iPhone iOS 4 Bluetooth Audio Issues Exposed [UPDATED]

Soon after Apple released the iPhone 4 a flood of complaints hit the mainstream media about — the now infamous — antennagate, as well as problems with the iPhone’s proximity sensor. Surprisingly, another widespread problem hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves.

With the introduction of iOS 4 a serious bluetooth bug seems to be plaguing many iPhone owners. The Apple forums are flooded with complaints about unreliable A2DP bluetooth connections (Stereo Bluetooth Profile), as well as muffled or garbled audio while using the microphone of a handsfree bluetooth headset or car unit. Specifically, the outgoing audio is getting muffled, while the incoming audio sounds normal.

The brand or make of the bluetooth model seems to make little difference, as the problem has been reported with various manufacturers on the Apple user forums. Here are a few examples:

Bluetooth was always rock solid with my 2007 Mini Cooper (BMW Bluetooth) with both my iPhone 3GS and the original iPhone. Since the iPhone 4 I have been getting reports of a definite and severe decrease in audio quality from the people I talk to.

I’m using a Plantronics 925 and I bought a brand new Plantronics 975 just to confirm and it too had the exact muffled audio problems people are reporting.

Had the same, exact issue with both my Jawbones on my iPhone 4. Constantly disconnecting and reconnecting, same complaints of being told I sound like I’m in a tunnel.

Personally, I even received an email from a dear friend of mine who I had recently convinced to replace her old cell phone with an iPhone 4. Take a look at her first impression after a few days with the phone:

I am enjoying my new phone, however, my boss says when we talk on the phone I sound like I’m in a chamber or under water. It’s sort of garbled. That concerns me.

When I looked into her specific problem, I noticed that she makes phone calls using an Oticon Streamer bluetooth hearing aid. With all the commotion on the forums and a first hand report of the problem it was time to look into the issue ourselves and test the bluetooth connection issues on our own equipment.

To our surprise we were able to replicate the problem right away, using several iPhone 4′s as well as an iPhone 3GS both running on iOS 4.0.1. We weren’t able to replicate the issue on the same iPhone 3GS running on 3.1, however. It seems as if iOS 4 is the culprit here. Hopefully good news for a potential software fix!

To demonstrate the problem, we made a few phone calls via Sony’s MEX-BT3700 bluetooth car receiver and recorded the conversation straight from the receiving headset using professional audio equipment. Listen below for a quick demonstration:

Note, that the issue is intermittent. Both the 2nd and 3rd call were placed on the same iPhone 4, over the same bluetooth unit, within minutes from each other. Also note, that our test presents a best case scenario, as I was reading the poem loud and clear for demonstration purposes. It actually sounds much worse, to the point of being inaudible, during a regular conversation. Clearly, the outgoing audio is getting garbled/muffled over the bluetooth connection in example #3.

And while Apple support seems to be aware of the issue, they did not provide us with a timetable for a potential software fix. Here’s the most official word we were able to get from anyone at Apple:

I have been speaking with the Apple Engineers about the bluetooth issue that you have been having. Along with your issue, I have encountered other issues with bluetooth connections involving the caller’s vehicle bluetooth phone. The Apple Engineers are well aware of the issue and are currently working on the issue at this time. They have not given an accurate timetable on when that software update will be available for the public. – DeMarques Jamison (Apple Support)

To be honest, it’s a little surprising that this issue isn’t getting continued attention from the media, as many drivers rely on their handsfree bluetooth solutions for a safe driving experience. Even worse; the bug truly limits the iPhone for the hard of hearing who must rely on bluetooth hearing devices such as the Oticon Streamer to stay in touch with their families and work.

Rumor has it that iOS 4.1 may fix the problem, but no one really knows. Maybe if we’d pay as much attention to this problem as we did to “antennagate”, Apple would have an incentive to get a fix released rather sooner than later.

We will update this post accordingly as the story develops. In the meantime please let us know in the comments if you’re experiencing bluetooth connection issue with iOS 4 and which headsets you’re using.

PS: Compare the above to this fine demonstration of Thomas Edison recording “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from 1927.

Update [09/01/2010]: Steve Jobs just announced during the Apple Media event that various bluetooth issues will be fixed with iOS 4.1. Hopefully the above will be included. We will update this article as soon as we get our hands on the update. The update will be available next week.

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