There’s a growing trend among smartphone manufacturers to do away with the 3.5mm audio jack that has long been the standard connector for a huge range of audio equipment over the past century. Motorola’s new Moto Z doesn’t feature a 3.5mm audio connector, neither does LeEco’s latest range of smartphones, and Apple has finally done away with the socket this year too. Of course, when Apple did it, it created a much more angry reaction from fans and haters alike than when Moto or LeEco did it.
In fact I had something to say about the removal of headphone jack on the Moto Z and LeEco. And while I still believe that, I am seeing a trend now and all these big names are writing about how Apple did the right thing, how headphone jacks are a 100 year old technology and they should go.
By now you must have read a dozen thought pieces on how dropping the beloved analog headphone jack is a bad idea, but at the same time, since the iPhone 7 launch others have been writing about how the Lightning port (or USB Type-C on other devices) is the future for all our audio needs.
While some audio enthusiasts are reluctant to see the death of a long running and highly successful standard, others are ready to embrace new technology and some of the benefits that are being promised along with it.
Grandiose verbiage aside, this is a huge move in the audio world. Ever since rumours started swirling of a jack-less iPhone, there’s been widespread outrage on the internet. A petition that started in January has garnered more than 300,000 signatures to keep the standard headphone port. “This is right out of the Apple corporate playbook,”states the petition, noting the change will force iPhone users to replace their headphones and in the process “create mountains of electronic waste.”
Apple went ahead with it’s plans anyways. True to its current obsession with minimalism, Apple has aggressively streamlined the shape of its products and eliminated standard ports over the past decade. It used the introduction of minimalistic gadgets to phase out the floppy drive (iMac G3, 1998), phone jacks (MacBook, MacBook Pro 2006), ethernet ports (MacBook Air 2008), and CD/DVD players (MacBook Air 2008). Earlier, it made its most dramatic design omission yet with the new MacBook, replacing the USB, monitor, and power ports with the new USB-C standard. Apple has introduced disruptive changes to its products over and over again in the last 20 years, and it has been an important factor in the company’s success.
The headphone jack was the last of the original ports to remain standing since Apple released its first mass-market PC in 1984. “Our obsession continues to simplify and improve,” Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design office, said in a video shown at the Apple event on Wednesday.
The 3.5mm audio jack was popularized as the way to plug headphones into Sony’s portable Walkman tape player and got a new lease on life as a way to handle audio on virtually every mobile phone and PC.
If you look back a decade or so, the phones then all had digital connectors and the standard headphone jack was nowhere to be seen. Remember the Nokia Pop-Port? Or the Sony Ericsson FastPort? Good times.
But that didn’t work now, did it? A few years later, we all ended up coming back to the gold standard that was the TRS jack. Even Apple when it launched the iPhone chose to go with a standard (albeit unnecessarily recessed) 3.5mm jack, even though it would have made way more sense back then to just send audio through the 30-pin connector as some companies were still doing it.
So then why now? I think there is a lot of buzz these days around the whole high resolution audio thing. Manufacturers claiming they can use the pure digital output of their phones’ USB ports to send you uncompressed high quality sound. But this is nonsense.
Let’s consider what they say
The headphone jack is an analog connection originally designed for old-fashioned telephone switchboards in the early 20th century. It can’t transfer nearly as much data as a digital connection like a Bluetooth, Lightning or USB Type-C connection. Plus, the headphone jack only sends information one way: from power source to speaker.
The major difference is that the 3.5mm connector transfers stereo analog audio out of the socket, meaning that all of the digital conversion and headphone driving components are housed in the smartphone. This means the quality of the audio output depends largely on your phone. Take the new LG V20 and its 32bit HiFi Quad DAC for instance, you cannot enjoy that kind of audio via a headphone jack on any other smartphone because those wouldn’t have such high and of course power consuming converters.
The new USB Type-C standard is proposing a different take on this old formula, opting to transmit digital audio data over the connection instead. This will then leave the headphones or other connected devices to convert this data into an analog signal and to drive the speakers themselves. This of course requires power, but that can also be sent over the same USB port. But the advantage here is that the audio output you get is totally dependent on your headphones and not on any other device. Certainly, buying a high quality expensive headphone wouldn’t cost you as much as an LG V20 especially if you don’t really want an LG V20. Take a look at the diagram below, Device A shows the current set up with headphone jacks and Device B is one without a headphone jack or DAC.
Good headphone manufacturers may also be able to produce superior circuit board layouts to those in today’s smartphones, which could produce better noise and lower cross-talk characteristics. Not only that, but headset manufacturers will be free to pick top quality DAC and amplifier components, and custom design and tune these circuits for their speakers. This would free consumers from being tied to whatever their handset manufacturers decide to include. This isn’t to say OEMs are picking notably poor quality audio parts for their smartphones these days, so this would probably only be useful in lower cost smartphones.
