Opinion: Why the Death of the Headphone Jack May Not Be Such a Bad Thing

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

The Big Deal

For a while now, rumors have been piling up that suggest the venerable, reliable, universal 3.5mm headphone jack could vanish from future Apple products as soon as the iPhone 7. While we don't know whether this will definitely happen, there is mounting evidence that it might; a prominent Android phone maker released a phone sans headphone jack, and Apple's audio supplier just released tools for developing Lightning-based audio accessories. Naturally, such a fundamental change raises a lot of questions, and makes a lot of people very nervous and upset. The reasons for this anxiety are sound, and I'm right there with those hoping Apple doesn't do this. However, if they do, I don't think things will be as bad as many imagine. I'll first outline the negative consequences of removing the headphone jack, then address each one, explaining why it might not be so terrible after all. At the very least, it will be manageable, just as all other changes in technology have been. But first, the negatives.

They Say…

We've Always Done It This Way

Normally, "because it's always been this way" isn't much of a reason. In the case of the headphone jack, though, it makes sense. You find it on music amps, computers, radios, smartphones, tablets, Raspberry Pi computers, speakers, stereos, dedicated MP3 players, and plenty of other products. Therefore, most any microphones, headphones, or speakers you buy will offer this as an option. In other words, it's not just a computer thing, like serial ports, but is a common standard across many product categories like few other things are. The 3.5mm audio jack has been around for so long, and is used in so many products, that everyone has cables, speakers, headphones, and other accessories made for it. Plus, mass adoption like that makes manufacturing costs low, and practices well-established and dependable. This isn't like the floppy disk, which was around for a few years before being replaced; this is a much older and more widely-used standard that works well and doesn't need upgrading.

The Next Audio Interface Shouldn't Be Proprietary

Even if technology replaces the headphone jack, it shouldn't do so with something controlled by one company. Imagine the confusion if Microsoft owned USB; either you'd have Macs and Linux machines lacking something that many accessories rely on, or companies would have to pay licensing fees to Microsoft to use USB, thus driving up those other companies' product prices. The same thing could happen now: Apple owns Lightning, so will Android phone makers have to pay Apple just to support this new standard? If so, how many actually will? It's one thing for Apple to start forcing everyone to use USB-C, but it's something else entirely to force everyone to use something owned exclusively by Apple.

Other Options Aren't As Good

The most obvious replacement for the audio jack is wireless audio, which means bluetooth. Support for bluetooth speakers and headphones is very good nowadays; you'd be hard-pressed to find a laptop or smartphone that lacks a bluetooth chip and the software to handle a wireless connection for audio output. Yet, for all its advancements and adoption, bluetooth audio still suffers from lag and a slight loss in overall quality. Plus, unlike wired audio devices, wireless ones need to draw power to work. This means worrying about the battery in your headphones or speakers on top of the batteries in all the other devices you have.

An adapter isn't a Great Idea

The common response to all this is that Apple will simply start including an adapter with every iPhone. Connect it to your Lightning port, and there you go--instant 3.5mm jack. The problem is that, to be as streamlined and Apple-like as such an adapter would probably be, it would have to be small. That means something which is easy to lose, and, undoubtedly, will be more than a few bucks to replace. Eventually, the third-party accessory market would start cranking out alternative adapters, but even then, it's one more thing to keep track of. Phones are supposed to be self-contained, convenient items, not make you bother with tiny little adapters and extra connections.

No Rocking Out While You Charge Up

If Apple does go the adapter route, prepare to lose the ability to charge your phone while playing music to wired headphones/speakers. After all, if your adapter is hogging the single Lightning port, how do you charge your phone? There could be yet another adapter, certainly, but why bother with all that when the current jack lets you charge and jam at the same time, no extra bits required?

Hearing Aid Users Will be Affected Most... For the worse

Those who use hearing aids with iOS will be impacted the most by this change. Essentially, while bluetooth can work with hearing aids to stream audio to the user from an iPhone, doing so takes up more battery in the hearing aids, and usually cuts off the first part of the audio. Experienced VoiceOver users know how much information can be contained in even a second of fast speech. For more on this, and a good summary of the other potential problems with Apple dropping the 3.5mm standard, please read Jonathan Mosen's blog post from last Noevember.

