Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 has me unhappy, but the misconceptions around it have me angrier. I thought trying to read Polygon talking about mobile games made me angry, but then I read tech journalists totally flounder when explaining what Apple going to Lightning for audio would mean, and it has me furious. Claims of “infinite improvements in sound quality" and that the 3.5mm jack was a “bottleneck for improvements in audio quality." Look, I accept that there are potential benefits to digital connections for headphones, but I am not for intellectually dishonest arguments. And when it comes to removing the headphone jack, there’s a lot of garbage being spewed. When Phil Schiller says that it took “courage" to remove the headphone jack, maybe that should have been the thing that convinced you that it was stupid. Or maybe it was the fact that his brain didn’t immediately escape his body from having said something so stupid. It’s because I think too many people misunderstand the nature of how headphones and digital audio work, making it easy for companies like Apple to claim that removing the headphone jack is somehow better for people. And I don’t think that people, even tech journalists that you hope would know better, are idiots. Understanding digital audio and headphones are difficult unless you dive deep into the topics like I have been doing the past year or so, and even audiophiles have plenty of debates over sound-related topics to where getting a clear answer on anything is nigh-impossible. But it’s because of this confusion that nobody but mad geeks like me understand why people are getting screwed over, and that Apple can get away with it. Removing the headphone jack isn’t all bad, there are some benefits and if you don’t mind the drawbacks of Bluetooth audio, it’s okay, but people ought to be mad about this.
For starters, going to Lightning won’t inherently make headphones sound better. There’s certainly a theoretical advantage to separating audio components from the noisy internals of the modern smartphone where interference can have an impact on sound quality, but it’s certainly possible to make a good-sounding smartphone. Apple did it with the iPhone 6 Plus, after all. It’s a reasonably powerful, low-noise audio source.
This isn’t like moving from floppy disks to CD drives, removing optical drives entirely, or even like the transition to digital video and HDMI. The 3.5mm jack, antiquated though it may be, can handle 32-bit, 384 kHz audio, even non-standard audio formats like DSD. All the 3.5mm jack does is transmit power to headphones in such a way that the drivers generate the sound waves at the volume (which is just power) that you want to listen at. It’s not magical. All that Lightning audio is doing is offloading the digital-to-analog conversion and headphone amplification to offboard components. That’s it. There’s always going to be the digital-to-analog converter (or DAC) that turns digital data into physical sound waves, and the amplifier that provides power to the transducers that create sound on the other end. Lightning audio is no magical advance in technology, it’s just rearranging where the audio components are. And the analog jack itself has no inherent quality bottleneck. You can buy what well-respected headphone expert Tyll Hertsens calls the world’s best headphone for $4000 in the Focal Utopia. Not only will it work with a 3.5mm headphone jack (like many high-end headphones, they come with a 6.3mm plug, but 6.3mm to 3.5mm connectors are easy to find), but an iPhone can drive them to great volume. Sure, you’d want to use high-quality DACs and amplifiers with them to provide more accurate and/or more pleasing sound, but you don’t have to. You could plug $4000 headphones into your current iPhone and have a great time, because the most important part of great sound is the device that’s providing the sound. The 3.5mm connection has nothing to do with audio quality, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used for another hundred years.
You might see comparisons of video’s transition to HDMI with digital audio. And yes, going from analog video to digital video connections made a lot of sense! It enabled for crisp transmission of high-definition video (and audio!) through a single cable. Here’s the thing though: audio already had its big digital transition when the Red Book audio format was first introduced in 1980. It standardized 16-bit, 44.1 kHz digital pulse code modulation audio for storage on compact discs. And that format represents the entirety of audible frequencies, and 16 bits of resolution are more than enough dynamic range for practical purposes. There is virtually no practical benefit to higher bit depths or sampling rates for the average consumer. 24-bit makes sense on a consumer level for digital volume control without losing audio resolution, and for audio professionals to work with digital effects that may generate noise that can be shaved off when producing the final 16-bit product. But it’s literally impossible for digital-to-analog converters to actually render all 24 bits of audio resolution, at best right now you can get 21 bits of resolution from high-end components using military-grade chips. And it’s possible that at worst, higher sampling frequencies provide worse sound quality through trying to render ultrasonic frequencies. If you’re curious to read more, this article says a lot. It was written by Chris “Monty" Montgomery, who invented the Vorbis audio codec, so he knows a thing or two about digital audio. Plus, all the music you buy through virtually every digital retailer is 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, often just compressed for digital distribution. Compression has gotten so much better since the days of 128 kbps mp3s on Napster to the point where detecting the difference between a well-encoded compressed music file and lossless CD-quality file is difficult to do in a double-blind A/B test. Lossless audio has benefits for archiving, and perhaps compression artifacts like pre-ringing echoes before cymbal hits become more apparent with music that the listener is highly familiar with, but that’s picking nits. As an audiophile, I can speak from personal experience: that kind of nit-picking is not a worthwhile road to go down.
