A growing number of Windows users are struggling to connect their PCs to Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones and other recently introduced high-end Bluetooth audio devices, due to enhancements designed to facilitate connectivity with phones and tablets. This blog post will examine the reasons behind these problems and offer step-by-step instructions for overcoming them in recent Windows versions.
A New Class of Bluetooth Audio Device
Newer Bluetooth audio devices are being designed with a mobile-first mentality, taking advantage of the standard inclusion of Bluetooth in virtually every smartphone and tablet, while adopting recent innovations like Bluetooth Low Energy (also referred to as Bluetooth Smart or BLE) and NFC. However, this focus on mobile convenience seems go hand in hand with a lack of consideration for non-smartphone platforms like Windows and Linux, as evidenced by compatibility issues with them. This situation reflects an aggressive push starting in 2016 to get wireless audio devices in the hands of consumers. Various phone manufacturers, following Apple’s lead, are forsaking the venerable 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of wireless audio solutions like Bluetooth. This movement has accompanied across-the-board advancements in technology for wireless audio devices, such as new battery technology that has brought longer battery life for wireless audio solutions while providing additional power to the headphones, making enhancements like active noise cancellation easier to include.
What Are Some of the Known Issues and Fixes in Windows?
Prior to Windows 8
For versions of Windows prior to Windows 8, we have been keeping track of issues with audio devices that appear to be related to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) services. Unfortunately, Microsoft did not develop Bluetooth Low Energy support until Windows 8.
If you are using a device that the workaround status is “unknown” for, this means that a customer contacted us with an issue that appeared likely to involve BLE issues but we did not hear back from them after supplying the workaround. For Windows 7 users, we have developed a workaround that tends to get BLE-capable devices working well. This guide is written specifically for the Bose QuietComfort 35, but applies to other devices with this issue as well.
We have been in contact with our chipset maker, Broadcom, to potentially resolve these issues. However, as of yet they have not delivered a timeline for resolving these issues.
There are instances where devices are not having issues with BLE capability, but may simply not work due to outdated drivers. If your device is not in the list of suspect devices above, or where the workaround status is unknown, it is recommended to try the latest driver package first. If all else fails, and you are using a Plugable Bluetooth adapter, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can help assist with the issue as there may be a driver conflict, or other issue that is causing problems.
Windows 8 and Above
It is recommended to use the latest version of the Bluetooth driver package for Windows in 8, 8.1, and 10 to resolve some basic compatibility issues with audio devices. These can be found on the product page for the USB-BT4LE Bluetooth adapter.
For devices that are offering Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connections, they should work without issue, but it is important to pair to the actual audio device rather than the BLE service. If pairing to the wrong Bluetooth device, audio services will not function. In most cases when a device is listed multiple times, the connection will have an icon with headphones in Windows to indicate it is the proper connection for the audio service.
Sometimes Windows will not offer the appropriate icon for the audio service. In this case, you may want to try pairing through the Devices and Printers menu (‘Start Menu’ > ‘Settings’ (cog-shaped icon) > ‘Devices’ > ‘Printers & scanners’ > Click the link for ‘Devices and printers’ > Click the ‘Add a device’ button) which may provide an icon. If neither method provides an icon for the audio device then you may need to randomly select one. If the incorrect device is selected, remove the pairing and try pairing again.
What Are Some of the Known Issues and Fixes in Linux?
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) issues can frequently be attributed to BlueZ, which is the core Bluetooth handler in Linux.
Arch Linux has done a great job of maintaining a Wiki page with issues relating to audio devices in Linux, as well as possible workarounds, which can be found here.
To manaully compile and install BlueZ 5.43, the instructions below should help in Ubuntu-based Linux distributions such as Linux Mint, but as with most things in Linux, there will always be exceptions where it does not work. Please use Terminal to run these commands.
1. Download and extract BlueZ 5.43:
wget http://www.kernel.org/pub/linux/bluetooth/bluez-5.43.tar.xz && tar xf bluez-5.43.tar.xz
2. Change to the BlueZ directory:
3. Install the libraries necessary to successfully build and install BlueZ, as well as additional audio profile support:
sudo apt-get install pulseaudio-module-bluetooth libusb-dev libdbus-1-dev libglib2.0-dev libudev-dev libical-dev libreadline-dev
4. Stop Bluetooth services:
sudo /etc/init.d/bluetooth stop
5. Then in the BlueZ directory you should still be in; configure, make, and make install:
sudo ./configure && sudo make && sudo make install
6. Once the install process is complete, restart the PC.
7. Try pairing and using your Bluetooth audio device again.
Another improvement from using BlueZ 5.43 is that BLE HID devices like mice and keyboards are supported through the HID over GATT profile (HoG). We have found that the Microsoft Designer Mouse and Keyboard work in Linux after updating BlueZ.
