Apple’s new generation of iPhones will not include a standard 3.5mm headphone input. The decision signals the demise of an audio port that’s been used for more than 100 years — and honestly, it’s about time. The death of the headphone jack is a very good thing. Hear me out.
The headphone jack is an analogue 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 or Lightning connection. Plus, the headphone jack only sends information one way: from power source to speaker. But that’s all beside the point. The most obvious reason why the headphone jack had to die is simply because the new wave of wireless headphones will be more convenient and enjoyable to use for everyone. For many people, wires are obsolete.
The headphone jack has been outmoded for decades. Built long before the advent of digital audio files — the predominant form of music today — the headphone jack was known for its simplicity and versatility. Historians have traced its origins all the way back to 1878, when primitive versions of the technology were used by telephone operators. The audio port managed to survive a global economic crisis, two World Wars, and even the digital revolution. But enough is enough. New technology has arrived, and it’s undeniably better.
Image: Audeze EL-8 Titanium headphones
Audeze CEO Sankur Thiagasamudram was one of the first people to recognise the shortcomings of the 3.5mm headphone jack, and he decided to bet big on the next generations of audio ports. The Audeze EL-8 Titanium headphones were the company’s first to use the lightning connector and contain a digital signal processor, digital-to-analogue converter, and amplifier in the headphones, all of which are precision-designed to make the music sound better before it hits your ear.
“We have more control over the signal,” Thiagasamudram told Gizmodo when asked about why he decided to build headphones with a Lightning connector. “We’re getting the raw digital signal. So, we can do signal processing before we convert it to analog and send it to the headphone.”
To put it more simply: everything is digital now. The music players, music files, and the equalisers — every step of the process is handled by computers. It makes absolutely no sense to have a metal 3.5mm cable connected to advanced devices like the iPhone. Headphones can do more with the digital signal produced by a Lightning cable or wireless Bluetooth connection.
Thomas Edison listening to a primitive version of headphones circa 1871. (Image: Getty)
New standards like Bluetooth and Lightning are also capable of sending more data at higher speeds between the headphones and iPhone. “Lightning has a couple of advantages. For example, we have bidirectional communication now,” said Thiagasamudram. “We can send information back to the iPhone, like biometric data, [language] translation data, and audio quality information.”
Real-time audio translations would obviously be a huge win for everyone, but most experts agree people will buy whatever headphones are most affordable and convenient. “Consumers will probably want wireless headphones more than they want a Lightning connection,” Bluetooth SIG’s director of developer programs Steve Hegenderfer said. “From a user’s perspective, they’re not missing out on anything. They’re actually gaining some freedom.”
Wireless headphones do offer more freedom, but that freedom comes with a tradeoff. They need batteries, and batteries need charging. Bluetooth headphones need to be paired to devices, and pairing can be annoying. And even if you get a device paired, the audio might drop out from time to time. In short, wireless tech still has a ways to go.
The thing is, aside from the annoyance of charging and pairing, wireless headphones aren’t much different than their wired counterparts. Apple obviously believes well-executed wireless is the future, and by eliminating the jack, it opens a lot of incentive for manufacturers to iron out issues and invest in creating really reliable products. The company that nails it could potentially own the ears of millions of iPhone users.
And perhaps the most important reason the jack had to go is purely practical. Ditching the relatively beefy headphone jack opens up space where more advanced tech can be added to the iPhone.
“The reason to move on comes down to one word: courage,” Apple SVP Phil Schiller said during the iPhone 7 announcement. “Our smartphones are packed with technologies, and it’s all fighting for space. Maintaining an ancient analogue connector doesn’t make sense.”
He’s right. This is exactly what Apple does best: it single-handedly abolishes outdated technology standards that are begging to be shelved. Apple did it with the 3.5-inch floppy disk, disk drives in your laptops, and Adobe Flash. Now, it’s doing music-lovers a favour by killing a cable that’s had it coming for a long time. This makes room for better technology and new possibilities.
So the headphone jack is finally dead. And the saddest part? No one is going to miss it.