Awesome Stuff: Better Than Bluetooth?

from the "wirefree" dept

For this week’s awesome stuff, we’re looking at a project that aims to beat Bluetooth at its own game: the HearNotes WireFree earbuds. These headphones use their own wireless technology to, supposedly, deliver higher-quality audio than Bluetooth with no danger of interference or interruption.

The Good

It’s a wireless world, but Bluetooth audio simply isn’t up to par. If the HearNotes technology — dubbed “Kleer” — really can deliver better, more reliable sound, then that’s an obvious plus. I suspect that the “reliable” part of that equation is actually the more important and could make these a popular product, since pairing and range issues with Bluetooth devices are especially infuriating when you just want to listen to music, whereas the sound quality issue is something of a wildcard: it’s questionable just how much people actually notice better sound in blind tests, and devices sold on sound quality have both sunk and swam in the past. In the world of wireless headphones, however, almost everyone agrees they are still noticeably worse than wired options, so it seems like there is some genuine room for improvement. Beyond that core question of sound, the little details of the HearNotes are top notch, like the inductive charging case and the design of the earbuds themselves.

The Bad

The big showstopper is the price. The estimated MSRP is $349, and though there are some decent savings for Kickstarter backers and early birds, it still puts the HearNotes in the same range as the highest-end Bluetooth headphones. That just further enforces the need for these to deliver on the core promises of convenience and quality if they are to stand a chance on the market.

The other obvious issue is the need to have a special transmitter plugged into your headphone jack. They describe it as “versatile” but I’m not really sure what that means as it actually looks quite cumbersome. That said, it seems like there are many popular uses for wireless audio that involve leaving your phone on a desk while you move about (which, with the boasted 50-foot range, would be very possible) so a bulky transmitter might not be a big deal. Still, it would be nice to see options such as building the transmitter into a phone case, or perhaps making it a module for last week’s Awesome Stuff project.

The Nauseating

I fully understand that entrepreneurs and innovative people in general have to get very passionate when talking about their work. At Techdirt, we do it ourselves all the time. But there’s something extremely offputting about HearNotes’ self-serious Kickstarter video (can we retire the phrase “allow me to enlighten you”?) and strained marketing jargon. The greatest irritation is the insistent branding of these earbuds as WireFree, and the claims that this is distinct from wireless because it offers a greater and more reliable degree of freedom. The thinking behind this is actually understandable because, as noted, convenience is the real selling point for a Bluetooth replacement. Despite all our wireless technology, it’s actually rare to get that seamless sci-fi feeling of just grabbing-and-going with a wireless device; instead, we generally have to tap out a password or open an app or at least press a button somewhere. If HearNotes can offer a new level of “just works” satisfaction, then it’s got a major hook. But somehow the clarity of that point gets lost in the WireFree branding and the photos of people dancing in a meadow. (Though they do, quite fairly, point out that a lot of wireless Bluetooth earbuds are connected to each other by… a wire.)

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Comments on “Awesome Stuff: Better Than Bluetooth?”

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Anonymous Coward says:


I was curious, so I took a look. What they use is the Kleer protocol from Microchip Technology Inc. It sends uncompressed audio over a 3 MHz channel on the same 2.4 GHz band that Bluetooth and WiFi use.

I don’t buy the “no danger of interference” angle. True, their transmissions won’t be interfered with, but that’s because both Bluetooth and WiFi are polite protocols which avoid transmitting over other transmissions. From one of the Kleer whitepapers (

“The audio source transmissions can severely impact the laptop reception, while the brief laptop transmissions may have a negligible impact on the audio sink reception. Furthermore, since the laptop and the access point use TDMA, they will delay transmissions if they detect the wireless audio signal, reducing the throughput of the WLAN connection, and further reducing the impact of the WLAN on the audio connection. Since the audio connection does not detect significant impairment, it does not switch channels and therefore continues to impact the WLAN indefinitely.”

They try to avoid it by putting their narrow channel “between” the WiFi channels, which brings up two questions. First, not everybody uses the 1-6-11 channel allocation; I’ve seen plenty using channel 9, for instance. Second, what if there is more than one of these “Kleer” transmitters? The graph on the PDF I just linked shows only four Kleer channels available if avoiding WiFi on the 1-6-11 channel allocation.

And that’s before considering video senders and other continuous interferers. The 2.4 GHz band is a cesspool. Whenever possible, I spec devices which can use the 5 GHz band for WiFi to avoid all that noise.

As for the audio quality, I can believe it. Since it’s uncompressed audio, it should sound as good as if it was directly connected with a wire, and it has more chance of causing interference than of being interfered with (it can tolerate a bit of interference by retransmitting lost audio packets).

Anonymous Coward says:

Doesn’t FM radio stations broadcast on a frequency between 880-1079Mhz? FM has really good sound quality. It’s amazing that 2.4Ghz has worse sound quality than FM frequency range.

The only possible reason I can think of is Wifi and Bluetooth transmit a digital signal, whereas FM radio transmits a analog signal.

Remember, the frequency response for most audio recordings is 20 Hz on the low end (bass) to 44 kHz on the high end (treble). FM’s frequency range of 880-1079 mhz has more than enough bandwidth to carry these recorded signals. khz = 1,000 hz’s. mhz = 1,000,000 hz (hertz).

I recently bought a FM transmitter for my car so I can play MP3’s from my cellphone and broadcast them over my car’s FM radio. Yes, it’s an older car with a tape deck and no 3.5mm input plug.

I decided to buy a FM transmitter that plugs directly into my cellphone’s 3.5mm headphone jack via a wire, instead of buying the FM transmitter that syncs wirelessly with the cellphone via bluetooth.

The sound quality of the wired FM transmitter is identical to plugging the cellphone directly into the radio using a 3.5mm to 3.5mm wire. I tested it out on my home stereo in my house. The sound quality and output levels between the wired FM transmitter and 3.5mm to 3.5mm wire were identical.

Long story short. I’m glad I went with a wired FM transmitter instead of a bluetooth FM transmitter.

With bluetooth you’re relying on the bluetooth device’s DAC (digital to analog converter) for sound quality.

Even worse, if you plug the bluetooth device into a analog output jack such as a 3.5mm output jack. Then the audio signal is being converted from digital to analog via the music playing device (cellphone or iPod for example). Then that analog signal is being converted back to digital form to be transmitted via bluetooth. Then being converted back once again to analog via the bluetooth’s DAC before finally being played back through the speakers.

With the wired FM transmitter. The audio signal is being converted from digital to analog via my cellphone’s DAC. Then being broadcast in analog form via the FM transmitter to my car’s stereo. So it’s only being converted from digital to analog one time, instead of two.

Granted, it’s possible to connect a bluetooth device to a digital output port via HDMI or TOSLINK digital optical out. In that case, your relying on the bluetooth devices DAC for sound quality. So it better be a good DAC.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Broadcast FM audio frequency response is actually limited 15 kHz for a 256 kHz channel (15kHz is like a 128kbps MP3). And you get a lot of noise over FM.

You are better off digitizing the signal (high quality bluetooth is actually very good) and sending over a higher frequency link like the 2.4GHz band.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Broadcast FM audio frequency response is actually limited 15 kHz for a 256 kHz channel (15kHz is like a 128kbps MP3).

I don’t understand what a 256 Khz channel has to do with anything relating to FM broadcast frequency. FM broadcast frequency range is 87.5 to 108.0 MHz.

87 Mhz is (87,000,000 hz / 256,000 hz = 340 times the bandwidth of a 256 Khz broadcast channel.

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