If you are not using an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution, these steps may or may not work. You can still try some of the solutions in the Arch Linux wiki such as setting Bluetooth to only use BR/EDR (bredr) mode.
Of course, as noted in the product listing for the adapter, it is important to use a Linux kernel that is recent enough to include the drivers for the adapter. It is also recommended that you keep your kernel version up-to-date. Bluetooth is one reason to use variants of Linux that use newer software revisions as opposed to long-term service/support versions of Linux, there is still a lot of software development ocurring with both Pulseaudio and BlueZ.
Some users may notice that there are issues relating to missing firmware for the Bluetooth adapter in the system logs on Linux. This is normal, and the error can be ignored as it has no impact on the actual functionality of the adapter.
The Heart of the Issue With Modern Bluetooth Audio Compatibility
So why is it that these newer smartphone-focused devices are having problems in PC operating systems? The evidence we have collected suggests that the primary factor in most issues with Bluetooth audio devices is the inclusion of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which was first introduced as part of Bluetooth 4.0 specifications in 2010.
Bluetooth Low Energy operates very differently from Bluetooth Classic in a few key ways. As the name suggests, it is heavily focused on energy efficiency.
BLE accomplishes much of its power savings by reducing the frequency that a Bluetooth host (source) and a Bluetooth device (sink) need to communicate, but it also does this by limiting the size of data and messages that need to be communicated. For example, the heartrate monitor in many smartwatches communicate heartrate measurements over BLE every few seconds. The heartrate can simply be conveyed as two or three digit numbers, and this information does not need to be sent immediately to the device the smartwatch is connected to, so BLE is ideal for this data given the power savings it provides.
Even in new devices, audio data is sent using Bluetooth Classic, which has been the case for a number of years. However, in an effort to simplify the pairing process of audio devices for smartphones and communicate additional data such as battery life, device makers have turned to BLE. It is important to note, that a device being labeled as “Bluetooth 4.0” or “Bluetooth 4.1” does not instantly mean that BLE is being used on the audio device. Many times, the manufacturer is trying to capitalize on consumers being unaware of Bluetooth technology and drawn to a version number that is higher than the competition. For many devices indicating Bluetooth 4.0 or 4.1 support, they are using a Bluetooth chip in their device that is capable of supporting features specific to 4.0 or 4.1, but in reality they are only using the Bluetooth 2.1 or 3.0 features of the chip.
So what is it about Bluetooth Low Energy that is causing problems for PC users?
Though we are now in 2017, applications of Bluetooth Low Energy have been sparse until more recently due to the lack of available devices supporting it. It made much more sense for manufacturers to make devices that used Bluetooth Classic, or that were simply connected through a wired connection, since there was a much larger userbase that the devices would work with.
This was a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Why support BLE if there are no devices that use it, and why create devices for BLE if no platforms can use it?
By the time Bluetooth Low Energy became a standard, Microsoft had already completed and released Windows 7. Eventually, Microsoft did add compatibility with BLE with the release of Windows 8, but the effort was never made to add it to Windows 7, or earlier versions of Windows. This has left Windows 7 unable to understand BLE communications.
For Linux, BLE support has been slow going. For the most part, Bluetooth interactions on Linux distributions are handled by a software set called BlueZ. However, most Linux distributions will use older versions of BlueZ rather than the latest version. For example, at the time of writing Ubuntu 16.10 uses BlueZ 5.21, but the latest version of BlueZ is 5.23. This may not seem like a huge difference, but many BLE services were not implemented until 5.22. BLE input devices like a BLE mouse could not be used prior to 5.22, and many audio devices had issues as well. Though 5.23 has many improvements, Bluetooth audio devices still aren’t totally compatible.
As with most technologies, innovations will sometimes bring compatibility issues along with them. The future looks bright for Bluetooth audio, and Bluetooth LE (BLE) stands to make the pairing process easier for newer devices as customers have wanted. As we move forward unto uncharted waters of new Bluetooth audio solutions, the team here at Plugable will be here to help identify, explain, and hopefully resolve any issues that happen along the way.
As always, if you need our assistance with your Plugable product, please contact us at email@example.com with your Order ID number and we’ll be happy to help.