Why Apple’s next iPhone may kill the headphone jack, and what it means for you

apple patent hybrid wired wireless headphones iphone 7 airpods
Whether you care about the new iPhone 7 or not, the fact that Apple may eliminate the headphone jack on its new phone is kind of a big deal. Yes, we’ve heard this rumor before, but this time around the evidence is far more convincing. In other words: We’re pretty sure this is going to happen.

So what could this change mean for iPhone users; and beyond that, the smartphone industry as a whole? Quite a bit, actually — especially if you hardwire your phone’s headphone jack to anything, be it a pair of headphones or a car audio jack.

There’s plenty to consider here, so let’s discuss the good, the bad, and everything in between for Apple’s rumored attack on the headphone jack.

What we think we know

Last year we learned of the Apple MFi (made for iOS) program that focused on Lighting-only headphone models. We now know Apple wasn’t ready to kill the headphone jack back then, but MFi was enough to get people talking, and was due cause for concern. Now there’s even more reason to believe Apple has whipped out its design machete.

With Beats in the fold, Apple has all it needs to make Bluetooth fly.

In November of 2015, a report by Japanese website Mac Otakara (per MacRumors) first reported on a “reliable source” claiming Apple was dropping the analog headphone jack. The report suggested the new plan would require the use of Lightning EarPods and Bluetooth wireless headphones. Then again, the report also made some pretty flimsy suggestions about the iPhone retaining an internal DAC for analog audio output, which just doesn’t seem likely.

Flash forward to January, when MacRumors quoted Chinese websites citing supply chain sources backed up the rumor, saying the move was prompted by Apple’s quest for a slimmer iPhone. Forbes even dug up rumors that Apple was working on support for “super high resolution” available only through Lightning headphones.

Then, in March, reliable leaker @OnLeaks revealed what appeared to be an iPhone 7 case that shows no space for a headphone jack, replaced by a slot for a possible second speaker. And finally, on March 15, MacRumors revealed a “potential first photo” of the iPhone 7 which, again, showed no sign of our 3.5mm friend.

Yeah, this is probably happening.

Two ways to play

Bluetooth buds

Apple will need to soften the blow if it is to make such a bold move. Bluetooth headphones are an obvious choice, and with Beats in its fold, Apple has all it needs to make these a more compelling option.

In fact, there have been numerous reports Apple’s been at work developing fully wireless ear buds, believed to be called Airpods. Apple trademarked the name in October under a shell company, and in January, 9to5 Mac reported that Apple was “prototyping” the pods, thought to be designed similarly to the Motorola Verve Ones which offer a programmable button for audio/Siri control, and a carrying case that charges the buds on the go.

airpods
Eric Huisman
Eric Huisman

Still, the Airpods would probably be a premium upgrade to whatever Apple puts in the box with the iPhone 7, and, as popular as Bluetooth headphones are becoming, they aren’t yet ubiquitous. Lots of people use wired headphones, and some choose to do so for the superior sound quality. How will Apple keep from alienating such a huge swathe of users?

Lightning-connected cans

Lightning headphones are a more likely in-the-box alternative to Bluetooth cans. Since 2014, the iPhone has supported such an alternative, and the first pairs began surfacing in early 2015. While losing the analog jack entirely could mean the headphones would be useless for anything other than an iPhone, they’d come with some real advantages as well.

For one thing, Lightning cans eliminate the need for an iPhone to include an internal amplifier and DAC, and that opens the door to higher quality audio. And while the iPhone’s digital output currently tops out at 24bit/48kHz, that number could potentially rise to full high-res audio at 24bit/96kHz or above, without the need for pricey hardware upgrades. In addition, while many are concerned about being able to charge their phone while listening to music, it’s widely believed the new iPhone will not only be water-resistant, but will also offer wireless charging.

audeze

All of that said, those benefits may not be much consolation for those who’ve already spent a pretty penny on a pair of high-end headphones or in-ear monitors, and/or a headphone amplifier without a digital input (though most new amps are digital-ready). Moreover, those who choose to buy an affordable set of headphones — in the $50-100 range — to replace Apple’s maligned earpods will be out of luck without a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter. Thanks, Apple.

Cash grab, or innovation catalyst?

Requiring an adapter for any and all wired headphones outside of the Apple domain (i.e. non-Lightning) begs a deeper question about the brand that leans more towards the philosophical. The question: Is Apple’s ceaseless quest to drop universal connection ports for its own proprietary designs based primarily on pushing innovation and design, or does it have more to do with creating new ways to tax us with more and more adapters?

We have our own opinions there, and the question has even sparked heated debates from within DT without any sort of closure. But it is healthy to take a look at Apple’s motivation here.

On the one hand, this likely development is an unwanted (and arguably unnecessary) transition for many regular iPhone users who will need to buy pricey adapters for their headphones, car accessories, and any other wired audio gear they use with their iPhones. Further, many companies who sell high-quality/low-priced headphone alternatives to Apple’s in-house option — your $50 value cans — may feel a real squeeze as the iPhone pushes away affordable alternatives, and users are pulled ever deeper into the Apple product family.

On the other hand, apart from a slimmer phone, and possibly higher audio resolution, the move to Lightning or Bluetooth headphones by such a ubiquitous device could have a potentially positive effect on the audio industry as a whole. Should the rumors prove true, Bluetooth headphones will likely be advanced on multiple fronts, with top-tier audio companies striving to create richer and better sound, more stable connections, and more headphones. Startups and stalwart brands alike will also spend countless hours inventing new and better Lightning headphones and Lightning-DAC/amplifiers, such as the new Cobble which debuted on Kickstarter this week. And audiophiles (who already seek out add-on devices to make their headphones shine) will have their pick of countless new products that could potentially source hi-res audio from their phone.

In fact, we recently asked Audeze COO Sankar Thiagasamudram, whose company created some of the first Lightning-ready headphones without any knowledge of the rumors, what he thought of Apple’s rumored plan.

tim-cook-stage

“I think it’s great, actually,” Thiagasamudram said. “Not just for us but [for the] industry as well … it forces a lot of higher fidelity connections … It also allows us to do a lot of things because we can now send information back to the phone. For example, I can put a microphone inside my headphone, and every time I take the headphones off I can automatically pause the song.”

And that’s just one of the many applications Sankar is excited about. His prediction when it comes to Bluetooth vs Lightning in the new system?

“I think more of the mainstream people will go wireless, and the hi-res people who care about fidelity will go Lightning.”

Either way you look at it, if Apple unveils its shiny new iPhone in the next few months (likely in September, if history holds true) and it really does lack that familiar 3.5 mm hole we’ve known for so long, the world of audio will be changed dramatically. Here’s hoping that change is for the better in the long run. We’ll be updating this post as soon as the new phone makes its official debut, so stay tuned.

For now, iPhone faithful, happy analog listening — and see you on the other side.

Updated 3/21/16 at 9:43 a.m. PST: Clarified that the new iPhone 7 is not expected to be unveiled until September.

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