iPhone 7: The Case For & Against Removing The Headphone Jack

I’ve had my iPhone 7 for about three weeks now, and I thought I would address one of the most polarizing aspects of Apple’s latest smartphone: the removal of the headphone jack. This isn’t a full on iPhone 7 review — you can find plenty of those online — but rather one user’s take on Apple’s most divisive change in years.

Why Did Apple Do It?

The theoretical case for removing the headphone jack

Apple has a history of doing things like this — removing legacy technology in favor of newer, better solutions. In doing so, they force quicker adoption of new tech that already exists, and help bring that tech to the masses.

A key example of this occurred in 2008. Apple introduced The MacBook Air which controversially did not contain an optical disc drive. This angered many consumers who relied on optical discs for critical operations, and caused a lot of backlash against the MacBook Air.

Fast forward to 2010, and the second generation MacBook Air was heralded by those same critics as one of the most important notebooks of all time. It went on to be one of Apple’s best selling notebooks, and continues to be the best option for most people who are looking at a laptop (though Apple’s notebook lineup is undergoing some serious changes right now, but I’ll save that for another post). Nobody missed the optical disc drive anymore. Nobody cared.

Let’s break this down into further detail. In 2008, optical disc drives were primarily used for three things:

  1. Installing software purchased at a retail store. It may seem insane in 2016, but back then, people had to buy a copy of large-size software in person and install it with a disc / license key. Crazy, right?
  2. Listening to / ripping audio CDs into iTunes. In 2008, many people still had large portions of their music collection on physical media, and getting that content on to their iPod/iPhone was an important part of making those devices useful.
  3. Watching DVDs on a computer. These were dark times my friends, dark times.

The thing is, in 2008, there were already viable replacements for all of those use cases. Internet bandwith had become fast enough in many places that most software could be distributed via the internet and activated with a user account. Platforms like the App Store made this a viable option for developers too — easier to get your software to consumers, easier to charge them for it, easier to make sure they all have the latest version when it is available, and more difficult to pirate it. Music was sold online by a number of high profile retailers which offered lower prices, better sound quality, the option to purchase only parts of an album, and lower costs for musicians. (iTunes, AmazonMP3 and eMusic come to mind) Pandora Radio offered people the choice to stream lots of music over the internet for free. Streaming services like Netflix and digital movie sales meant that you could watch any movie you wanted at anytime as long as you had an internet connection, and carrying around a stack of DVDs on a plane flight became a thing of the past.

In short, the internet made the optical disc obsolete. By removing the optical disc drive in 2008 on the MacBook Air, Apple forced early adopters to embrace the new web-based technologies and in turn, encouraged developers and content creators to support these technologies as well. In 2010, when the MacBook Air was ready for mass adoption, nobody missed the optical drive. In wasn’t long afterwards that the optical disc drive disappeared from pretty much all computers (Apple or otherwise) and content creators to stop supporting them altogether. Microsoft hasn’t released physical copies of Microsoft Office with their latest major release and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has become one of the first high profile major label albums not to see a physical release. By removing the optical disc drive, Apple accelerated the death of optical media and ushered in the web/streaming world that we live in today. Which brings us, back to the headphone jack…

The headphone jack is the oldest port still in use today. It’s origins can be traced all the way back to 1878, and the 3.5mm version that we know today dates back to 1964. It achieved mass popularity when it shipped as part of Sony’s Walkman lineup of music players, and it became a mainstay of consumer audio products by 1979. Even if I’m being generous the headphone jack is at least 37 years old. It’s the only analogue port still shipping on consumer products, and it really does need to die.

The Headphone jack is also a very inflexible port, and causes a massive invasion into the inner workings of of the phone. It takes up a lot of space, and its removal has made space for Apple’s Taptic Engine, which has paved the way for the future of smartphone haptics and user interactions. (I’ll save that for another post)

So Why Are Techies & Journalists Angry?

The theoretical case against removing the headphone jack

The removal of the optical disc drive is just one such example of Apple removing features to push consumer technology forward. Since the company’s inception, they’ve done this several times and have succeeded every time. These changes have almost always led to an improved user experience and a better developer/distributer workflow in the long run. But this time, it feels somehow different. It seems premature, user-hostile, and undefined to many people, including those who typically defend Apple’s bold changes to consumer products.

Before I can get into why that is, I need to explain the difference between analogue and digital ports in terms of sound delivery.

