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Tech Rap: Kind of Blue(tooth)

Posted on March 14 2019

By Peter Skiera

 

For my Tech Rap subjects, I try to think of topics you might find interesting or helpful. I’m basing the topic for this month on Bluetooth headphones, based on emails from customers including an enjoyable exchange I had with a very pleasant Como Audio customer in Munich, Germany.

Before we get into the topic at hand, let’s review Bluetooth technology in very basic terms. Bluetooth has been available to consumers for almost 20 years and has come a long way since it was first introduced. It was named after Harald Bluetooth- the first person in history to stream music via Bluetooth from a smartphone. No, not really. I was just checking to be sure you were paying attention. Harald Bluetooth was a real person, but he was actually a 10th Century Danish King who united the Scandinavians. Bluetooth “unites” devices, thus, the origin of the name. Bluetooth compresses the music before transmission, uses radio frequencies to transmit (images and video aren’t supported), and then un-compresses the music on the receiving end. The default audio codec is SBC (Subband Coding) which can handle bit rates up to 328kbps/44.1kHz. There are some who think the sound quality of SBC is lacking, but for the average listener, the sound is quite acceptable. Bluetooth setup is easier than Wi-Fi, but its signal coverage is more limited.


King Harald Bluetooth: Is that a smart phone he’s reaching for?!

 

I don’t think a couple of weeks can go by without someone emailing me asking how they can use Bluetooth headphones (or Bluetooth speakers) with their Como Audio system. I asked the aforementioned Musica customer in Germany to keep me abreast of his headphone experience. He originally experimented with the Sennheiser RS 195, a 2.4-2.8GHz system (not Bluetooth), but eventually settled on B&W PX Bluetooth headphones and an Avantree Oasis Plus Bluetooth transmitter. He described the B&W’s as having “…very good sound; in some cases, even better than the Sennheiser. They have a perfect usability and a very nice design (with zero plastic), and I can play them from my mobile phone, too.” He also liked his transmitter, commenting: “Thanks to its external antenna and powerful Class 1, the transmitter has a signal range of 50-60m, going even through walls. It's surely not that good as the Sennheiser…but I'm absolutely fine with that.”

 
Speaking of Germany, walking back to my hotel in Berlin a few years back, I strolled past this dentist office and snapped this picture after realizing it was “Bluetooth”!

Picture by Peter Skiera

 

Ready to Transmit
As you may have deduced from the above paragraph, if you want to use Bluetooth headphones with your Como Audio system, you need to invest in a Bluetooth transmitter. This is because our models receive Bluetooth signals, they don’t transmit them. You’ll have no problem finding such devices (there are hundreds of Bluetooth transmitters listed on Amazon) at every price range. I selected a less expensive transmitter than our German customer. I read a slew of Amazon user reviews and went with the TaoTronics long-range Bluetooth transmitter. It cost me $45 after applying a digital coupon, plus free (Amazon Prime) shipping.

 

Fold Flap A into Slot B
Thankfully, installing a Bluetooth transmitter isn’t like assembling a piece of Ikea furniture. I connected a 3.5mm stereo audio cable from my Musica’s stereo Line output to the transmitter’s analog input, plugged it in, turned it on, placed it in transmit mode (some have both transmit and receive settings), and the setup was done. If the transmitter also has an optical input like the TaoTronics did, don’t connect it to your Como Audio system’s optical jack because that’s an input not an output, meaning you won’t hear any sound in your headphones if you use that connection. If you use the Headphone output on your Como Audio system instead of the Line out, it will mute the unit’s speakers, so you’ll have to unplug the audio cable to the transmitter every time you want to hear your Como Audio system. If you use the Line output as I did, the unit’s speakers will remain active, so you’ll just turn the volume all the way down on your Como Audio system while you’re using your headphones, but at least you won’t have to plug and unplug the cable. Like our customer from Germany, I also used my Musica’s rear USB jack to power the transmitter which came with its own (very short) USB charging cable. With the transmitter on, I turned the Bluetooth headphones on, put them in pairing mode per the instructions, and they paired and connected to the transmitter within a few seconds. I turned up the headphone’s volume and I was in business (if you use a Bluetooth speaker instead of headphones, the setup is pretty much the same).


Connect the Bluetooth transmitter’s input to your Como Audio system’s stereo Line or Headphone output using a 3.5mm stereo audio cable.

 

You'll be equally overwhelmed with the variety of Bluetooth headphones. For my own use case I chose the Plantronics BackBeat Pro2 closed back, over-ear (they cover the entire ear) Bluetooth headphones. As enamored as I was with the design of the B&W PX headphones (I worked for B&W 19 years ago), at $395 they were way beyond my budget (remember, I make my living working in audio). The Sony WH-1000xM3 Bluetooth headphones seemed to be at the top of every reviewer's list for the best sound quality, but they, too, were expensive at $348. I had never heard of Plantronics before, but this model garnered very decent reviews and the price was right at $146 with free (Amazon Prime) shipping. 


The Plantronics BackBeat Pro2 in retro brown: Lots of plastic, but they sounded and felt very good, and they were wallet-friendly at $146.

