AirPods Should Stop Relying on Bluetooth

Ultra Wide Band would be a great successor

Key Takeaways

  • Ultra-Wideband has been in every iPhone since iPhone 11.
  • UWB is faster, better, and uses less power than Bluetooth.
  • UWB AirPods Pro could play lossless audio for hours and hours.
person holding their hand out to catch white AirPods

Alejandro Luengo / Unsplash

A chance comment in an interview has led to crazy speculation about the future of AirPods—and it all makes total sense. 

AirPods are fantastic little devices. They sound amazing, they integrate with all your devices, and they're super easy to use. But imagine if they connected faster, sounded better, and got rid of that annoying delay when gaming or using music-creation apps. That might all be possible—if and when Apple ditches Bluetooth. 

"Believe me, we need a replacement for Bluetooth," says Apple nerd and podcaster John Siracusa on his Accidental Tech Podcast. "Bluetooth sucks. It's gotten so much better over the years, but it really is the main thing that annoys me about wireless audio."

The Need for Speed

In an interview with the UK's What Hi-Fi magazine, Apple's VP of acoustics, Gary Geaves, stated his team would like more data bandwidth than Bluetooth can provide. He then hinted that there's already something in the works. The most plausible "something" is Ultra-Wideband radio, which trounces Bluetooth in every regard, and—crucially—has already been built into every iPhone since the iPhone 11.

Bluetooth has served us well enough over the years, and while it's great for mice, keyboards, and other low-bandwidth peripherals, it struggles with audio. That's because audio has to send a lot more data over the air than a mouse. More than Bluetooth can handle. 

AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max laying side-by-side on an orange background

Akhil Yerabati / Unsplash

The workaround is to compress that audio before sending it, then decompress it again in the headphone or AirPods itself. It’s kind of like ZIP files, only for audio. This has two side effects. One is that audio quality suffers—although modern codecs (compression/decompression methods) do a great job. The other is this compression operation takes time, introducing a delay. 

That’s why keyboard taps feel instant, whereas audio has a slight delay. With general listening, it’s no big deal—once the music starts, you don’t notice. But if you’re using Bluetooth headphones to monitor a musical instrument or play a game, it can make the experience painful or totally impractical. 

Ultra-Wideband radio can solve all of this and more. 


There's an Ultra-Wideband chip (Apple calls it the U1) in every iPhone going back to the iPhone 11, it has been all but useless. The U1 enables a fancy animation when you're using AirDrop and also lets you accurately locate items using Find My. The HomePod mini has an U1, too, as does the Apple Watch Series 6 and the AirTag. 

UWB, says ETSI, is "a technology for the transmission of data using techniques which cause a spreading of the radio energy over a very wide frequency band, with a very low power spectral density." And according to technical investigators Max Tech, it improves on Bluetooth in the following ways. 

Bluetooth's maximum transfer speed is around two megabits per second. Apple's lossless audio codec, which doesn't yet work with AirPods, requires 9.2 megabits. And UWB? 675 Megabits.

That's because Bluetooth can only use a small 2MHz sliver of the radio spectrum, compared to UWB, which can spread out into a 500MHz-wide band. That's where its name comes from. 

At the same time, UWB power usage is much lower, the connection is more secure, and the range of that connection is longer. That's not to say Apple will dump Bluetooth entirely—just for AirPods, and probably also HomePods. Bluetooth is worth keeping around for all the other useful jobs it can do–and it's essentially free. 

"Bluetooth modules are small and cheap," tech journalist and Apple user John Brownlees told Lifewire via tweet. "Why destroy backwards compatibility when you can just have the best of both worlds."

The Whole Enchilada

This pattern is becoming familiar. Apple takes years to slowly put together a better version of something, and then it bursts onto the scene. The most recent example is the M1 chip in its Mac computers, which beats everything in its class, and more. 

Apple can do this because it controls all the hardware and software. If Bose shipped UWB earpods, nobody would care because no phones can use them. But if Apple does it with the next AirPods Pro, everyone with an iPhone 11 or newer can join in. And you can bet that new Macs and iPads will also have the U1 chip if they don’t already.

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