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Bluetooth codecs 101: Everything you need to know

A quick rundown on everything you need to know about wireless audio.
December 10, 2022
Title card which reads, "undersetanding Bluetooth codecs" overlayed atop an image of the Jlab Epic Air Elite true wireless earbuds.

Some smartphone companies are bringing back the headphone jack, yet others remain staunchly opposed to reintegrating it. Whether or not your phone supports wired audio, there’s no denying the convenience of going wireless. Having fewer wires clutter my office is a relief, but wireless audio introduces a host of new concerns. Let’s get you up to speed on the what’s what of Bluetooth codecs.

This article comes from the audio experts at our sister site SoundGuys. Check out their in-depth breakdown here.

Bluetooth codecs: What you should know

Before breaking down the various wireless codecs, we need to establish working definitions for a few terms and cover a few concepts.


  • Sample rate (Hz): the number of data points per second in an audio file. To capture a given frequency accurately, you need to capture two samples. This means audio is sampled at twice the limit of human hearing (~20Hz). High-res formats are exported at 96kHz or greater.
  • Bit depth (-bit): the number of bits per audio sample dictates a file’s resolution. CD quality is 16-bit, while DVDs and Blue-ray discs may support 24-bit audio. Just like sample rate, a higher bit-depth yields larger files.
  • Bit rate (kbps): this is the number of bits processed per unit of time, which is usually measured in seconds. We typically record this as either kilobits/second (kbps) or megabits/second (Mbps). Bit-rate is calculated by the sample rate x bit-depth x channels.

Transfer rates: there’s more than meets the eye

Graph showing Android smartphone Bluetooth Codec Latency

Bluetooth data transfer rates are unstable. SoundGuys has demonstrated this with regards to Sony’s LDAC and Android’s encoding of AAC along with its overarching latency issues. When a company advertises a transfer rate for its codec, it’s likely not a constant rate. Rather it’s the optimal bit rate, and your streaming speed may never reach that maximum if conditions aren’t constantly optimal.

Anyone who exclusively uses true wireless earbuds and subscribes to lossless music streaming services like Amazon Music HD, Apple Music, and soon-to-be Spotify, won’t be able to take full advantage of high-resolution playback. Again, Bluetooth transmits lossy audio, so your smartphone can’t communicate every bit of data to your favorite Bluetooth earphones. There are even some limitations to wired playback if you use the AirPods Max with the Lightning-to-3.5mm cable and Lightning audio adapter, because of data lost during the re-digitization process. Only a direct TRRS connection can transfer 24-bit/48kHz audio and greater.

Microsoft Surface Earbuds true wireless earbuds open case iphone 12 mini
Lily Katz / Android Authority

What’s more, Bluetooth devices have a determined connectivity range, usually three meters for headphones. The farther you move from your phone, the more interference a signal has to combat. This interference manifests as physical barriers (e.g., walls, people, air) and as other resonant frequencies (e.g., radio waves and Wi-Fi signals).

Start here: Headphone buying guide: Everything you need to know

Something else to be aware of is psychoacoustics. This is the study of how humans perceive sound and is profoundly complicated. To abbreviate the matter: a psychoacoustic model is applied to digital media. It determines what data points can be compressed or deleted without notable degradation of sound quality. If you want to impress your friends at Wednesday night trivia, tell them of how psychoacoustics held the door for the MP3 format and compression, which has influenced subsequent audio formats.

What is a Bluetooth codec?

A photo of an Android Bluetooth Notification Menu Icon.

Congratulations: you’ve passed Wireless Audio 101 with flying colors. Now let’s apply that knowledge.

A codec determines how Bluetooth is transmitted from a source (e.g., smartphone, tablet, or computer) to your headphones. No matter the codec, it’s responsible for encoding and decoding digital audio data into a specified format. The goal is to transmit a high-fidelity signal at the minimum bit rate. Doing so minimizes space and bandwidth requirements for storage and playback. As you may have guessed from skimming the earlier definitions, a low bit rate results in greater compression and reduced audio quality. Meanwhile, a high bit rate results in less compression and greater audio quality.

