I’ve found myself at an interesting crossroads when it comes to audio quality, streaming latency, and the foibles of Bluetooth CODECs. An acronym that stands for the dry terms “compress / decompress,” CODECs are a very important part of the digital landscape, yet we don’t really give them much thought. While a full exploration of what a CODEC is, where they have an impact, and how to make use of them is beyond the scope of this article, I’d at least like to touch upon what it means when it comes to wanting decent audio quality with acceptable audio/video synchronization when playing video games. It’s that synchronization part that I believe hasn’t been given much attention over the years, with companies refusing to include proper solutions to tackle this issue.
How The Issue First Popped Up
I won’t mince words here. Apple’s choice to kill the standard 3.5 mm audio jack on the iPhone back in September 2016 threw a serious monkey wrench into things. While they weren’t wrong in saying that there were already fairly decent Bluetooth solutions out there to handle mobile audio, they were only concerned with music playback. Even their own AAC CODEC can introduce a delay of about 150 milliseconds (which is actually in the same ballpark as SBC, one of the most used Bluetooth CODECs of all). That may not sound like much, but most video games target 60 frames per second, so those 150 milliseconds (note that that’s in the low range; it may hit over 240 milliseconds) create a case of very noticeable delay between the video being displayed in the game and the audio being served by the Bluetooth headset. Using the 60 frames per second benchmark a single frame in a video game is about 16.7 milliseconds. That means that the 150 milliseconds of delay (best case scenario) is about 9 gameplay frames, which are way too many on an action-oriented game. Personally, I am not much of a mobile gamer, so I stubbornly held on to my wired headphones and didn’t give this much thought for the most part, though I did buy a few sets of Bluetooth headphones to use around the office and gym. While I didn’t use these for gaming at first, I did notice odd audio delays when watching YouTube videos with these.
My first Bluetooth purchase was a set of Bose SoundLink OnEar Headphones. I hadn’t really done any research back then and it seemed like Bose was a well-known brand, so I actually went back to them a few times. They weren’t that bad for music but I really wasn’t a fan of them for watching videos. I never attempted to game on these. I had also bought some Bose Soundsport Pulse for the Gym, but the less said about those the better. I had to turn them in for warranty reasons and the warranty replacements lasted less than the ones I originally purchased. The buttons on the small remote attached to the cable popped out. These also had delays when watching YouTube.
It was with the Bose Soundsport Free that I attempted to play a video game while using Bluetooth sound for the first time. To this day, they remain one of my favorite Bluetooth headsets for podcasts, music, and while doing any kind of physical activity around the house because of the fit. They have some wing-like attachments that keep them nice and fixed on the ears, so I never have an issue with them popping out (as it tends to happen to me with other Bluetooth “True Wireless” earphones from time to time) and I really like their controls as they have dedicated buttons for controlling volume, power, and playback instead of the usual single multi-use touchpad or button that you have to practice to learn. Eventually, I paired them up to a Bluetooth transmitter I had plugged into my Nintendo Switch’s headphone jack and played Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, which was one of the few fighting games available on the system back then, and a game that I understood fairly well since I’ve been playing the original release (plain old Street Fighter II) for most of my life (I’m a big fighting game fan)!
My suspicions were confirmed: this was no way to play a fighting game! I could handle this delay with a slower genre, maybe. Ok, I tried a few RPG’s and while it wasn’t as disorienting, it was still annoying to have that delay. So, is there a solution to this problem? Actually, yes!
Enter Qualcomm and aptX Low Latency!
There are a few solutions out there that promise “low latency” as far as Bluetooth headphones are concerned. For instance, Razer offers a set of headphones that promise a “low latency” mode. I have never used them, but I notice that they don’t advertise them as actually having the Qualcomm aptX Low Latency CODEC, and I’ve read a few reviews stating that they don’t notice much of a difference in “gaming mode,” so I’m assuming that Razer is just using some software trickery to get latency under control. That may work in some setups, but the one thing that I know provides a very good experience is the Qualcomm aptX Low Latency CODEC itself, and not every product that advertises having Low Latency, or even having aptX support, support the aptX Low Latency CODEC. Granted, there’s also the HWA Alliance’s LHDC LL/LLAC (“Low Latency Audio CODEC”) used by the Huawei P30, but I haven’t seen many devices advertising its support. Maybe that’s what the Razer earphones use; not sure as they don’t seem to list that spec.
