Bluetooth For Assistive Listening In Theaters

Piece of cake? Not quite.

Not just on a monthly basis, but every week, I receive calls from a consultant, integrator or venue owner wanting to jump on the Bluetooth bandwagon. They envision everyone attending their event or function can automatically connect with their cellphone or hearing aid and, voilà, they hear low-latency, crystal-clear audio on their own device!

They eventually learn that setting this up is not like other assistive listening designs. There are many variables and parameters that must be addressed, including specialized equipment required for BYOD devices to wirelessly connect to a personal audio system. Bluetooth can also add latency.

Here’s an example of a project we recently consulted on. It’s a theater in the Midwest that was renovating and upgrading its audio. I got a call from the AV consultant who was looking to use Bluetooth and BYOD for assistive listening for a theater project. The 150-year-old theater has 750 main-level seats and 150 balcony-level seats. The theater is used mainly for shows and plays but, on occasion, there are musical performances, presentations and even the occasional movie.

Renovation was starting on the project in about 30 days, with completion date targeting six months for construction, giving us about seven months from start to finish. Because Bluetooth was the requested/specified technology, we quickly had to clarify some points for the integrator.

Bluetooth is not an ideal technology for this application because it is a one-to-one “paired” device system for audio sources. Therefore, you cannot go to a performing arts theater and expect your Bluetooth hearing aids to pick up sound from the soundboard. The technology is not designed to work that way.

For example, via Bluetooth, I can connect my phone to my car, my phone to my wife’s car or my phone to an external Bluetooth-enabled loudspeaker (but not all at the same time). I cannot pair a theatrical performance to 30 Bluetooth hearing aids or headsets at the same time, though. Ideally, a user must own both endpoints in order for Bluetooth to be effective. (Endpoints for Bluetooth include hearing aids, streamers, smartphones and tablets, wireless speakers and wireless headphones, and so on.)

Therefore, unless the end user owns both endpoints, the Bluetooth technology does not serve a public venue very well. In case you were wondering, Williams Sound, Sennheiser, Telex or Listen Technologies products do not feature a receiver or device (at this time) that has built-in Bluetooth capability.

Now back to our project…Because this project venue is near a retirement community (with many hearing aids), induction loop technology was the original assistive listening system of choice for those wearing hearing aids.

We helped in the design and specification of an induction loop system for the space, but did not have any specifics about the construction of the floor or other obstructions that may hinder the installation or functioning of the induction loop wire/system.

As the project progressed we received a call from the project’s general contractor. He revealed that the floor was to be polished concrete, and that cutting a groove into the floor for the induction loop wire would not be allowed because this was considered a historic space. Another possible installation approach would be to lay flat wire on the floor under the carpet, which is the most typical type of installation. However, because the floors were to be bare, this wouldn’t work, either.

According to the integrator, four channels of audio would be necessary, but it had to be wireless and convenient for patrons. The channels include a video display in the lobby, the main audio channel, a secondary audio channel and one serving audio description for the blind.

The venue also wants to reach a younger clientele from the nearby college community in an attempt to increase attendance and revenue. WiFi technology seemed…

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