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Monday, April 12, 2021

Nintendo Switchs Rumored Bluetooth Audio Support Is Unlikely, And Heres Why

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The Nintendo Switch was updated with firmware 12.0.0 this week, with the inclusion of a line that suggested to some dataminers that Bluetooth audio might be activated soon. While Nintendo hasn’t commented either way, the hardware limitations of the Switch (and most modern consoles) still make that improbable.

Bluetooth audio has been a requested feature on gaming devices for years, but even with the most-recent hardware in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S support for it hasn’t been implemented. If you’ve ever used Bluetooth headphones for anything other than music or podcasts, you might have an idea why. Aside from the issues of interference with other wireless devices (such as your WiFi router or the 2.4GHz radio used for controllers), the biggest issue with Bluetooth audio is latency.

In general, Bluetooth requires 100ms or more to compress audio, beam it to a headset, and then decompress it for listening. That is much, much longer than a game takes to render a frame (that’s 16.67ms for games at 60fps or 33.3ms for 30fps, coupled with the minor delay of displays) which will ultimately make the audio appear out of sync with the video. One way to combat this is to deactivate any Game modes your display might have to slow down the response time of the display itself to give the audio time to catch up. Not only is it still not slow enough at times, but it leads to a worse playing experience as your inputs feel sluggish and unresponsive.

That isn’t to say it’s impossible, and work on modern Bluetooth chips and codecs have come close. Qualcomm licenses out aptX Adaptive, which bundles its previous codex with its new low-latency format. With compatible devices and headphones, this drastically reduces Bluetooth latency to around 40ms. Not quite fast enough for games yet, but the closest it’s come so far. Sony has a similar proprietary codec called LDAC which is uses on its consumer-grade headphones, but not with the PlayStation 5.

The problem is that both the source (your console) and the receiver (your headphones) need to support this codec, which requires at least Bluetooth 5.0 hardware. In the case of the Nintendo Switch, the Bluetooth SoC is 4.1, which immediately rules out aptX support. That doesn’t mean Nintendo can’t still support native Bluetooth functionality, but it pretty much confirms that it will feature delayed audio. This explains why the console has so many Bluetooth adapters for its USB-C port, most of which feature Bluetooth 5.0 and aptX support. If you have a pair of compatible headphones, this is your best option for Bluetooth audio on the Switch and has been for some time.

But given the messiness with codecs and the varied support on headsets across the board, it’s no wonder that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo haven’t attempted to move away from 2.4GHz audio devices. And this is without even mentioning the additional bandwidth required for microphone support over Bluetooth as well, which generally degrades audio quality significantly to support both input and output streams. So, the Switch’s latest firmware might hint at it, and Nintendo could still in theory implement Bluetooth audio, but it’s important to understand why it remains such an unlikely scenario.

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