How Is This Good?

I'm not saying that we should be celebrating the death of the 3.5mm jack. All I'm saying is that, if Apple does indeed pull the trigger on this idea, it might not turn out to be as bad as we fear. The upsides are there, after all--better audio, thinner devices (or more room for other components), and more. This post isn't meant to shout about why Lightning audio would be awesome, because I'm not convinced it would be worth the trade. Again, all I want to do is try to assure you that things might not be so bad. I'll take each of the above negatives in order.

We've Always Done It This Way... Kind Of

To say that we've "always done it this way" is a bit of a misnomer. The modern headphone jack we all know and love has been around for about thirty years. A long time, to be sure, but that doesn't mean that a more modern solution can't do it better. After all, thirty years ago, you couldn't get life-like quality audio on a device you can fit in a pocket, so people weren't worried about crystal clarity and perfect sound reproduction.

Nowadays, our audio needs are changing as encoding gets better and storage gets larger. We watch movies, listen to music and podcasts, read audio books, and enjoy game soundtracks on our iPhones, and we want all those things to sound good. It's like any other advance in computing peripherals: the current standard works well, until changing needs mean it suddenly doesn't work as well as something better. Floppy to CD to thumb drive, serial to USB, spinning hard drive to solid state… It was just a matter of time before someone went after the old audio standard.

The Next Audio Interface Shouldn't Be Proprietary

I agree completely--anything that replaces an open standard should itself be an open standard. This assumes, though, that (A) Apple uses the Lightning port, instead of something else; and (B) Apple doesn't make public whatever it ends up using, so anyone else can use it, too. As with some other points, this is simply based on too many assumptions to analyze well. After all, Apple has open-sourced software, like its Live Photos, or the entire Swift programming language it created. It wouldn't be impossible for them to give their audio connecting technology to the rest of the world in hopes of seeing it more widely adopted.

Other Options Aren't As Good

No, they aren't. However, this assumes that bluetooth will stay still, never upgrading the software standards that define it or the hardware that implements it. We all know that, today, that simply isn't the case. For instance, not two weeks before the time this was written, bluetooth 5 was announced. Who's to say that Apple doesn't think this new audio adapter will be the last hardware-based solution the world will need, with all audio expected to go wireless in the near future? Consider the use of wired ethernet; a few people use it, but the vast majority seem to prefer wireless. Direct connection options still exist for those who need them, but the ease and convenience of wifi have beaten out the advantages of wired connections, and most people are fine with that. If Apple expects bluetooth to do for audio what wifi did for the web, this move makes perfect sense.

An adapter isn't a Great Idea

If wireless audio does get better, just as wifi did, then this won't matter for very long. I don't love the idea of an adapter, but I also see why it could be viewed by Apple as a stopgap measure until bluetooth catches up. In that context, it makes more sense. Besides, this wouldn't be the only thing Apple provides once and then charges for; earbuds and charging cables are both free with every iPhone, but must be replaced at cost if you lose or break them. An audio adapter is different, though, since not everyone will need one. There are people who are happy with bluetooth and Airplay options for audio output, or who don't use anything other than their device's built-in speaker. These people wouldn't use an adapter, and wouldn't care if they got one for free or not. Everyone needs a charging cable, but like Apple's EarPods, not everyone needs to use wired audio.

No Rocking Out While You Charge Up

When I had my iPhone 5, charging it while using wired headphones would have been a real concern. With my 6s Plus, though, I charge my phone at night, and that's it. Even if I didn't use bluetooth audio the vast majority of the time, I would almost never have a conflict between audio output and power input. Remember that this change isn't retroactive; if it comes to the iPhone 7, it'll come to a phone with even better battery management than the 6s, making it even less likely that people will need to use wired audio and power together. Not to mention, all this assumes Apple doesn't include wireless charging. If they do that, then this problem is moot.

