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Apple’s audio ambitions and the headphone jack fiasco

iphone-7-airpodsWe already discussed the minor updates to Apple Music numbers emerging from Apple’s recent keynote. But the real upheaval at the event was the company’s choice to remove the standard headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Everyone and their mother took to the Internet with a hot take on the development, and the general impression so far is not good.

Rather than the usual 3.5mm connector, any wired headphones or earbuds would need to use the company’s proprietary Lightning port. Or, as the company was not-so-subtlely encouraging, customers would turn to wireless listening, ideally on Apple’s new AirPods. Each new iPhone will come with revised earbuds that use the Lightning connector, in addition to an adapter for using the traditional jack.

Apple’s presenter said removing the headphone jack was an act of “courage,” of the brand daring to push into the wireless frontier, where no company has successfully gone before. Admirably, he got the line out with a straight face. Yet as the collective internet cringed over the wording, Apple isn’t entirely wrong to reconsider the current standard. It’s just going about it in a peculiar way.

Wireless audio is a topic that hasn’t gotten much love from the tech world. Wired sound is usually acknowledged as superior to wireless, so audiophiles will stick to their tethers rather than the convenience and mobility of the alternative. But if Apple truly wants to revolutionize the personal audio, serious listeners need more than a claim of “courage” to willingly shoulder the burden of helping to make those changes happen.

Because with what Apple is currently doing, the work is falling on the listeners. We need to keep track of the new hardware. We have to do the extra research to determine if/when this wireless tech will make sense in our lives. We have to buy yet another set of headphones to use exclusively with one device. And there are lots of questions we need answered to understand why it’s worthwhile for us to do all that, because an intensely shiny phone isn’t enough.

For instance, how good is Apple’s Lightning port? The presentation claimed that it was tuned to be a superior digital audio connection, but I don’t know of anyone who’s had a chance to assess that statement. Is Apple working with other companies to make Lightning available on more than an iPhone? Beats headphones aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so just the combined Apple/Beats clout isn’t going to be enough to make a huge shift in listening preferences.

The courageous element isn’t Apple’s willingness to tackle the prickly subject of wireless audio. It’s trusting that consumers and audiophiles will stick with the company’s vision, even when it makes missteps in rolling out the products.

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Anna Washenko

14 Comments

  1. Headphone jack is a deal breaker for me and other family members who use portable devices to listen to our music. Why? Because it’s easy to use. You just plug-in and play your music.

    • I’d like to move forward into the future too. Technology, however, should make lives simpler, not more complicated. Going wireless means carrying around a headset that needs batteries. Batteries discharge. This means carrying around a means to charge them. So, you’d want a set of headphones you could charge with the same cable as your iPhone because why carry around more cables than you need. So, now we have a bunch of wireless headphones that discharge and need different cables to power. All this to replace a wired headphone that fits into all devices. The headphone jack is a simple, beautiful, uniform standard. You want music, you take any set of headphones with a wired jack and plug it in. Uniformity was the point. All Apple’s gone and done is changed something simple to something complicated.

  2. Quite right, Billy Bob!

    Here’s what it’s like to buy a pair of Bluetooth headphones:
    •Unbox Bluetooth headphones.
    •Try to put them in pairing mode.
    •Can’t figure out how to get in pairing mode.
    •Open Settings -> Bluetooth on phone.
    •Wait for headphones to show up.
    •Headphones didn’t show up, it took too long and now they’re out of pairing mode.
    •Put headphones in pairing mode.
    •Quickly tap on headphones on iPhone.
    •Oops you tapped twice now it didn’t work.
    •Tap once this time. Figure out what the “pairing code is” — it’s almost always ‘0000’
    •Failed to pair.
    •Try again.
    •It inexplicably works this time.
    •Six months from now your phone forgets your headphones, rinse and repeat.

    Here’s what it’s like to use any wired headphones that ever existed:
    •Plug in
    •Push play

    The awesome thing about the 3.5mm jack is that it works. No settings, no apps, just music. It works in the car, it works on an airplane, it works for my speakers. You can come over to my house and plug in and play music anytime you want without doing pairing, logging in, downloading or really doing anything at all.

    • Exactly! All that pairing, etc. just makes trying to listen to music on your portable device more complicated.

  3. The irritation associated with not having a headphone jack depends on how much you use Apple’s included EarPods, Bluetooth headphones or whether you try to listen on anything else other than an iPhone.

  4. I’m an Android user. With Android you can pick from thousands of phones the hardware that suits your individual wants/needs. You don’t want a jack? Don’t get the phone with the jack. Android users have had the option to go without a 3.5mm jack for two years but it has only filled a small market of people. With iOS users they have no option but to go without a 3.5mm jack.

    • Good point. Seems like it would make more sense to have both options for a generation or two. You don’t alienate everyone in a single swipe but provide the avenue for people who want to buy newer wireless devices to do so while also giving the market a year or two to populate compatible devices. Then when the port is removed people have had ample time to adjust and a market of products is out there to help them transition if they haven’t already.

    • They should make a “dual purpose” phone first. One with the enhanced port that can use all the new gadgets yet still has a standard audio port. This allows the market to mature, it allows people to purchase and get experience with the “new” options while being able to fall back on the already purchased ones. Additional hardware developers will also create their versions to allow for multiple choices and a more balanced field for people that can’t afford the most expensive thing out there, or who are willing to give up quality for price. Conversely, it would allow higher end devices to be made for those that don’t want to give up the quality devices they use now, but would only have a small selection pool if forced to go “all in” all at once. It’s a gradual progression that shows confidence in the future but allows people to transition when they are ready. This is how a manufacturer shows it cares about it’s customers and is willing to work with them.

  5. Future Guy – The issue here is, unlike the Android platform, the customer can’t just say “Well, if Apple is going to get rid of the headphone jack on the next iPhone, I’ll just get another manufacturer’s iOS smartphone”. That’s why this is a such a big deal. I quite agree with the ideas mentioned here. You offer choice while making the transition gradual.

  6. Doesn’t Apple own Beats? Doesn’t Beats make wired headphones? Doesn’t this cannibalize one of their own products? Then again, Apple is the only company that doesn’t allow USB interface either.

  7. first of all – moderator censoring my comments on this isnt fair. its not a fact that this loss of a headphone jack is a negative so stop with the bias. eventually nothing will have a wire not even for power.

    but to my point – this is an extremely high end phone but apple is only charging $9 for a lightning to 3.5mm converter. so whats the problem here? if you can shell out for one of these phones just get the converter. or just stick with your 5 or 6.

    also there are a ton of other really interesting aspects to developing with swift in ios10 that are going to change mobile music experiences significantly and this publication isnt batting an eye to cover those

    • Here is what Business Insider’s Steve Kovach, had to say about the issue:

      “When I was flying back to New York last week, I wanted to watch a movie on Delta’s in-flight entertainment system. But I had shiny new pair of the Lightning EarPods, and Delta’s system requires the standard jack. That means I had to pull out a second pair of regular EarPods that I had with me from my iPhone 6. Bluetooth was out of the question.
      I think that’s going to be the biggest problem as people adjust to the death of the headphone jack. Listening to music through Lightning or Bluetooth headphones is a breeze on the iPhone 7, but Apple has ignored the fact that the rest of the world is using the original standard.”

      Another complaint I’ve heard is that it’s not so easy to charge your phone while listening to music any more as it’s all the same socket. You’ll need a different adaptor or dock with multiple connections to make this work and you have to remember to carry all this extra stuff around with you everywhere. The overall consensus is that it’s just too much of a hassle. It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple puts the head jack back on iPhone 8.

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