Plus, the very nature of using mobile devices in noisy public spaces means that chasing additional sound quality over say an ideal-sounding iPhone headphone jack is full of rapidly diminishing returns. To quote Chicago-based sound designer George Hufnagl, “arguing for better sound quality makes sense when listening in isolation, nor for a mobile device directly affected by ambient noise." As a personal example, I was using some Audio-Technica ATH-IM02 in-ear monitors that are rather sensitive to noise and provide 31 dB of noise isolation. I was using them with a Fiio Q1 combo DAC and headphone amplifier for the longest time, until one day I was using them at home, and noticed a very low level hissing from the Q1 that I couldn’t hear when I was at Starbucks. It took me months to notice this micro-detail that I could hear at home in a much quieter environment. Essentially, from a mobile device, there’s only so far you can go with sound quality improvements versus an at-home setup.
Hufnagl continues in discussion of mobile audio quality: “Audio quality as a feature makes great sense as a bullet point. I’d argue, however, that our perception of it is affected not only by environmental circumstances, but by Apple’s incredible branding. Of course, we want to reproduce source audio faithfully, but the average listener does not critically listen to audio in the same way a sound engineer has been trained to do. Unless the new iPhone is marketed towards audiophiles (it’s not), then for me, the argument for the removal of the headphone jack as an increase in audio quality is moot."
In fact, it’s quite possible that personal audio will get worse thanks to the transition to digital. Apple’s DACs are generally considered to be pretty good. Not super-great, but of acceptable quality. A standalone DAC might have less noise from electrical interference, lower distortion, and perhaps a particular tonal balance to it. But the reality is that an iOS device does a better job than many consumer-grade, non-specialist electronics at converting the ones and zeroes of digital audio into the analog signals that represent sound. Now, more than ever, DAC and amplifier work is being shouldered onto companies that have less experience with designing good-sounding components in tight spaces like Apple does. At least with an internal headphone jack, and an annoying dongle, there’s the potential for a good baseline of quality. Something that’s good enough for even many audiophiles like myself to prefer the simplicity of an iOS device’s onboard headphone jack to an external solution when convenience is more important.
When it comes to stuffing electronics into headphones, it’s worth considering that headphones are a unique audio challenge compared to freestanding speakers. They’re very difficult to tune well not only of the small space even the largest over-ear headphones have to work with, but also because headphones have to compensate for the acoustic effects that sounds have on your head, ears, and even your torso. Basically, sound entering the ear canal is transformed as it goes in to your ears, to where sounds from speakers with perfectly flat frequency response (in theory) will sound different from headphones with the identical frequency response. It is possible to tune headphones to compensate for this with head-related transfer functions (HRTF), but there are several competing theories on HRTF compensation, and every ear is different, so any compensation is bound to be imperfect. Regardless, headphones will never offer the same physical effects that good speakers can have as far as spatialization goes because when you hear stereo speakers, the left ear hears some of the right speaker and vice versa. Simulations of this through virtual surround and crossfeed exist, but nothing perfect has been invented yet.
Headphones also present unique acoustic design challenges before you talk about adding additional electronics to them. The best, world-class, cost-is-no-object headphones are open-backed, meaning they leak sound and aren’t meant for public usage. Closed back headphones present unique challenges for making good sound, as the rear driver coverings can have audible effects on ringing and resonance, though they do have a benefits when it comes to bass. Now, if headphone designers, already contending with the intrinsic challenges of closed-back headphones that many consumers want, have to deal with tuning sound around built-in electronics, sound quality is going to suffer when closed-back acoustics are an issue as it is.
For the acoustic reasons mentioned above, Bluetooth is often a challenge to make sound good. For example, V-Moda makes a great basshead headphone in the M-100. They made a wireless version of the headphone in the Crossfade Wireless, and it has sound flaws that the M-100 does not, such as a more uneven frequency response, plus it had to sacrifice features like the folding mechanism that the wired-only M-100 has. As well, Bluetooth itself has inherent sound quality issues, as Bluetooth audio is compressed itself. So, you’re taking compressed audio, and compressing it even further, and transmitting it to headphones that have made acoustic sacrifices to fit in the Bluetooth receiver, digital-to-analog converter, amplifier for the headphones, and microphone in them. Not to mention that you’re often getting high-latency sound that doesn’t work well for games and movies, and Bluetooth pairing still sucks. Apple’s solution for pairing? A proprietary wireless chip.
And that’s the thing that’s annoying about the wired alternative now being Lightning: it’s a proprietary connector. If Apple had announced that they were going USB-C with the iPhone 7, that would be fine. It would be pushing toward a new universal standard for mobile and desktop devices. You could theoretically buy a USB-C audio adapter and have it work wherever you go. The transition to USB-C would rough for a few years, but I imagine by 2020 nobody would be complaining becuase USB-C would be ubiquitous. But by going Lightning, Apple’s making it so that any headphone that wants to interface with an iOS device has to have someone pay an Apple tax somewhere along the line.
