Protect and detect: Could Bluetooth audio help the live music industry?


July 13, 2023

Could advances in Bluetooth technology have benefits for the live music industry? Jonny McClintock, commercial director at Antennaware, CEO of Audio Codecs and advisor to Virscient, Segotia and Sonical, explores the issue . . .

McClintock: “Almost to the day, it’s been 12 months since I resigned my role in Qualcomm having looked after aptX for almost 30 years. In that time, I’d been on a journey that took aptX into over 12billion devices in the professional and consumer electronic audio sectors. The resignation was in part down to post-COVID, in part approaching 57 years old and an interest to see if I could ‘go again’, but mostly just a sense of frustration about wireless audio. This frustration was almost wholly around Bluetooth and how it really wasn’t delivering on its potential.

“When APT Licensing Limited was acquired by CSR in 2010, Bluetooth audio was considered a joke from an audiophile perspective. No reputable audio manufacturer was happy with the codec at the time (i.e. SBC). Aside from audio quality, latency was so bad the SIG used protocols to achieve synchronisation for non-real-time applications. However, because the SIG didn’t have a fit for purpose Interop programme, it was hit or miss if that feature worked between different OEMs. Introducing aptX helped with a number of these problems and, by the time I left, audio quality was up to CD Lossless and latency had the potential to get to 25ms (with BLE). A robust Interop programme ensured a consistent UX.

“However, due to Bluetooth performance being driven by a small number of semiconductor companies, it meant that innovation and the UX was in the hands of a few. These few were without doubt supremely talented RF engineers, but had little or no working knowledge around audio. The SIG were spectacularly slow moving (which is good and bad), which all added up to something that was underwhelming.

“Without really a joined up plan, I left and fairly quickly got drawn into two companies and a different RF topology. The first company was Antennaware which came from the same stable as aptX (Queen’s University Belfast). The founders - Gareth Conway and Matt Magill - had patented new antenna techniques which address body blocking; a problem when streaming audio from a handset placed in the back pocket to earbuds. The second company was Sonical who had a plan to deliver an Operating System in the Ear i.e. CosmOS. This would allow configurability at the point of use by dropping in an App as opposed to the rigid approach of whatever the semiconductor company dictated at point of build. Finally, UWB which basically seemed pure solid gold in terms of latency and data throughput credentials.

“However for UWB, sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold and there was a fundamental flaw: due to the frequencies (6.5GHz and 8GHz) devices suffered terribly from body blocking and detuning, which effectively ruled out wearable applications. However, this near terminal weakness is solvable by Antennaware’s Bodywave antenna design. Now we have an RF protocol with good power figures, sub 10ms of latency and enough data to support 24/96 Linear PCM audio. Add in CosmOS and we could now have a headset that provides all the functionality that audiophiles and gamers would like and appreciate but the host device could be configured for hi-res audio, immersive gaming, hearing assistance and general health purposes such as blood pressure and heart rate monitoring.

“A few months in and the good people at Segotia made contact and explained about their EEG technology, which could be used for attention monitoring and Cognitive Function Awareness. The ear being so close to the brain and inserting an earbud with sensors will readily lend itself to data gathering, which could be used a utility tool or try to improve mental health. The applications are literally endless for this combination of radio, antenna, OS, audio and data gathering. Almost overwhelming in fact and maybe outlining one use case will go some way to paint a picture.

Live music needs low latency radio links for both mics and in-ear monitors (IEMs). Anything over 10ms (mic to front-of-house desk and back to IEMs) will be just noticeable (especially for drummers and vocalists) but not damaging enough to affect the performer’s experience. It’s worth noting that 10ms equates to around 3.5m, which is roughly the distance band members may be away from each other on a stage or in a performance area. UWB with Antennaware’s Bodywave can now service this fundamental requirement of latency. The mono feed from the mic to FOH is around 4ms, the same for the stereo feed back to the musician’s ears. The reaming 2ms will be taken up with DACs / ADCs and processing in the desk.

“An occupational hazard for musicians is damaged hearing. Having the option to configure the IEMs for normal use - listening to their feed for 99% of the time – for the remaining 1% of time the devices can be reconfigured to run hearing tests with the results being held in the cloud. Over a period of time the owner can record, monitor and understand if their hearing is being impaired and, based on ongoing data harvesting, adjust their lifestyle accordingly. The IEMs are tools, but can now be configurable tools.

“Recently I ran a workshop at AES in Helsinki on The Future of Wireless Audio, Headphone 3.0 where the guest panellists were from Qorvo (UWB), Antennaware, Sonical (CosmOS), Segotia (EEG), MQA (Audio) and Lenbrook. The final name is really important as they are the OEM brand that has taken the leap to announce a product with all the aforementioned functionality. It’s all very well for me to hypothesize, but it needed an OEM to make it real. Bravo Lenbrook. Slides for this workshop are available on request.”

Jonny McClintock has spent more than 30 years licensing and selling audio technology into professional and consumer products and was heavily involved in the commercial success of aptX. This involved various exits, including the sale of APT Licensing Ltd to CSR for Bluetooth applications (subsequently CSR was bought by Qualcomm).

Following this acquisition, McClintock brought aptX to hundreds of different wireless audio products. In total the aptX technology was licensed to more than 1,000 different OEMs and shipped in more than 12billion devices. Prior to Bluetooth, aptX was used in over 75% of radio stations and sound studios worldwide.

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