 

Bring on the Fun
Once I had everything up and running, it was finally time for the fun part…listening to music! I spent the better part of a bitterly cold, snowy New England weekend listening to the factory-set Internet radio station presets on my Musica as well as stations WJIB (EZ listening; 128kbps/MP3), Best Smooth Jazz (UK; 128kbps/MP3), and Aural Awakenings (New Age; 192kbps/MP3). Since the transmitter was connected to the Como Audio system’s Line out, any source going to those outputs would be broadcast to the headphones via Bluetooth. Accordingly, I selected FM, Spotify, a few songs from my USB thumb drive (Leonid & Friends “25 or 6 to 4”; Freedust “Jump Up and Down” instrumental; and Neil Young’s “Old Man”), a couple of podcasts, and a CD (“David Bowie Glastonbury 2000”), and heard them each through the wireless headphones. Likewise, if you had an outboard device connected to your Como Audio system such as a turntable or a tape deck, that audio would also be wirelessly transmitted to the headphones when in Auxiliary mode. I found the Plantronics sound quality to be very good indeed. The bass tended to be a bit over the top when listening to bass-heavy music, but that seems to be the way many headphones are being voiced nowadays. If you read my Hurray for Knobs blog article, you know I own several pairs of vintage wired headphones. I didn’t perform a direct A-B comparison with the Plantronics, but as nice as the BackBeat Pro 2’s sounded, I’d give the wired versions the edge for sound quality (although not being tethered to the Bluetooth headphones was undeniably liberating). As an aside, the Plantronics’ active noise cancelling (ANC) was okay, but not as efficacious as others I’ve tried (I could still hear my banjo clock chiming away in the background), but that’s not what I bought them for. The Plantronics specs state the battery lasts a generous 24 hours on a full charge, so you can use them for a long time as I did before a recharge is required.


Look Ma, no wires!

 

Roam If You Want To
As for the Bluetooth transmitter, I was amazed at its signal reach. Because the headphones and transmitter were Class 1 Bluetooth devices, the range was about 5 times greater than the 33 feet standard Bluetooth provides. My house is 1,500 square feet and I wasn’t able to find any place that caused the music to break up or stop. I went up to the second floor bedroom to collect my laundry whilst wearing the headphones and the music didn’t stop. I then went down into the basement to run the washing machine and the music still played uninterrupted. Despite the 37 degree temperature outside, I wandered onto my front deck and was still getting music in the headphones, though it broke up and had static noise. On occasion, I’d hear a “pop” noise similar to what one hears when playing a record, but after relocating the transmitter to a higher position, the pops all but disappeared. Sometimes I’d hear a little distortion regardless of my proximity to the transmitter. I wasn’t able to determine the cause but it seemed to be limited to the Aural Awakenings Internet station (yet the distortion wasn’t present on the Musica’s speakers). One helpful feature of this transmitter model was its visual indication of “classic” aptX, aptX LL, or aptX HD transmission. Since the Plantronics supported aptX LL (more on this in the next paragraph), that’s what remained illuminated. This transmitter also had an integrated rechargeable battery. I thought this an odd feature, but I guess if you had your Como Audio Amico outside on your deck or patio, you could connect this transmitter to it and listen using wireless headphones. One word of caution: the TaoTronics user manual print is so tiny it should have come with a coupon for free corrective laser eye surgery.

 
The TaoTronics Bluetooth transmitter had touch-sensitive controls and displayed the aptX flavor in use: “Classic” aptX, aptX LL (Low Latency), or aptX HD, depending on what the Bluetooth headphones supported.

 

aptX anyone?
aptX is designed to improve the sound quality of Bluetooth, putting it on-par (says aptX) with “CD quality” (16-bit/48kHz).  aptX HD supports even higher resolution, but there aren’t as many headphones out yet that support the HD iteration (and they tend to cost more). My Munich friend’s B&W PX headphones were one such model that supported aptX HD, as did the Sony 1000MX3’s I mentioned earlier. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro2 didn’t support aptX HD but it did support aptX LL. The “LL” designation stands for “low latency”, meaning any audio delay is minimized, though it may not be totally eliminated. It bears repeating that for aptX to work, both the transmitter and the headphones (or Bluetooth speakers) must support aptX. If only one of the devices supports it then there won’t be any benefit to the listener.

 

“According to the website Statista, 368 million headphones/earphones were sold worldwide last year.”

 

If you already own a set of Bluetooth headphone’s that you’re happy with and would like to use with your Como Audio music system, just get yourself a Bluetooth transmitter. Speaking strictly for myself (Como Audio doesn’t endorse specific brands), if you’re in the market for Bluetooth headphone’s and a transmitter, I think you’ll be hard pressed to do better than the Plantronics BackBeat Pro2 at $146. Based on my experience, the TaoTronics transmitter mates well with these headphones and provides incredible signal coverage, but any decent quality Bluetooth transmitter should work.

 
Most Bluetooth transmitters are quite compact, fitting just about anywhere. The TaoTronics measured just 3 1/4” square.

 

The headphone category has really exploded over the last decade and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. This is easily confirmed by taking a public stroll and observing how many people are walking around with headphones/earphones on. According to the website Statista, 368 million headphones/earphones were sold worldwide last year. Last month, Reportbuyer.com projected worldwide headphone/earphone sales to exceed 36 billion dollars by 2024. There’s no better time than the present to partake in the wireless headphone experience. Regardless of whether you’re the wireless or wired headphone type, you can use either with your Como Audio system. Yet another of the many ways Como Audio allows you to enjoy the music.

 

Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. Peter can be reached directly at pskiera@comoaudio.com

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