Hearing Aid Users Will be Affected Most... For the worse

Not being such a user myself, I can't comment in much detail. All I can say is what I said before: Apple may be readying us all for drastically better wireless audio. What if this is exactly the kick the hearing aid industry needs to implement improved bluetooth support, eliminating the problems that exist today? What if the thing making all those users nervous is the very thing that fixes the problem it makes worse?

Conclusion

As is usually the case with these rumor-based pieces, I've made some speculations and guesses which are, I hope, at least somewhat well-founded. The adapters no one likes may be temporary, while the tech industry finally gets serious about making wireless audio as good as wired is now, including hearing aid makers. Apple could be preparing wireless charging, a perfect fit to unveil alongside the removal of a jack that will suddenly make the Lightning port even more heavily used. Technology will advance, and a revision of audio output is long overdue. One day, we may all look back on this transition and shrug, unable to remember what the big deal was, just like cheap flash storage and reliable, fast wifi have made us forget our floppies and wired internet.

Even if I'm wrong about Apple's intensions, the worst thing that happens is those who need wired audio use an adapter. I won't like it, and I won't be happy that I have to use one just so my phone can be even thinner and harder to hold than it is now, but I'll get used to it. I got used to a touch screen instead of buttons, to dealing with wearing a watch again, to the lag in current bluetooth audio, and to many other changes during my journey with Apple. I'll get used to this, too, and I'll keep hoping that wireless audio gets so good we never have to physically connect headphones or speakers again. Finally, the option is there to go with an older iPhone; if history is any guide, and if the iPhone 7 gets rid of the headphone jack in fall 2016, there will be very good iPhones still on the market that have the 3.5mm jack for at least two more years. Whether you'll adapt to the adapter with me, or stick to the 6s and se for their audio ports, there will be options for everyone. Now, let's see what happens this fall!

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19 Comments

Great article

This is a great article. Losing the headphone jack has never been a concern for me, personally, however. I only where headphones when I have absolutely no choice, and more often than not, I use them with my Victor Reader Stream, not the iPhone.

The rumor that worries me a lot more is the one regarding the removal of the physical home button. Maybe it won't be a big deal in practice, but the theory has me pretty nervous. Finding the correct area of the screen for pressing a virtual home button, at least for now, sounds like a daunting task. I'd much rather lose the headphone jack than the home button, that's for sure. If I'm being completely honest, though, I don't understand why they feel the need to make the phones even thinner than they already are. They seem very thin to me, and with the larger screen sizes, I don't understand what the major benefit of making the device slimmer even is.

Anyway, thank you very much for such a thought provoking article. I really enjoyed reading it.

Defending the undefendable.

Defending the undefendable. Apple fan until death. The fact that you charge the phone at night doesn't justify the lack of a 3.5 connector. If Samsung, Microsoft, or any other company suggested this change in the design it would have been criticised by fans and haters alike for ever and ever. But this never happens with Apple.
I'm an Apple user, I like the products I own but for future's sake, try to think outside the box.

Wireless charging

I love the wireless charging idea. If Apple implements that into the iPhone 7 all our worries are basicly for nothing. I sincerely hope that hearing impaired users aren't effected. I have faith that Apple has researched this, though, and will come up with a solution that works for everyone. Despite some major claims of some consumer organizations lately, Apple is pretty responsive to, and understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. Look at all we can do now, and look at all the cool stuff we'll be able to do in the future.

Re: defending the undefendable

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Please re-read the post. I stated that I'm right there with everyone hoping this doesn't happen. I'm not defending the idea. However, thinking outside the box is exactly what I'm trying to do here, by offering possibilities and ideas that would make this change not as bad as many imagine it would be.

