Tomorrow Apple is set to unveil the iPhone 7. Rumors are that the new iPhone will be the first mobile device to jettison the 3.5mm jack. That’s met with mixed reviews, including Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak who has advocated that Apple shouldn’t get rid of the legacy connector.
I’ve thought long and hard about the news and if Apple does indeed move ahead as rumored, then I’m OK with it… sort of.
In case you’re keeping track, this wouldn’t be the first time Apple made such a move. Apple was the first company to stop offering a floppy disk drive in its computers and then followed up that act by dumping the CD/DVD player. In each case, Apple received some backlash but ended up being years ahead of the curve. That’s likely the case yet again.
Apple is likely moving in this direction for a few reasons. First, the 3.5mm jack takes up valuable space. Eliminating it and having people connect headphones via the lightning connector with a 3.5mm adapter or Bluetooth makes sense. You can add more circuitry or other features or you can make the phone even thinner. Ever notice how the 3.5mm jack determines the iPhone’s thickness?
Secondly, as noted in the MacRumors article above, it’s a lot easier to make the iPhone water resistant if that wide open jack is eliminated. How many people drop their phones into pools (or worse).
Third, it’s analog. By transitioning, you can provide the opportunity for the headphone maker to take on DAC functionality at the headphone.
The plus side
The latter point is why I’m OK with getting rid of the 3.5mm jack. Yes, maybe it’s a perceived pain to use an adapter but the reality is unless you’re a reviewer like me you aren’t swapping out different pairs of headphones frequently. I also like the idea that we can have a connection capable of delivering hi-res music files to the headphones for decoding natively.
There’s also the opportunity (if manufacturers chose to do it) is create a new generation of headphones that might be considered more like active speakers. Instead of relying solely on the source device to provide amplification, a battery in the headphones could provide that option in much the same way that wireless headphones do already.
The down side
There’s also a potentially major downside here too that’s important to note. It’s certain that Apple will be pushing wireless headphones as a result of this transition. In this case, wireless means Bluetooth and that’ s not necessarily a good thing. Apple hasn’t traditionally supported the aptX codec, which gives near CD-quality sound when streaming music over Bluetooth. If Apple doesn’t support aptX (or launch some other codec with similar or better performance) then we’re once again taking a step back in audio quality and putting convenience first. (READ: our take on Apple’s war on Bluetooth with its new new W1 chip and wireless protocol)
To me, this means that the strides the audiophile community has made in advocating for better and better quality digital source files (in contrast to lossy mp3s for example) will take another step back. I don’t know about you, but there aren’t many Bluetooth headphones that I genuinely like to listen to in wireless mode. They just don’t sound great.
I should also note that I’m not a big fan of having wireless signals around my head all the time. I use Bluetooth headphones (like the 1More iBFree and B&W P5 wireless) but only on the rare occasion when I’m traveling and need hands-free. While there’s been conflicting research about cell phone radiation, my position is that if I have a set of wireless headphones, I want to have the option of using them in a wired mode.
Welcome to the future
Whatever announcement happens, one thing is for sure: whether or not Apple buries the 3.5mm jack, it’s been on life support for quite a while. If Apple doesn’t pull the plug, someone else will soon enough. Welcome to the future of portable audio.