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile): Allows users to stream audio from one device to another. Some examples of these are a smartphone to a headset, a smartphone to a car stereo, or a microphone to a computer.
  • AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile): Allows users to use their headphones as a remote control for media playback. With this profile, you can pause, play, and stop music playback, as well as skip tracks.
  • PBAB (Phone Book Access Profile): Allows the headphones to access the user’s phone contacts for its Caller Announce feature.

Bluetooth class

Bluetooth classes indicate the power output and wireless range of a Bluetooth device. A higher power output means a longer range. Class 1 and 2 Bluetooth devices typically include laptops and computers. On the other hand, other smaller mobile devices fall under Class 3.

  • Class 1: 100 mW (20 dBm), 100 metres (300 ft)
  • Class 2: 2.5 mW (4 dBm), 10 metres (33 ft)
  • Class 3: 1 mW (0 dBm), 1 metre (3 ft)

Understanding what class your Bluetooth device falls under is essential for getting the most out of its range capacity. So, if you want to make full use of that 300-foot range capacity when listening to music, both your phone and headphones need to be Class 1 devices. If your phone is Class 1 and your headphones are Class 2, the connection will simply revert to the lower class range.

Bluetooth codec

A Bluetooth codec is a program that compresses and decompresses audio data into a specific format and transmits it at a specified bitrate.

Codecs with higher bitrates, like Sony LDAC (990kbps), typically yield better sound quality. This is because more data is transmitted and less compression occurs. It’s in stark contrast to the more common SBC codec.

The SBC codec transmits data at 192-320kbps and yields poorer sound quality.

Currently, both Bluetooth 4 and 5 can handle codecs with higher bitrates. Thus, upgrading to Bluetooth 5 won’t miraculously improve your headphones’ sound quality.

Learn more about this and how they work in our in-depth article on Bluetooth codecs.

Conclusion

There are different types of wireless connection but Bluetooth remains the king up to this day. However, the different Bluetooth versions do not solely determine the sound quality of our wireless headphones. And with every advancement, each version has given us a smoother listening experience. Ultimately, sound quality is determined by a combination of factors such as Bluetooth profiles, codecs, and classes.

Hopefully, with a bit of help from this guide, these concepts now make a little more sense. Whether it’s for gaming, watching TV, working out, or any casual listening with your true wireless headphones, you can now figure out whether or not you should upgrade to Bluetooth 5 or not.

Did you find our guide helpful? If you’d like to share your thoughts on the info we discussed here, please leave us a message in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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