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Wireless Audio Streaming: Bluetooth's Second Act

As with life, technology adheres to a strict survival-of-the-fittest principle. History is littered with tech that was whiz-bang when it came out but quickly became obsolete or proved to be a one-trick pony. Ten years ago, CDs ruled the roost and car dashboards and cassettes became passé. Now MP3 players are turning disc-based music into a relic.

But some technologies, like DVD (think Blu-ray at home) find a way to evolve and offer something more. Bluetooth, which has become commonplace in many cars for hands-free phone operation, is a prime example of this in automotive technology. Thanks to wireless music streaming, Bluetooth is ready for its second act.

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We Don't Need No Stinkin' Wires
Bluetooth is a short-range radio technology that was developed to provide wireless audio and data transmission. Two Bluetooth-enabled devices (like a mobile phone and a car) can be paired so that they establish a communication link when they come within range of each other. Depending on the device, the range can be anywhere from 3 to 300 feet. And because Bluetooth is a worldwide standard, there is a good degree of compatibility.

Of course, the most common use of Bluetooth is to provide a wireless connection between a mobile phone and a hands-free headset — and some would say, create a fashion faux pas. But Bluetooth hands-free quickly caught on in the automotive world — according to the market research firm iSuppli, it will be available in more than 50 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2010 — because it offers convenience as well as safety. After all, driver distraction is a very real problem, and Bluetooth is perfect for hands-free phoning while driving.

When using your Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone to communicate through the car's Bluetooth system, the car supplies the microphone, speaker and keypad and the cell phone provides the communication link. If hands-free calling was all that Bluetooth were ever used for, that alone would be a terrific success. But there's more.

VIDEO: Bluetooth Audio

When Is Good Good Enough?
Bluetooth was originally endowed with a very low bit rate that restricted how much data it could handle. While it certainly sufficed for voice applications, it was never designed for things like delivering high-quality audio. But newer versions of Bluetooth — or "profiles" — have amped up the bit rate. In particular, an upgrade called Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) was introduced.

In theory, A2DP has plenty of bandwidth for stereo music and should sound just fine. But in practice, even an A2DP Bluetooth connection may provide only marginally adequate sound quality. There are several reasons for this, and if you want to get technical, you can click here.

If you carry your music collection around on an MP3 player or phone and are more concerned with convenience than sound quality, streaming music using A2DP in the car might sound good enough — something close to FM sound quality. Sometimes you can use the device menus to improve fidelity. For example, you may be able to increase the bit rate or ask the device to send and receive MP3 or AAC files directly instead of converting them.

But the sad reality is that Bluetooth sound quality is all over the map. If you want the ultimate sound quality, then you must do what audiophiles have always done: Listen for yourself and try to find Bluetooth devices that satisfy your own ears.

One non-audio caveat with Bluetooth audio and Bluetooth in general: It can impose a serious battery drain on portable devices, so plan accordingly. And don't forget to bring along your car charger.

What Can It Do?
Clearly, Bluetooth is great for hands-free calling. And A2DP devices, if properly designed, can be equally useful for music streaming. Suppose your mobile phone has a well-stocked music library but there's no way to plug it into your car's sound system. Bluetooth music streaming can usually solve that problem.

If your mobile phone and car both have A2DP, you simply pair the two and select Bluetooth audio as a source. The sound may or may not measure up to everyone's standards, but your car's sound system should at least sound better than the cell phone's tiny speaker. And it also allows you to stream online content, such as Pandora radio, to a car's sound system from an Internet-connected smartphone.

If your mobile phone or music player doesn't have Bluetooth built in, there are several nifty workarounds available. You can buy a small Bluetooth audio adapter, plug it into the earphone jack on the device and you've got a Bluetooth audio connection. Others plug directly into the 30-pin connector of an iPod to provide A2DP capability on the device.

Where Can I Get It?
While Bluetooth for hands-free calling in cars has hit the halfway mark in terms of availability, Bluetooth for music streaming isn't yet quite as prevalent. But it's gaining ground: According to iSuppli, the "take rate" for the feature will be 16 percent in 2010, up from 11 percent last year, and it's projected to surpass 70 percent by 2016 — and roughly be on par with Bluetooth hands-free.

The list of cars available with Bluetooth also keeps growing. Acura, Ford, Infiniti, GM, Hyundai, Kia, Lexus, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suzuki, Toyota and Volkswagen all offer the feature on some or all of their vehicles, and Audi and Volvo will be adding it later this year.

But you don't need to buy a new car to get Bluetooth music streaming since there are plenty of aftermarket options. As is typical, the aftermarket offered Bluetooth music streaming years before the automakers. Many aftermarket car receivers are Bluetooth-audio equipped; one we recently tested with Bluetooth music streaming is Pioneer's AVIC-Z110BT.

Thrive or Survive?
Bluetooth music streaming is just starting to hit critical mass, and it could eventually become as common as Bluetooth for hands-free phoning. It's also a great way to get rid of wires and, in some cases, the hassle of having to carry both a phone and an MP3 player into the car.

But do you need it? If you're like most people and your mobile phone is a constant companion, then Bluetooth is a hands-free must-have, especially behind the wheel for obvious safety reasons. And it's required by law in many areas. For music streaming, the answer depends more on the particular Bluetooth devices you are using and whether the sound quality is good enough for you.

In other words, the fate of Bluetooth audio is still to be determined. It's up to you and other car owners whether the technology will thrive or even survive.