USB/Lightning/Bluetooth can of course transfer more than just digital audio and is bi-directional. This also opens the door for advanced communication between hardware, so high-end headphones may be packed with additional hardware and software features. The volume, play, pause, and skip functions that are included in some smartphone headphones could be made more reliably compatible, and could also be augmented with shuffle, navigation, and even EQ options. Furthermore, digital processing options included in headphones could be accompanied and controlled by dedicated smartphone apps, giving users control over the sound of their headsets from the palm of their hand.
With bidirectional communication now possible between the devices, we can send information back to the smartphone, like biometric data, [language] translation data, and audio quality information. Real-time audio translations would obviously be a huge win for everyone.
Moreover, consumers don’t want wires anymore. Many will jump at this statement saying “I do” assuming they alone make up a large part of the market. I have seen that countless times. But hear this, the sales of wired headphones has been on a steady decline while bluetooth headphones which may suck in audio output compared to the wired ones, are on the rise.
Instead of the nostalgia over the loss of a tiny hole on the side of the gadgets, the issue at heart is about possibilities for sophisticated tech devices without the cord. After all, who doesn’t love cordless phones, irons, speakers, mice, and wireless headphones when we’re running around?
Audiophiles have long clung to their cables (and vinyl records), believing wireless technology compromises the listening experience. But Olive, who is the research director for audio company Harman International, says the jack connector actually has little impact on acoustic quality. The two most critical factors to good sound quality are the headphone’s speaker (called the surface transducer or exciter) and the original sound recording.
The current industry standard, Bluetooth 4, is “good enough” as any wired connection, he adds, and the release of Bluetooth 5, which is expected in late 2016 or early 2017, promises to make fidelity even better. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group boasts that the newest standard will double the speed of connections and increase the capacity of data broadcasts by 800%. Apple’s move to eliminate analog ports will help accelerate scientific research that could benefit a wider audience. As an example, he said an international conference on headphone technology he co-chaired in Denmark last month delved into hearing aid innovations.
To make even more sense, consider this : Everything is digital now. The music players, music files, and the equalizers—every step of the process is handled by computers. It makes absolutely no sense to have a single purporse 3.5mm port in advanced devices like current generation smartphones. Headphones can do more with the digital signal produced by a USB Type-C (or lightning) cable or wireless Bluetooth connection.
Now let’s consider what they don’t say
Of course, we cannot ignore all the annoyances with wireless headphones as I’ve mentioned in my rant in a previous post mentioned above, and then there are people scared to loose the wireless ear buds that have been springing out lately, including Apple’s Airpods. Also, as is the case now, the Bluetooth headsets don’t offer as good sound quality as the wired ones and the so called “digital” output is not very advanced than the “analog” output from the headphone jack.
The only thing that’s happening here is moving the conversion process out of our phones and into the headphones which means we are no longer limited by the DAC included in the smartphone which, depending on the price and implementation can be average to excellent. Furthermore, our ears have some compatibility issues with digital audio. Whether it’s 16-bit or 32-bit, MP3 or FLAC, they just couldn’t care less. We can only listen to the analog audio after it has been properly amplified. And whether the processing is done on the phone or within your headphones is moot.
You could have high quality 24-bit track on your phone. It could get processed first within the phone and then sent over an analog connector to your headphones. Or it could get sent directly as a digital signal to your headphones and then converted to analog and to your ears. At which point during the chain the conversion happens is irrelevant. So saying USB audio is better because it sends pure digital audio is marketing nonsense as at some point it does get converted to analog and the end result is the same. And if you analyze the sales graph above, the only thing it proved is most consumers don’t care about the HiFi audio they just want something that sounds good enough and makes life easy, not complicated.
Sure the companies will cook up more technical terms to explain how USB or Lightning ports offer better sound but really, try them and you’ll know they don’t.
What’s also worth noting is that we’ve had USB audio since quite a while now. The iOS devices already output audio through Lightning connector. Android phones running Lollipop and above can output USB audio. Even older Android phones with a custom configuration could output audio through microUSB. We have had a so-called superior audio interface at our disposal for a few years now, and yet no one switched to it. We hardly have any earphones or headphones that connect directly to them. We don’t because no one cares. Not even audiophiles as the advantages are just not worth it, because there are barely any for the consumer.
It’s only going to benefit the industry. Smartphones aren’t going to cost any less because they have one lesser hole in them, maybe the $100 ones will but not the more expensive ones. It’s only going to drive the cost of good quality headphones higher and the quality of sound from cheaper headphones lower because they may not include a DAC as good as your smartphone even if its a cheap smartphone.
And yet, if previous trends are to be considered , we maybe forced to adapt to the new standards if the other Android manufacturers follow Apple as they mostly do. Motorola and LeEco have already beaten Apple to it but they did not have the influence of Apple.
Do you wholeheartedly disagree with something? Let us know your thoughts and opinions, not that it will matter to any of the companies but we as consumers should know what we’re getting into.