That “Low Latency” stands for the fact that it can deliver audio streams with a very small delay of about 40 milliseconds (this is the official Qualcomm specification, but it’s been recorded even lower at 32 milliseconds), which is much lower than what AAC and SBC offer on their best day while still retaining an impressive 352 kbps audio quality (which is slightly higher than MP3’s 320).” Unfortunately, it can be confusing because one of the good things about plain aptX itself is that it offers lower latency than other CODECs such as AAC and SBC. Why is this confusing? Because it means that vendors can advertise their solutions as having “Low Latency aptX support” without actually supporting aptX Low Latency itself, which is the best solution that I’m aware of for this problem. Yes, plain aptX will provide a better experience than SBC or AAC as far as latency goes, but it’s not as good as aptX Low Latency itself.
The Big Challenge Moving Forward: aptX Adaptive
There is also a big problem for aptX Low Latency support and for good gaming over Bluetooth moving forward: the new Qualcomm aptX Adaptive CODEC! Billed as some sort of new über-CODEC capable of supporting high bitrate audio for audiophiles and lower latency than AAC and SBC, aptX Adaptive has one neat trick under its sleeve: it can change bitrate and transmissions parameters on the fly so that it can offer a good tradeoff between quality and transmission speed. It supports multiple quality settings and transmission speeds that it switches on the fly in a supposedly seamless manner to offer the best of both worlds. It’s also backward compatible with the older baseline aptX CODEC by negotiating the same bitrate and transmission speed. It can also almost match the maximum quality of their flagship audiophile CODEC, aptX HD to deliver high-quality audio with aptX HD devices, even if they don’t support aptX Adaptive. One CODEC that it doesn’t support? aptX Low Latency. aptX Adaptive can’t offer the same low latency, with a theoretical minimum of 80-millisecond latency. That’s still much better than SBC and AAC, but twice as high as aptX Low Latency. When faced with a transmitter that supports aptX Low Latency, but does not support aptX Adaptive, it will fall back to basic aptX mode. That’s a latency of about 70 milliseconds, which is still about twice as much as aptX Low Latency.
So my main concern is that even when visiting Qualcomm’s aptX website they don’t seem to put much emphasis on aptX Low Latency and all their new flagship chipsets such as the QC5124 support aptX Adaptive but not aptX Low Latency. Is Qualcomm moving away from aptX Low Latency? I hope not, but it seems to be that way.
What about competing CODECs?
There are other CODECs out there besides AAC, SBC, and aptX variations. I briefly mentioned LLAC above and there’s also Sony’s LDAC. As usual with Sony innovations, LDAC was only supported by Sony products at first but it’s starting to branch out now. LDAC seems to offer about the same latency as plain aptX. The one that seems to actually be trying to beat aptX Low Latency for the low latency crown is LLAC, which can support latency as low as 30 milliseconds, which would best Qualcomm’s official 40-millisecond spec for aptX Low Latency (though it must still be mentioned that aptX Low Latency has been recorded at 32 milliseconds so that actually makes them about even). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find devices supporting LLAC at this time. But it’s a good CODEC to keep an eye on for the future. If you are interested in an audio solution with proper latency to enjoy video games right now though, please read on.
Devices with aptX Low Latency or Adaptive Support
I hope to expand this section in the future, especially with links to my reviews of products within this list that I’ve tried. My main aim is to point people towards Bluetooth audio products that can actually offer a good experience when playing video games and hopefully even spur a few sales to convince manufacturers to put out more products that support aptX Low Latency, as even some companies that used to support it have removed it from their updated products (such as Sennheiser, which put out the Momentum True Wireless in-Ear Headphones with aptX Low Latency support but removed it on their Momentum True Wireless 2 in-Ear Headphones). And yes, full disclosure: the links on these are Amazon affiliate links.