All music is stored in either an analogue or a digital format. Analogue formats, like gramophone discs (vinyl) or cassette tapes, contain a direct representation of the sound waves that you will listen to. Vinyl records have the sound waves literally etched into them, while cassette tapes are chemically treated to contain exact copies of the original sound wave. These formats are the closest you can get to the original performance, but they aren’t without their flaws. While they do contain complete replicas of the original sound wave, they’re prone to deterioration and damage. Vinyl records can scratch or be broken and lose some of their quality with every spin. Cassette tapes are even more prone to physical damage. Both require complex machinery to be played back and neither are very convenient for transportation.

Digital music is stored in a computer file. Rather than containing a physical representation of the sound wave, digital files contain a ‘1s and 0s’ representation of what the sound wave might look like when played back to a user. Digital files have many advantages. They’re are not subject to deterioration and require no special machinery to be played back. They take up much less physical space and can be distributed via the internet.

The thing is, you can’t actually listen to a digital music file. ‘1s and 0s’ aren’t a real sound wave, and you can’t play them back to generate sound. As a result, digital files must be processed by a Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC) before they can make their way to a set of speakers or a pair of headphones. A DAC reads the 1s and 0s in the file and generates a sound wave that can be listened to by a human. This distinction is important for the digital port vs analogue port on your phone. The 3.5mm headphone jack is the only analogue port left on consumer devices. It transmits direct representations of sound waves (digital files that have *already* been through a DAC). Digital ports (USB, Lightning, Thunderbolt, etc.) transmit digital files, and the have to go through a DAC before they can be listened to by a human

The thing is, the DAC in the iPhone isn’t very good. It’s a cut above most other smartphone manufactures (many of whom do not pay any attention to a detail as trivial as the DAC), but it still isn’t great. You won’t notice the issues with Apple’s included headphones, but mid-to-high end to high-end headphones will be crippled by a smartphone DAC — it just can’t drive them.

[Fun fact, if anyone you know spent tons of money on designer headphones and plugs them into a smartphone and is raving about ‘amazing’ sound quality differences, they’re full of shit. The DAC in almost every smartphone just can’t do those headphones justice and the sound quality improvement is minimal at best.]

Now that you know the difference between the two ports, lets explain the difference between the removal of the optical disc drive and the removal of the headphone jack.

In the case of the optical drive removal, there was a clear and obvious replacement for each of those use cases. Software discs were replaced with internet distribution, music and movie discs listening got replaced with iTunes and streaming services. It was just a matter of forcing the public to adopt those technologies more quickly.

There is no clear replacement for the headphone jack. Apple would like to tell you that there is, but the truth is that it’s completely up in the air as to what should replace it. Apple has layed out a few solutions, but all of them are flawed and none of them are ready for mass adoption.

Bluetooth Headphones

Apple has made their point of view clear: they believe in a truly wireless future. The Apple “W1” ARM SoC has made bluetooth headphones both significantly easier to use as well as much better sounding. They think that most people will eventually use bluetooth headphones and port on the phone doesn’t really matter. There’s a certain level of truth to that, but envisioning bluetooth headphones as the option for most people is flawed logic for a few of reasons:

  1. Bluetooth headphones require power and need to be recharged. Are you fucking kidding me? I have to charge my phone, laptop, tablet, smartwatch, wearable, AND my headphones? And when they run out of power I can’t listen to music!? I don’t think so…
  2. Bluetooth headphones inherently sound worse than their wired counterparts. Assuming equivelent DACs, Bluetooth requires file compression (resulting in sound quality drops) and results in interference (connectivity issues). This won’t matter for most people, but people who plan on using their iPhone as their primary media player and care deeply about music and sound quality just can’t use bluetooth. Sure, AptX makes bluetooth sound better and interference issues are much less prevalent than they used to be, but they will never match their wired counterparts. Wires do not have interference at all. Wires do not need compression.
  3. Bluetooth headphones requiring pairing, setup, and other annoyances. Ever wondered whether a pair of headphones it compatible with a given device? Nope! You just plug it in and it just works. Bluetooth headphones need pairing, use complex settings menus and may or may not work with a given device. Sure Apple W1 removes all that, but W1 is only available on Apple branded and Beats by Dre branded headphones. Sure, that could change, but I somehow doubt it. Apple wants you to buy their stuff. If W1 becomes available on other manufacturers, it’ll because Apple licenses it out and charges money for the technology. This isn’t even necessarily because that they are greedy, but rather because W1 is an entire SoC with an ARM CPU and other guts. If other people implement it, Apple will need to control the process for the consumer’s sake. And I doubt they’ll perform that service for free.