Fingers crossed

I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that this doesn't happen. As they say if its not broke why fix it? Also how thin do they want to make the damn thing? My 6S is already 2 thin for comfort. If they get rid of the jack it will only be to get people to spend more money on stuff they don't want.

a bad idea

As for the thickness of the phone, I would prefer a thicker phone with a longer life battery. As for the doing away with the headset jack, what about those of us who currently plug out phones into a mixer for recording purposes or for others to hear online during events in which iPhones are used to play audio games? Also, during recording of multiple music tracks, Bluetooth creates lag in what we hear and respond to as we make recordings. The removal of the headset jack will only screw things up. Back to the thickness issue, all this focus on getting thinner, thinner, and thinner reminds me of the issues when the iPhone 6 came out dealing with the iPhone being bendable. The thinner they get, the more easily they will bend. I would gladly buy a thicker and sturdier phone that has twice the battery life, better internal speaker or speakers, and a headset jack that is standard.

Major Backlash

I'm expecting major backlash if Apple drops the 3.5 mil jack. I could be completely wrong. Only time will tell.

Death of the headphone jack

While all points are valid on both sides of the argument, I really have a hard time imagining that apple doesn’t have a plan and are not aware of these things, of corse they are. If this comes to pass it may cause a stir up, however, if done properly on apples part may be a glorious thing. Speculation is good, but again I find it hard to imagine that apple doesn’t have some sort of plan to make the iPhone experience as good as always. Personally, and this is just one mans opinion, I like the idea as long as there is something in place to still enjoy headphones without sacrificing quality. Someone this points were already made in this post to begin with. As for making the phone thinner, yes this would allow for this but isn’t limited to just making it thinner. other internal components can be increased as well. There is no doubt there are good points for both sides.

thin, thin, thin

The root cause of this whole thing is the thin, thin, thin mentality, at least in my opinion. That made sense to a point, but don't y'all think the 6 models are thin enough? I agree with the 30 to lightning switch for one reason and one reason only; it allows us to plug the USB cable in both ways round. Besides that... why change what's already there?

What I'm tired of is wires to

What I'm tired of is wires to my earphones getting tangled up. A lightning cable doesn't tangle. And since the faster Bluetooth 5 specification is going to be better, that may allow for better audio quality with wireless headphones, which I prefer. If Apple makes this move, it wouldn't be detrimental to my needs, though I do understand how this move can be detrimental to others' needs.

a choice issue

App Developer

I'm not that attached to the headphone jack, as I usually don't use them with my iPhone anyway. However, the new technology thing doesn't really work as an argument, because past updates almost never instantly destroyed the choice. Floppies were in widespread use in the early 90s for everything, but computers that had the ability to install software from the new CDs and even had those first wonderful USB 1.1 ports still allowed you to insert those old floppy disks of which you had hundreds. I had a computer, built in 2003, that still had a floppy drive even though it had USB 2.0, and there were some business machines still sporting them in 2007. Therefore, if apple decided to introduce an open-source lightning port (I'll get to why that's the only logical solution later), I think it still is necessary to include the older port for a while.
In terms of what digital and wired connection can function, I see lightning as the only real possibility. If they create a new port just for digital audio, it is very unlikely to be adopted, but they could easily allow access to a cable type that is relatively fast, a good connection physically, and already in use. Also, having irritated those who had 30-pin accessories, it would be a bad decision to switch cable types again, especially given how many products (iPods, iPads, iPhones, pencil, keyboard, and some beats products) still use it.
Finally, wireless audio is great--I use it all the time. However, it is sometimes low-quality, another battery that must be managed, and worst of all can be flaky connection-wise. Nearly all devices connect rapidly and automatically, but some of them that I have used get grumpy if taken out of range for too long, and sometimes refuse to connect again. Also, the iPods, still on offer for those who want a music player, don't support Bluetooth (although the latest nano does). They could just leave those with the old connection port, but that hardly fits apple's standard system of universality of features. Therefore, it seems highly illogical to remove the port unless Bluetooth audio has been advanced to unheard of quality, and only apple knows it so far. That seems to me a rather unlikely option.