Bluetooth's greatest hindrance is its limited bandwidth, which can result in connection hiccups.

Your gut reaction may be to favor audio quality over compression. However, as last week’s fortune cookie informed me, there’s a time and place for everything. For instance, in a highly trafficked area, a low bit rate may make connection strength more stable. Sure, it’s at the expense of sound quality and accuracy but in such settings, say a subway car or gym, you’re unlikely to reap the benefits of high-quality codecs anyway.

Sifting through Bluetooth codec alphabet soup

Low-complexity sub-band codec (SBC)

The Jlab GO Air cheap true wireless earbuds with the earbuds outside of the case on a mulch pile, almost obscured by leaves in the foreground.
Lily Katz / Android Authority

The low-complexity sub-band codec (SBC) is the lowest common denominator of Bluetooth codecs. It’s the Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s (SIG) bare minimum requirement for the A2DP profile, which determines how audio may be streamed between devices. SBC was initially designed to obtain passable audio quality at medium bit rates, thus minimizing streaming complexities. It’s engineered to accommodate Bluetooth bandwidth limitations and variable processing power across devices. Transfer rates (maximum: 320kbps) are manageable at the expense of data loss.

Qualcomm aptX, aptX HD, aptX adaptive, aptX LL

Then there’s Qualcomm’s host of aptX codecs: aptX, aptX Low Latency (LL), and aptX HD; once aptX Adaptive rolls out, it will replace aptX LL. These codecs are most relevant to Android users. They lessen streaming latency, but the rate at which lag decreases depends on what smartphone is used. Users should look out for headphones and earbuds that support aptX if they want more accurate and detailed audio. aptX alone supports 48kHz/16-bit LCPM audio data (352kbps), while aptX HD supports 48kHz/24-bit LCPM audio data (576kbps). With that in mind, both formats are still lossy.

For now, if you have an iPhone, aptX is irrelevant as iOS devices only support SBC and AAC.

Advanced audio coding (AAC)

A chart showing the AAC Bluetooth codec's performance on the Huawei P20 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, LG V30, and Apple iPhone 7.

The advanced audio coding (AAC), is the standard for lossy digital audio compression. It’s also the license-free standard for YouTube and is Apple’s preferred mode of transfer. iPhone users benefit most from AAC’s hi-res playback, which tops out at 250kbps.

Although Android supports AAC, its performance is severely underwhelming because of inconsistent streaming quality. This isn’t to criticize AAC, though; instead, it’s because Android OS has yet to deliver on a universal way of handling AAC. This is a power-hungry codec that Apple can manage because of its gatekept ecosystem.


A photo of the Sony WH 1000XM4 Headphones Connect app on a smartphone.
Adam Molina / Android Authority

Sony’s LDAC seems promising. Its variable bit rate is brilliant in theory and should consistently transfer three times the data of SBC. However, in practice, this isn’t the case. LDAC has three modes: 990kbps, 660kbps, and 330kbps. The two highest bit rates lose fidelity above 20Hz, and LDAC (330kbps) is outperformed by both aptX and SBC. While the option for LDAC 990kbps is great, the fact of the matter is that most phones default to LDAC 330kbps, requiring you to enter developer settings and force the higher option.

While LDAC support was once considered a premium feature, the codec has trickled down to some budget Bluetooth headsets as well.

HWA Alliance’s LHDC and LLAC codecs

Huawei Logo 2020 1
Robert Triggs / Android Authority

LHDC is an acronym for low-latency and high-definition audio codec, and was developed by the Hi-Res Wireless Audio (HWA) Union and Savitech. Android 10 and up supports this codec as a part of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Its main benefit: it provides three times the data transmission allowed by SBC, and it supports a max bitrate of 900kbps with a max sample rate of 96kHz. Huawei’s Mate 10 was the first smartphone to support this codec.

