In an out-of-nowhere Tuesday evening update, Nintendo reversed course on one of the portable Switch console’s biggest limitations: Bluetooth audio support. This functionality is now live on the system’s 13.0 firmware, available for download across all Switch regions.
Up until this update, Switch consoles had a portable-audio capability that was the exact opposite of smartphones like the iPhone, in that the Switch only worked with wired headphones via the console’s built-in 3.5mm headphone jack. In handheld mode, that limitation might be more bearable because the system is in your hands, so a corded headset makes a little more sense.
When Nintendo Switch is docked to a TV, on the other hand, headset options become more limited. Without Bluetooth audio support, Switch users would either need to run a 3.5mm extension cord to their entertainment center or use a pair of wireless headphones that came with a Switch-compatible USB dongle, which would have to plug into one of the Switch dock’s open ports. This runs counter to modern Xbox and PlayStation consoles, which offer more options for both 3.5mm jacks in their gamepads and built-in wireless functions in the consoles themselves.
Freedom from wires, at a cost
Depending on the Bluetooth headphones in question, Switch’s 13.0 update may be simple enough to get up and running. Open the Switch’s settings menu, pick the new dedicated “Bluetooth” tab, and go into a pairing menu. Get your preferred headphones into their own “pairing” mode, and they should appear on your Switch’s screen. This works like pretty much every other Bluetooth pairing interface you’ve ever seen.
Each Switch console supports up to 10 saved Bluetooth pairings, though only one Bluetooth headset can actively connect to a Switch at any given time. Speaking of limits: while in Bluetooth audio mode, only two “controllers” can connect to a Nintendo Switch at one time, and Nintendo says that a single pair of Joy-Cons counts as two controllers. So if you’d like to use Bluetooth audio while playing with a second person, both people will either need to turn a Joy-Con to the side or choose “Pro”-style gamepads instead.
That clash between headsets and Switch gamepads is arguably a byproduct of Switch’s Bluetooth support all along—as the system uses a Bluetooth 4.1 controller to talk to its wireless gamepads. Even if the Switch BT controller’s bandwidth is limited, however, it saves some latency by blocking one major BT feature. Switch disables all Bluetooth headset microphones by default (though Switch games generally don’t support microphone audio, anyway).
Despite that attention to BT bandwidth, Nintendo hasn’t magically solved an inherent issue with gaming as combined with most Bluetooth headsets: laggy audio. My tests on both Google Pixel Buds and Surface Headphones turned up noticeable delays between on-screen action and when their respective sounds triggered in my Bluetooth-connected headsets—enough of a delay that you would return a TV set if its audio was so staggered.
This would’ve been a great time to lean on one of my newer Bluetooth options, Razer’s True Wireless Earbuds, which offer a battery-draining low-latency audio mode as an option. Sadly, my Switch refused to recognize those earbuds while in pairing mode, even though I was able to successfully pair those Razer buds moments later on a nearby laptop. Switch’s Bluetooth interface doesn’t list BT devices that don’t fit into a certain “audio-only” category, arguably to stop Switch owners from getting creative and connecting mice, keyboards, or other input devices. (Xbox still wins on that front.)
At least one Ars staffer was able to connect Airpods Pro to their own Switch, which probably bodes well for general device support, but you may run into your own trial-and-error issues with lesser-known headset options.
Firmware for… more firmware?
The firmware update also delivers a funky menu toggle we haven’t previously seen on Switch: an option to push additional firmware updates to the Switch dock. This is arguably lining up with the launch of Switch OLED later this year, as its dock includes a brand-new built-in wired Ethernet adapter, whose functionality may eventually need software updates. Or Nintendo may have its own reasons to update the small slab of silicon on all Switch docks in the wild.
Still, it’s a curious addition to see in the wake of rampant Switch Pro rumors, which suggested as recently as March that a more powerful system’s dock would include an Nvidia DLSS hardware solution of some sort, meant to upscale lower-res Switch games to resolutions nearing 4K on TV sets. Nintendo has made it clear that the upcoming Switch OLED will deliver the exact same power as existing Switch systems, and it in no way sneaks mid-generation updates to the hardware. But if Nintendo wanted to quell conspiracy theories about high-tech Switch docks to come, this path to upgradeable dock firmware isn’t helping.