Agreed, somewat

Agree with you that we don't need these things any thinner. My big hands already have a hard enough time holding my 6S Plus because it's so darned thin as it is. Where I disagree with you is the switch to lightning--the reversible port was the *least* of lightning's advantages. It allows all kinds of controllers and processes that the old dock connector (which was limited to AV output and power input) did not. For example: I have a lightning-equipped USB thumb drive, which has a USB port on one end and a lightning connector on the other. The old dock connector did not have this kind of versatility. Lightning is as capable as USB type C, and was available several years earlier.
Now, on to the substance of this article. I'm primarily a Bluetooth user, as I've grown just too attached to the convenience. I don't particularly care if we lose the 3.5 mm jack either way. What I do care about is that whatever replaces it (and with Apple this will almost certainly be lightning) is not proprietary. For example, the Motorola Z has already been released and uses USB type C for its headphone port. If Apple uses lightning, we'll start seeing Apple-specific headphones that don't work with any other non-Apple devices you may use. The reverse is also true: your Android headphones won't work with your Apple product. This, more than anything, is my concern. Is it time to replace the 3.5 jack? Honestly, it probably is. But if the alternative is to see proprietary, product-specific headphones, then I'd rather not see this "upgrade."

Charging

I use earphones in my iphone constantly! Particularly on long journeys. On a journey where charging is needed in the car I would not want to be without music to do this, so if there was not a charging while listening solution I definitely wouldn't be upgrading! Especially as, yes battery life is improving but I still wouldn't trust it to never need a charge at an inconvenient time or in the middle of the day. My 6 now barely lasts a day and that was supposed to be a big improvement in battery life. As you say this is all just speculation, but it's definitely not without merit. I personally hope it doesn't happen yet. Not before whireless audio has massively improved. If lightning gives better quality, that's an upside, but if I have to own separate headphones for computer, phone, mixer... Pain in the behind! I hope the good old jack never dies completely, especially in recording/mixing situations. There's nothing wrong with it, it's not broken, why fix it? And I have an iphone6 and I'd say that's as thin as any phone should be. Any thinner it'll just end up snapping like a credit card in your pocket!

Could be the push I need

I'm assuming Apple wants to replace the headphone jack because they're worried about people plugging patch cords into it and recording playback from their device. So they'd use a proprietary cord that could verify it was connected to Apple-approved headphones. That would also force Apple users to listen on only Apple-approved headphones.

Me, though, given an ultimatum like "If you want to use our devices you must buy headphones from us," I might well take the opportunity to switch. Enough is enough.

I don't think so

I highly doubt they're trying to force you to buy Apple approved headphones. I also don't think they're worried about you plugging something into the headphone jack and listening to it on a non-Apple device such as speakers and or headphones. I think that's the furthest thing from your mind. I meant from their mind. I am using dictation and sometimes it's funny LOL

Lightning headphones

I have personally used a pair of lightning headphones. While the pair I have has very poorly fitting eartips, I think that the overall music definitely would be improved. Of course, as mentioned, you can not currently charge your phone while using the lightning earphones. However, if Apple does something about the charging, I would be definitely in favor of switching over and having only one jack to worry about on the end of the phone.

Push to switch

What would you switch to? I've used them all--iPhone, Android, Windows Phone. There's nothing in the accessibility department comparable to Apple at this point. I don't particularly like this, but that's how it is. It's not like switching would guarantee you anything in this case, seeing as how Motorola actually did remove their 3.5 mm jack on their new phones and I'd expect most other manufacturers to follow the trend.

Lightning will not bring any

Lightning will not bring any sound improvement at all. The music you get through the speakers is all analogic sound. It doesn't matter how powerful the lightning connector is, there must be a digital to analogue conversor or dac. Now the dac is located within the phone. If Apple decides to finally remove the jack it will take the dac aswell, so the new headphones will need to have an external dac, so your sound will always be converted to analogic. I'm with Jake and Steve Murgaski, this, if true, would make people buy Apple specific headphones that would be totally useles with other devices. Well, you could buy Apple's future lightning to jack adapter for only $19.99 or 29.99.
Btw , android is not what used to be, but this is not the place to discuss that topic...

Not Quite True

Not quite true, . You are correct that a DAC is still required. However, in the case of Lightning or USB headsets, said DAC can be offloaded into the headset, bringing the potential for better quality than the internal DAC can provide. As for Android, I'm speaking from current and not past knowledge, but you're correct in that this is not the place for that discussion.