Towards Integrated Headphones? On Apple and the Rumored Removal of the Headphone Jack

Quite a few people, not least so tech bloggers, seem to almost violently oppose one side of design I’ve always thought Apple is doing well, at least on the hardware side—that good design is as much about taking things away as it is to add stuff. Apple's done this with the floppy drive, CD-drive, VGA port, and lately—with the rather incredible Macbook—with all but one port. Others have quietly followed a couple of years later.

Some of these bloggers are now upset that the next iPhone might not have a traditional headphone jack: the 3.5 mm stereo connector. This connector, which of course is analogue, was invented in the 19th century to be used in telephone switchboards. The same design is still in use for connecting a wide variety of audio peripherals, from headphones to electric guitars.

That the connector is old is not the reason it might have seen its prime, however. In many ways, the 3.5mm is the perfect analogue audio connector. It rotates 360 degrees, you can charge at the same time as you listen to music, headphones do not have to be charged, etc. Yes. 

If the rumors are true, I am sure Apple has converging reasons for why they want to remove it. First, phones seek to get thinner and thinner yet with huge batteries inside and at some point size and real estate does become an issue. Here, Apple's engineers probably struggle with the length of the connector, not necessarily its diameter. Second, I would be surprised if there is not an element of selling-new-headphones here too. Beats, after all, is an Apple company, and yes, yes, you do wonder what company would be ready with a line of USB-C headphones in case Apple decides to go with the new connector. Apple's ecosystem is important, but the firm makes a lot of money selling stuff still. If they decide to go with the Lightning port, which I dearly hope they won't, they will also force manufacturers to pay up for using it. Additionally, on a paranoid note, the move could potentially be DRM oriented, but surely that's not the case, right? RIGHT? 

Third—and worth spending a bit more time on—we have ‘other technical reasons’:

Here, a USB-C port (let's hope they don't go with Lightning connector, although knowing Apple that's probably not unlikely) would in the long run actually offer increased compatibility between devices. As the traditional headphone jack is analogue and really just envisaged to transport an audio signal, various ‘hacks’ have been made to its design along the way to allow it to do more. The iPhone, for instance, uses a 4-conductor (so called TRRS) phone connector for its headset to allow for a microphone and control buttons for pause/play and volume. Other vendors have made other design choices. This means that Bose’s quite excellent QuietComfort 20 noise cancelling earpieces come in two different versions, one for Apple devices and one for Android. As an active user of both an iPhone 6 and a Nexus 6p this is surprisingly annoying. I’m begging for the industry to widely adopt USB-C as the standard for all kinds of peripherals, regardless of type. I think Apple should have some credit for paving the way (and taking the bullet, too) and I’m surprised other vendors aren’t following suit—yes, looking at you Samsung and Google.

Another, and for me personally, the primary reason I’m not so sure dumping the headphone jack is such a bad idea is also related to it being analogue. This one, however, has to do with sound quality, something I care about.

As the traditional headphone jack serves the headphones you put into it with an analogue signal, this signal has to be converted from digital to analogue and then amplified before it can leave the phone through the headphone jack. In other words, in the signal chain from wherever in the cloud your music lives to your ear, there has to be a digital to analogue converter (a DAC), an amplifier, and some form of speaker system (such as your headphones). Today, everything except the latter typically lives inside of your smartphone or your computer. Almost without exception, these amplifiers are underpowered, of poor quality, or both, which in turn make them unable to drive anything else than the crappy kinds of earpieces that came with your phone. Hence, even if you have a good pair of headphones, they do not really sound as good as they can on your mobile device.

There are at least two things to consider here. First, there has been trend towards wireless Bluetooth headphones. As often tends to happen, this technology was released before it was ready for prime time. Early implementations of Bluetooth headphones were buggy and the sound quality was terrible. While the technology has come a long way in the last couple of years, Bluetooth still has its limitations and quirks, mainly to do with the fact it uses the same wireless frequency, the 2.4Ghz band, as literally everything else: wireless mice and keyboards, WiFi, microwaves, you name it. Still, Bluetooth audio is becoming a viable alternative to the headphone jack.

Second, in an increasingly broader circle of people that are actually interested in audio quality—even outside of the rather narrow and highly specialized group often referred to as audiophiles—there has been a trend towards getting dedicated external audio units. Musicians are getting devices such as Universal Audio’s Apollo to be able to record, mix, and master music professionally. Connoisseurs of music are buying external DACs and amplifiers to improve the sound quality, such as Meridian’s rather great Explorer2. What these devices have in common is that they are external and that they connect to the computer device through USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt.

Thus, by removing the digital to analogue conversion and the amplification from the device, Apple actually opens up for a new breed of “integrated headphones” where the DAC, the amplifier, and the headphone itself can be matched to perfection by the maker.

Make no mistake, I’m convinced that this will result in an explosion of rather terrible integrated headphones over the coming years, but I’m also convinced that serious companies can use this to their advantage and come up with well-balanced, well thought out, and of course, well-sounding combos. For the benefit of mankind. Well.