Transmitters (for source devices without native Bluetooth or aptX support):
Bionik BT Audio Sync: this one has a few quirks, such as that you need to be careful that you get one that works for you. The older version doesn’t work on Switch Lite while the new version works on both. It also doesn’t seem to have the best transmission quality as it has a few pops and I’ve had it disconnect out of the blue. Still, it supports aptX Low Latency and includes a USB-C passthrough to charge the Switch while using it, so it’s nice. It also works on PS4, but not on Xbox One so it may actually work with any device that does audio over USB. It’s powered by USB, so no need to charge it. I don’t think it supports voice chat though.
HomeSpot Bluetooth Adapter Pro: this one is probably overkill, but it’s also my favorite Nintendo Switch Bluetooth transmitter. It’s more expensive than the other solutions in this list but it’s really small, has a lot of features, can connect to your Switch and smartphone at the same time, and has a microphone for game chat. Great device, but no USB-C passthrough holds it back a bit.
UGREEN Bluetooth 5.0 Transmitter: this is advertised as a solution for the Nintendo Switch, but it works with anything that has a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack and the proper clearance. That latter part is important because it is shaped to fit the Switch and while it has a small amount of give, it won’t fit every device. I’ve used mine on a Nintendo Switch, a Nintendo Switch Lite in a Satisfye grip, on an Evercade, an Odroid Go Advance, a Gameboy Advance, and a New Nintendo 3DS XL. Works fine on all. From the Amazon reviews, it seems that it doesn’t play well with Apple AirPods though. Anyway, I’m happy with mine, even if it needs to be charged because of the way it works.
Receivers (not actually headphones; you connect yours to these):
FiiO LC-BT2 Neckband: a Bluetooth neckband that you plug in your own headphones into. One of my favorite Bluetooth devices and I hope to have a review up soon. It’s the device that I used for this article’s cover image, though it doesn’t include the headphones that I have plugged into it.
HiBy W5: a tiny Bluetooth received with a 3.5 mm headphone jack so you can plug any wired headphone into. I actually supported it during its crowdfunding phase. Very versatile, especially if you want to plug in power-hungry headphones. I’ve used these to power Sennheiser HD600. I hope to have a review up soon as well.
Sennheiser HD 450BT: large headphones with Active Noise Cancelling and aptX Low Latency support. I am not a big fan of ANC, but here’s an aptX Low Latency alternative if you do appreciate that feature!
Wireless Earphones (not True Wireless):
Aukey Key Series EP-B33: low price alternative with aptX Low Latency support and USB-C charging. Not a fan of the gold accents, so not interested. Please be careful, there is another device in the same listing on Amazon (the EP-N33) that does not support aptX Low Latency. Again, it’s sometimes difficult to identify these details as manufacturers are not very transparent about the way things are documented or advertised.
Creative Aurvana Trio Wireless: Creative Labs’ (of Sound Blaster fame) aptX Low Latency neckband wireless earphones. Haven’t used these, but Creative tends to specialize in gaming products so these may be the real deal.
Sennheiser HD1 Free: a set of wireless sporty earphones joined by a wire with a remote. I hope to have a review up soon as well. I really like the form factor as an easy device to just take out and use.
True Wireless Earphones
Optoma NuForce BE Free8: These seem to support aptX Low Latency in a True Wireless form factor according to their specs, so that’s a great thing! I’ve not used them, but I do own some wired NuForce earphones that I very much enjoy and their price is tough to beat so they may be worth looking into.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless: The original version, which supports aptX Low Latency. Actually, very few phones in this form factor support aptX Low Latency, so that Sennheiser made this pair is quite a blessing. Unfortunately, they have a battery drain issue which does have a workaround, but it’s kind of annoying that a product in this price range shipped with that problem. Still, sound quality and aptX Low Latency support in this form factor are tough to beat.
Tronsmart Apollo Bold: These are aptX Adaptive instead of Low Latency. I own a pair, and they’re slowly replacing my use of the Bose for everyday use around the house and outdoors. They’re much better than the Bose for watching YouTube videos, but not as secure and definitely not for gaming but still leagues better than an SBC or AAC device for that. Another pair that I hope to review soon.