In spite of all of this, Apple believes that bluetooth headphones are the best option for most people and that the aforementioned issues will resolve themselves eventually. My argument is that thes problems will plague users for a while, and that bluetooth headphones ready for mass adoption are a long while away. So what about the time between now and that distant future? What about audiophiles who care deeply about sound quality? How are they supposed to reconcile with this change?

Digital (USB/Lightning) Headphones

On first glance, digital headphones that use USB and contain their own DACs seem like the obvious interim solution while bluetooth headphones become convenient enough. Because they house self-contained DACs, their audio quality is standardized regardless of the device you connect them to. But upon closer inspection, this too is not a viable option for most people.

  1. USB is Changing. Lightning =/= USB. Apple’s Lightning port is, by all technical measures, an incredible feat of engineering. It featuers dynamically assignable pins, variable data throughput, is reversible, and is extremely thin. However, none of these achievements matter because the lighting port is proprietary and unlikely to be adopted by third-party manufactures. The USB standard is alreadty undergoing a massive change right now (USB-A3.x+ –> USB-C3.1.x+ x ThunderBolt3), and it is unlikely that third party manufacturers will want to adopt yet another port standard. Additionally, Apple charges a premium for licensing the Lighting port technology, a fee that only the largest manufactures will be willing to cover. If you choose to purchase a USB-C3.x+ headphone instead of a Lightning option, you will also need to shell out some more cash for an adapter. If you choose a Lightning option, it will only work on Apple products.
  2. Including a DAC increases headphone cost. Digital wired headphones force the manufacturers to include both the drivers for the headphones well as the DAC component. DACs can cost a lot of money and will almost certainly increase the cost of headphones when compared to their analogue counterparts that do not need a DAC. Sure, audiophiles will not care because the iPhone’s DAC isn’t very good, but those who are trying to avoid the complications of bluetooth will face a cost increase in buying wired headphones that are now burdened with including both speaker drivers as well as a DAC.

External DAC

Those who want to avoid the expense of high-end digital wired headphones and the inconveniences of bluetooth headphones can use an external DAC — a lightning or USB device that does the digital-to-analogue conversion and offers an analogue 3.5mm headphone jack for you to use whatever headphones you feel like using. Apple actually includes an 3.5mm to lightning adapter with the iPhone 7 that features a teeny tiny DAC. This adapter should work for most people, but is significantly worse than the iPhone’s internal DAC at the bleeding edges of performance. You are also likely to lose this adapter, and I am dubious that Apple will include an adapter with a DAC forever. In the future, people will likely have to provide their own DAC if the want use analogue headphones and perhaps even purchase a USB to Lightning adapter as your DAC of choice is unlikely to support Apple’s proprietary port. (I recommend AudioQuest’s DragonFly Red. Even if your device has a headphone port, your headphones will seriously appreciate a real DAC. Additionally, the HTC 10 is one of the only devices that features a true high quality DAC)

TLDR

All of this information should spell a similar story: The headphone jack is certainly ripe for replacement, but not just yet. The replacement technology just isn’t ready for mass adoption, and it is unclear as to what that technology actually is. Apple jumped the gun to force adoption of their own proprietary technologies (Apple W1 for wireless and Lightning for wired), and these replacements are not viable alternatives for the headphone jack. This is a scheme to make money, even if their technologies are quite excellent. Proprietary is never a solution.

What does this mean for me?

The practical case for living without a headphone jack.

I’ve had my iPhone 7 for exactly 21 days now, and I can honestly tell you that I do not miss the headphone jack. With my use, I’ve run into exactly two scenarios where not having a headphone jack have caused me problems.

On Halloween weekend, I was in an UberXL with several friends. The Uber driver offered me an aux cable, and I couldn’t play the music I wanted. Luckily, I was with people who did have headphone jacks, and because of streaming services, this annoyance disappeared quickly

When I went to the gym the day after I got my new phone, I found upon arrival that the EarPods I usually leave in my car would not work with my device. This was extremely annoying, but I now leave a set of Lightning capable EarPods in my car (this cost me $35) which has solved the problem.

Overall, while I have not missed the headphone jack, I cannot say that the same is true for everyone. If you rely on the good ol’ fasion analogue port, the iPhone 7 will seriously piss you off on more than one occasion. Make sure not to lose that adapter! A post headphone jack world is on its way, but its much farther away than Apple would like you to believe, and its really annoying if you want to use headphones that aren’t Apple branded. Many people will be completely unaffected (I for instance listen to music primarily via Bluetooth in my car or via an AirPlay stereo in my bedroom), but if you plan on upgrading to an iPhone 7, think long and hard about how often you use the headphone port, the viablity of the replacements I’ve mentioned above, and whether or not the loss of the port is something you can stomach.

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