With the ever-growing popularity of wireless headphones, speakers, systems and wearable devices, Bluetooth is more common than ever – if you don't believe us, just ask the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), whose market update 2021 estimates that there will be a total of 13 billion Bluetooth devices in use in 2021.
Bluetooth has been around for 23 years now (yes, we feel old too) and its introduction was originally meant to pave the way for the removal of those large, nine-pronged RS-232 serial ports on devices.
These days, there's a Bluetooth chip squirrelled away in almost every piece of mobile or stationary tech you own. Good news, then, that the technology is continually being improved. Bluetooth 5, 5.1, 5.2 and now 5.3 are more powerful than ever, with enormous potential for the Internet of Things and wireless music listening alike.
If you're considering a Bluetooth device but you aren't sure which version of Bluetooth you require – or whether those numbers even matter – read on.
What is Bluetooth 5?
Bluetooth 5 is the latest umbrella iteration of Bluetooth, the wireless, close-range technology found in smartphones, smartwatches, tablets, wireless headphones and speakers, laptops, desktop computers and more.
Bluetooth, as you probably know, lets your devices talk to each other wirelessly without an internet connection – as long as they're relatively close by. It also lets you ping tunes from your music source (often, this is your smartphone) to a wireless speaker so you can listen to music at home, in the park or on the beach.
For the purposes of this piece, we're glossing over early iterations of Bluetooth, because if you're shopping for a new budget-friendly speaker or set of wireless earbuds today, the oldest version of Bluetooth you're likely to see on the spec-sheet is 4.2, which was released in 2014.
From v4.2, we move to Bluetooth 5 (released in 2016), version 5.1 (January 2019), version 5.2 (December 2019) and most recently, Bluetooth 5.3, which was unveiled on 13th July 2021. Now, although it's the latest update, Bluetooth 5.3 has yet to make its way into devices and – although it does boast minor improvements to the protocol – as such, this article focuses mainly on Bluetooth 5, 5.1 and 5.2.
How powerful is Bluetooth 5?
Compared to its predecessor, Bluetooth 4.2 Low Energy, Bluetooth 5 is twice as fast, has four times the range and can transfer eight times as much data.
If you want hard stats, we're talking a bandwidth of 2Mbps. In practice, this means speedy and reliable over-the-air connectivity, leading to faster firmware updates and data uploading.
Thanks to the greater range of around 800 feet (or 240m, up from 60 metres/200 feet in Bluetooth 4.2), your wireless speakers and headphones should work much further away from the sound source than with Bluetooth 4.2 Low Energy. In reality, walls and obstacles will impinge on those figures slightly, but it's still a huge upgrade regardless, and it allows for whole-home coverage for Internet of Things devices such as security cameras, smart fridges, smart thermostats and more.
And because of its more efficient use of broadcasting channels on the increasingly popular 2.4GHz band, it opens the way for "richer connectionless, beacon-based Bluetooth solutions", according to the SIG. In other words, expect greater wireless connectivity wherever you go, from sports stadia to shopping centres.
You can also connect more than one pair of wireless headphones to a single sound source over Bluetooth thanks to Dual Audio, which made its first appearance in Bluetooth 5. If your device has the right functionality (like Samsung's Bluetooth Dual Audio feature) you can adjust the volume of each independently too – very handy for sharing and journeys by train or plane.
Bluetooth 5 can even detect interference at the edges of the 2.4GHz and neighbouring LTE bands, and automatically prevent it. This should make for clearer music listening from any wireless device.
Which devices are compatible with Bluetooth 5, 5.1 and 5.2 – and what improvements do they offer?
Bluetooth 5 is practically a blanket device standard now – you'll find it in every Apple smartphone since the iPhone 8 right up to the latest iPhone 13, for example, and also in several wireless headphones, including the excellent Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ and Apple AirPods Max.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 was the first phone to work with the technology in 2017, followed by the bigger Galaxy S8 Plus and Note 8 but, as you can see, they've since been joined by a plethora of smartphones.
On the headphones side, the Kickstarter-funded Anker Zolo Liberty+ was the first pair to support Bluetooth 5, back in 2017. And while the 2018 Apple HomePod lists Bluetooth 5 on its spec-sheet (as does the 2020 Apple HomePod Mini smart speaker), it definitely uses AirPlay 2 to stream music, rather than Bluetooth, and it does not show up as an available Bluetooth device. It seems Bluetooth radio is used only for set-up – and that's all.
Bluetooth 5.1, meanwhile, can be found in the JBL Charge 5, JBL Go 3 and JBL Xtreme 3, for starters. What improvements does 5.1 boast? It's an admittedly minor upgrade compared to the leap from 4.2 to 5, but 5.1 lets Bluetooth devices pinpoint your location, so it is the tech that paved the way for in-app 'Find My Earbuds' features. There are also minor gains to be had in terms of quicker pairing and a reduction in power consumption, as well as slightly better handling – ie. a stronger 'available to connect' signal showing up on your device.
Now, Bluetooth 5.2. It can be found in 2021 wireless earbuds including the Sony WF-1000XM4, Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 and Beats Studio Buds. Bluetooth 5.2 focuses mainly on improvements to audio devices – great news! The main new idea here (along with a lot of very technical but largely extraneous information) is LE Audio, which stands for Low Energy Audio. With it, there's a new audio codec, called LC3, which boasts high-quality audio but with reduced power consumption.
Bluetooth 5.2 also allows multiple synchronised data streams. We know, we needed clarification on what that means (and why it's desirable) too. Think of your wireless earbuds: previously, only one earbud would actually connect to your phone. The second bud would simply connect to the first. But having both earpieces directly connected to your device – ie. multiple streams – not only improves the reliability of the connection, it also vastly reduces any delay or sync issues that could arise between the left and right earpieces. Other perks with 5.2 include the ability to connect two sets of headphones to one device (which was not possible before), or the option to choose which earbud you want to use – if you only want to use one today.
Finally, hearing aids are greatly improved thanks to Bluetooth 5.2. They can go for a lot longer on a single charge, and engineers can make the units much smaller and more discreet.
Hopefully, we have answered your Bluetooth questions, thus allowing you to shop with confidence. Need some inspiration? Check out our pick of the best budget Bluetooth speakers on the market right now – you'll see the Bluetooth version listed for each one.
Consult our check-list of 7 things to consider before buying a Bluetooth speaker