With less than a week before the iPhone 7 unveiling, and potentially the death of the headphone jack, there are a few things that could potentially go wrong with the move.
Recent reports indicate Apple will be launching the iPhone 7 with Lightning EarPods, but, also include a 3.5mm to Lightning adapter in the box. This is flawed.
Not only is it morally incorrect, as having Lighting EarPods means you’d need an adapter to connect to anything that doesn’t have a Lightning port, thus requiring to purchase an adapter, but it also means the adapter included in the box cannot be used with the bundled EarPods.
If anything, it would make more sense for Apple to include the standard EarPods with a Lighting to 3.5mm adapter in the box. Though, neither of these options make any real sense.
As an audiophile, one would think removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone upsets me. It doesn’t. I’m actually looking forward to the death of it because it’d mean we’re finally moving to a digital input for audio. Similar to the move from VGA/DVI to HDMI/DIsplayPort. While the 3.5/2.5/quarter-inch terminators have been around for centuries, it’s time to go digital.
With a digital connector such as Lightning, headphones are now able to build in a DAC (digital to audio converter) or amp (amplifier) into either the headphone or cable itself, rather than relying on the device. It would also open up the gate to equalization on the hardware level, and some Lightning headphones already do this.
On headphones such as the Audeze SINE, or Audeze EL-8 Titanium, you’re able to permanently modify how the headphones sound, regardless of the output device. For the general consumer, moving to a digital connector would mean no more batteries for your noise canceling headphones as it can just draw power from the phone.
Aside from some debatable audiophile features, this opens the gate to things we’re not even thinking about as consumers.
However, there are downsides to going digital, specifically Lightning. With the audio standards we have today, they work for all devices. Whether it’s an iPhone, Mac, PC, handheld gaming device, whatever, they all use the 3.5mm termination (some use 2.5, or 1/4-inch, but they’re still open standards).
Lightning is proprietary, which means all headphones made with Lightning must be approved and verified by Apple. That’s not bad in reality, as it creates a safer environment. However, this means any device you plug into also needs a Lightning port. As it stands right now, that’s limited to Apple devices and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the compromise is to get adapters. As an owner of the 12-inch Retina MacBook, my rule is: replace the cable, don’t adapt. While that may hold true to USB-C as it’s an open standard, it wouldn’t make sense for Lightning. With Lightning, the only thing Apple wants you to do with it (currently) is to charge your devices.
With iPhone 7, they may want you to plug in headphones with the port. Unfortunately, it ends there. At the time of writing, there are already a plethora of adapters for Lightning (such as digital A/V, USB, and even Apple’s own 30-pin cable). So why can’t we replace those cables with Lightning instead of using an adapter? The issue is MFi certification.
Apple charges a fee to have Lighting accessories MFi certified. (MFi aka Made for iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc., is a program Apple runs that allow manufacturers to get their accessories tested to make sure they don’t cause problems.) Which is why MFi accessories are typically more expensive than non-MFi, or non-Lightning accessories.
Unless Apple opens up Lightning and makes it an open standard, this will go horribly wrong for Apple. Customers who paid hundreds of dollars for their headphones won’t buy a new pair just to get it to work with their existing headphones.
More than likely, those customers will just buy the adapter or switch away from iPhone entirely. Even Apple’s own Beats line of headphones still use 3.5mm terminators. Granted, they could just release a new line with Lightning terminations. The issue with that, and Marco Arment said it best, is that not all headphones are built the same.
Specifically, the end that connects to the headphone end, not the device end, come with a 2.5mm, most come with 3.5mm, some don’t have a detachable cable so the cable is built into the headphone. The argument, ‘replace the cable, don’t adapt’ would be nearly impossible here. For example, I currently own a pair of headphones: the Sennheiser HD600.
They use a custom terminator on the headphone end of the cable that no other manufacturer uses, but have 3.5mm on the other end to plug into most devices. A more popular headphone, the Audio Technica ATH-M50x has a 2.5mm terminator on the headphone end, but also has a locking mechanism. That alone, area already two cables customers need to buy if they’d like to ‘replace the cable.’ Again, it doesn’t work in anyone’s favor but Apple’s. They sell the adapters, and certify third-party adapters at a price.
If Apple goes this route, it’ll be unfortunate for those of us who own multiple pairs of headphones with individual cables for each. Manufacturers will lose because they’ll need to engineer a new cable or include an adapter that needs to be certified by Apple, regardless.
The only customers who truly win are those who only own and use iOS devices, but that’s the minority of the iPhone population. Personally, I’d be okay with an adapter, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Switching to USB-C on iOS devices on the other hand… that’s not a bad idea.