And there’s reason why companies might be skittish to deal with Apple, which requires companies to submit electronic schematics as part of the “Made for iPhone" licensing program. So, if you’re a headphone manufacturer that doesn’t want people to have to use a dongle with your headphones, you have to submit to Apple, and reveal your electronic schematics to Apple. Apple, as you may well know, owns the headphone company Beats. Apple has a tendency to copy companies that make products for them to the point that the term Sherlocking exists. So if you’re a company that invents an effective solution to get technology in a headphone with few acoustic drawbacks, or got a way to get a low-power, high-quality sound component developed, you could be handing your detailed designs to Apple, who could easily steal them. Chord, a high-end audio company, cited this as a concern in not making their Mojo DAC/amp go through the MFi program, especially since they use a custom design built on an FPGA board.
I’m not going to completely dismiss the benefits of going to digital connections with headphones. Features such as digital sound processing could become in greater use in wired headphones if manufacturers get direct access to the digital signal with ease. Headphone manufacturer Audeze includes a DSP chip in their Cipher cable headphones that connect via Lightning. Noise cancellation headphones could exist without external batteries, instead getting power straight from the device. Fitness sensors in headphones could directly communicate with devices. Headphones with microphones that could perform head-related transfer functions on a per-user basis could exist in audiophile-friendly wired form for mobile. Something like the Ossic X only reaches peak performance on PC. I am excited by the potential with in-ear monitors (which are often colloquially called earbuds but are different from earbuds by way of going into your ear canal) in particular. The Revols that use a power connection to form a custom foam mold for your ears similar to what custom in-ear monitors do for superior fit and isolation compared to universal IEMs. If this technology could exist with high-end custom IEM manufacturers, it would be exciting. Instead of having to go to an audiologist to get molds made and mailed off, anyone could have custom IEMs made in a minute. Right now, to do this all in a wired fashion is difficult, which is why the Revols use Bluetooth, in part because they already have the battery right there. With a single digital connection for power and audio, perhaps a wired variant could exist. As well, many in-ear monitors often are made in such a way that they are sensitive to the output impedance of audio devices, where the frequency response can be negatively affected. With digital connections, IEMs could be made to have perfect frequency response from any device they can connect to. Just a shame that you could have a pair that only works with your iOS devices, as opposed to everything you own that plays audio.
And don’t believe the lie that the headphone jack had to be removed to make the phone waterproof. Did anyone see the Samsung ads where Lil Wayne pours a bunch of champagne on his phone to show how waterproof it is? Spoiler alert: it has a headphone jack. As TrustedReviews explains:
“The S7 has a rubber seal around the charging port and headphone jack to keep water out. To prevent water ingress through the speaker holes, Samsung has added a screen behind the holes that stops water getting in but still allows sound waves to get out."
Maybe Apple needs to steal from Samsung for once.
I suppose it’s not all bad, we’ll all just acquiesce to the new reality of having to buy $9 dongles and $40 charging adapters like this Belkin one that splits a Lightning port into two Lightning ports. But what sucks is that it’s another trade-off in the world of audio being made for the benefit of corporations with the “courage" to cut costs in their phones and induce more spending into costly licensing programs where the costs will be passed on to consumers. Already, the dynamics have been sucked out of music thanks to the “loudness war," and the need to make music sound good when it’s being compressed for digital distribution, to be played back on devices with weak speakers and headphone amplifiers, often with pack-in earbuds and IEMs of questionable quality. Now, companies are trying to make it harder than ever to just use any headphones that they don’t profit off of because, well, they know they can get away with it.
Maybe you say you’ll be fine with it. But I remember when the Game Boy Advance SP came out without a headphone jack and I had to use a dongle to get headphone audio? It was annoying, and as a charger jack was being used as a dual-purpose audio jack, it was not the most ideal solution. And nowadays, if I ever want to play my GBA SP, I can’t do so with headphones as the dongles I had were lost to history. And I had forgotten to bring the dongle with me plenty of times before. And that was with a nonessential, secondary device. The day’s going to come when maybe you just want to take a pair of earbuds with you heading out the door, and you’ll forget the dongle. Or you’ll bring a laptop to a coffee shop and you pull out your headphones, and you only have ones that work with your iPhone. Or you want to play music in your friend’s car and they don’t have a dongle, so too bad! And even with Bluetooth headphones, who hasn’t forgotten to charge them before, and then suddenly they died while out on a walk? And do you really trust that the Lightning headphones you buy today will work with iOS 11, or 12, if the manufacturer decides to stop updating the firmware? Are these grand crimes against humanity? No. But they are annoyances that you will be made to put up with only because enough people at Apple thought they could get away with it.
So here’s the question: will you let them get away with it? There’s a lot of great new features in the iPhone 7. But is it worth the new annoyances you’ll have to put up with, where the solutions mostly benefit them? Unless they decide someday to push for the universal USB-C standard, then I say no. I know there are many people who don’t care, but I think they should because this is as blatant an anti-consumer move that Apple has ever done. And I hope enough people say to Apple that this is unacceptable that they have to think carefully not only about bringing the headphone jack back in the 7S, but about any potentially anti-consumer moves that they consider in the future.