When you want to hook your headphones up to your smartphone you could soon find yourself searching for a non-existent socket if certain manufacturers – including possibly even Apple – get their way.
The sad thing is, the headphone jack – that 3.5mm analogue three or four pole plug – is a very good connector. It’s a universal connector: it can plug into your smartphone, your tablet and computer, your TV, hi-fi, radio, Game Boy or console. And it has been used widely for decades, more or less replacing the larger 1/4-inch jacks (which dated from the 1870s) since the 1960s for all but specialist applications, such as electric guitars and some more powerful amps.
As smartphones have become the primary music device for a whole generation and more, most headphones spend the majority of their time plugged into these pocket computers. But now the jack’s dominance is being contested.
Several smartphone manufacturers have started shipping handsets without 3.5mm sockets. Lenovo’s new modular Moto Z shirks the headphone socket for a dongle that’s plugged into the relatively new USB-C socket in the bottom. China’s LeEco also dumped the socket, while chip giant Intel is actively encouraging others to kill off the analogue 3.5mm socket in favour of USB-C.
But it is arguably Apple, which is strongly rumoured to be planning to dump the 3.5mm standard at its iPhone 7 launch on Wednesday, that will likely have the largest impact on the market, particularly given the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, has continued to fit the socket to its smartphones.
Why would Apple dump the handy, helpful, user-friendly headphone jack? There are several reasons. The Lightning port in the bottom of an iPhone is already capable of outputting audio, and is needed for power, so if one of the two has to go to save a little bit of space, the 3.5mm jack gets the boot.
That port also gives Apple much more control over accessories, as to use it you might have to apply for a licence and certification from Apple under its so-called Made for iPhone (MFi) scheme.
All recent iPhones, iPads and iPod touches have a Lightning port for charging and it can output audio, video or data, whatever is needed, using various different cables. For listening to a smartphone it works just like a 3.5mm jack would, except it’s purely digital. Plug your Lightning connector in and hit play.
The trouble is, you can’t plug Lightning headphones into anything else. Not even Macs have Lightning ports, and you can forget about hooking them up to a stereo or similar. For that reason, the current crop of Lightning-only headphones aren’t great.
But the Lightning connector isn’t the only technology gunning for the headphone jack.
USB-C is another contender for the headphone throne. It’s new, which means not many devices currently have the sockets except a collection of Android smartphones and a few tablets, but computers, including Apple’s MacBook, do have the new USB-C standard. That means a pair of USB-C headphones can be used in more than just a smartphone, even if there’s very little chance of being able to plug them into a stereo or similar any time soon.
USB-C, like Lightning, also has an audio quality advantage. They both carry digital audio directly to the headphones, which means there’s no loss of quality caused by the smartphone’s digital-to-analogue converter (Dac). If the music sounds poor with a pure digital stream to your ears, it’s the headphone’s fault.
If you’re ditching the standard 3.5mm cable, however, there’s already a well established technology that doesn’t need a new connector: Bluetooth. Wireless headphones are nothing new, but in the last three years they’ve gone from lumbering, heavy over-ear beasts with poor battery life to headphones, earphones and even just buds that last anywhere from a few hours to a few days between charges.
Over-ear and on-ear Bluetooth headphones are the most popular and are almost indistinguishable from their cabled siblings. Most also have the option of plugging in a headphones cable for connecting to non-Bluetooth devices or for using them when the battery runs out.
In-ear Bluetooth headphones are less common, but come in several types: neck-phones with a plastic collar that sits on your shoulders, wireless earbuds connected by a short cable that sits around the back of your neck, or a new breed of truly wireless earbuds that are not physically connected to each other.
While the first two are established and work well, despite the neck phones defeating the object of being wireless, the truly independent wireless earbuds are still a work in progress, suffering connectivity and battery life issues.
The final option, which is available for almost all the different varieties of headphones, is simply a dongle that converts the Lightning port or USB-C into a 3.5mm socket. But dongles suck, getting in the way, offering another thing to lose or to break and run the risk of damaging the one thing your phone cannot live without – the power socket – if bent or ripped out.
None of the options are as simple and compatible as the humble 3.5mm headphone jack, and while wireless headphones are certainly more convenient, most still use the 3.5mm connector as a fall back. The removal of that standard connector must be compensated with something as good, if not better, otherwise there really is no benefit to the consumer.