Another HWA codec: the low-latency audio codec (LLAC/LHDC LL) is a viable alternative to LHDC and boasts low-latency features, which is great for mobile gamers. Optimal latency rates are as low as 30 milliseconds, and it supports high-quality bitrates (400/600kbps) with a maximum sample rate of 48kHz. LLAC was first supported by the Huawei P30.

Bluetooth LE Audio LC3 codec

A picture of a man and a woman smiling at a laptop screen.
The Bluetooth LC3 audio codec greatly improves efficiency and benefits SBC streaming.

The LC3 Bluetooth codec made a splash at CES 2020, and we’ve been waiting for adoption to take off since then. LC3 will also aid the deaf and hard-of-hearing community by expanding Bluetooth functionality: a single source will be able to stream to multiple Bluetooth devices. This means that Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids will be able to stream audio (e.g., train departure information) while keeping users aware of their surroundings.

LC3 is a transparent codec. Total harmonic distortion minimization is limited by a phone's hardware, not by LC3.

In a similar vein, LE Audio LC3 means that different broadcasts will be able to transmit to a single pair of true wireless earbuds. Rather than a single 160kbps stream, LC3 audio will break the stream up into 80kbps rates each. This is great if you and a friend are at a pub watching a local game: you can use the right earbud to tune into your preferred announcer, while your mate can use the left earbud to tune into his favorite announcer.

LE Audio requires a new feature found in Bluetooth 5.2 devices that older Bluetooth versions lack. The LC3 codec will ultimately be mandatory for all LE Audio products. However, Classic Audio and LE Audio will be able to work together on a single handset. Android 13 added support for Bluetooth LE Audio in 2022 and we’re waiting on the first consumer audio gear with support for the LC3 codec.

Samsung Scalable and Seamless Codec

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro 10
Adam Molina / Android Authority
Galaxy Buds Pro

The first-generation Samsung Galaxy Buds brought with it the Samsung scalable codec. This functions similarly to aptX adaptive, but is only compatible with Samsung devices (e.g., the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and Samsung Galaxy S20). The Samsung Scalable Codec prevents audio chopping by analyzing the radio frequency environment and adjusting the bitrate dynamically (from 88kbps to 512kbps).

In 2022, the codec was updated and renamed to Samsung Seamless instead. The two biggest changes include an increased bit-depth to 24-bit as well as an increased sample rate, going from 44.1 kHz to 48 kHz. Going forward, new Samsung audio products will switch over to the Seamless codec, including the latest Galaxy Buds 2 Pro. As for smartphone compatibility, you’ll need a Samsung smartphone to use the Scalable codec and a minimum of One UI 4.0 for the Seamless codec. To get a comprehensive list of supported Samsung devices, click here.

Related: Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 review

Do Bluetooth codecs actually make a difference?

The Shure Aonic 50 noise cancelling headphones worn by a woman using the Shure mobile app.
Lily Katz / Android Authority

Well, yes and no. If you suffer from noise-induced hearing loss or are listening in a particularly noisy environment, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to discern the differences between SBC, aptX, and AAC. That said, there are more benefits to high-quality codecs than sound quality, namely responsiveness. If you’ve ever skipped a track via your headphones’ onboard controls only to wait a second before the next song actually began playing, your device was probably streaming over SBC. This lag is even more noticeable in things like video playback whereby late-night show hosts’ jokes are sullied by the audio-visual lag accompanying SBC streaming. Granted, there is compensation built in to keep video and audio in sync. This preemptive calculation doesn’t completely negate skips and hiccups, though.

Ultimately, this barrage of information is hard to keep straight. To sum it up in a thought: aptX and aptX HD are Android users’ choice codecs while iPhone users should keep to AAC-supported headphones. To continue geeking out over Bluetooth codecs, check out our in-depth explainer. To learn about video codecs, check out our guide.

Do you make a point to consider Bluetooth codecs when buying headphones?

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