iPhone 7 – Why the 3.5mm Headphone Jack Matters

3.5mm Headphone Jack

Image: Flickr (Ben Stassen)

We all know by now that the iPhone 7 will not include a headphone jack. Many have argued against the decision, but there is a minority group that supports Apple’s move, stating that it will allow wireless headphones to proliferate. There are many questions that arise for the latter group. If Apple wanted wireless headphones to proliferate, why didn’t they include their new wireless AirPods with the phone? Why didn’t Apple work to address many of the problems of current audio files on the market, such as compressed formats vs. lossless (FLAC)? What about dynamic range compression and the loudness wars?

These problems aside, there is a bigger problem at hand. You see, the 3.5mm headphone jack is a true testament to what can happen when an industry agrees on a standard. Prior to the 3.5mm headphone jack, there wasn’t a true industry standard on how to output analog audio. Yes, there was the famous 1/4 jack that was being used, but this was the predecessor to the 3.5mm jack. With the 3.5mm jack, it didn’t matter if you used Bose headphones on a Sony CD Player, or your Apple earphones on a Samsung Galaxy. This is all possible because the 3.5mm jack is an analog connector, which allows interchangeable brands as long as the connector remains the same (like USB).

Everyone’s heard of digital audio. But what most people don’t know is that all digital audio, once it has been emitted through a loudspeaker, is converted into an analog signal. This is famously known in the audio world as a digital-to-analog conversion (DAC). Remember those audio cassettes you used to listen to? Well they were an analog medium, because they did not store the melodies of a song in binary (0’s and 1’s). However, with the advent of CD, music was stored digitally (in 0’s and 1’s), and thus it had to be converted into an analog signal before being emitted through a loudspeaker.

This leads to the inherent problem with digital vs. analog: A digital file is only as good as the original source recording, and the file type used to store it (i.e., MP3 is a compressed file type, while FLAC is lossless). This means that if you were to record a person singing with even the greatest, most expensive microphone in the world, if the file was stored as a lossy, 8 kbit/s @ 16 kHz MP3, it would sound terrible. However, if that file were stored on a very high quality vinyl track, it would sound rather good compared to the MP3. This is a classic example of where analog trumps digital. However, in our world, digital is usually the better file option since we have much better compression technologies and file formats in 2016. To summarize, audio can be stored either as an analog recording or a digital file, with today’s recordings usually being stored digitally.

Cassette vs. CD
Cassettes are analog while CDs are digital. Image: Flickr (Dylan_Payne)

However, this leads us to a more important feature of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Since it is an analog connector, it cannot communicate with a cellphone or any other device digitally. Why is this important? It allows that headphone to be used without any restrictions from the source device. This however, is not true of a digital connector (such as the Lightning connection found on the iPhone 7). A digital connector such as Lightning can be restricted to work with certain devices, and even reject devices altogether. The once beautiful, free world of interchangeable devices via 3.5mm connection is now being stamped out by Apple’s latest move to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack. With a digital connector on the iPhone 7, Apple can now choose to do anything it pleases to any headphone that’s connected to the device (either wirelessly or through their digital Lightning connector).

Why restrict the consumer’s freedom to use which headphone they want? Well, primarily to steer the consumer towards Apple’s ecosystem of devices, namely their new AirPods. This is setting the foundation for future wireless headphone releases, both by Apple and other manufacturers. However, what if I already have a really expensive pair of headphones like the Sennheiser IE80’s or the Shure SE535-V’s? I would have to use the dongle provided by Apple, or a third party adapter if I want to charge at the same time―which can actually greatly deteriorate the quality from the headphones. Why? Because the audio signal is now dependent on a third party digital-to-analog converter that offers charging, the first of which appears to be Belkin. With a third party determining the quality of the DAC, it’s not up to Apple anymore how their iPhone 7 sounds (unless you use the Apple dongle). It’s up to Belkin (or any other adapter manufacturer that you use).

To summarize:

  1. Apple has removed a standard format that allows universal brands to be interchanged. The 3.5mm jack is analog, and thus cannot communicate digitally with any device. This ensures that manufacturers can tailor their DAC within the phone to allow for better sound quality. With a digital connector however, Apple can restrict which devices are connected to the iPhone. And since most headphones on the market today use the 3.5mm standard, they will be obsolete overnight or connected to an unsightly dongle. Savvy users however, will know that their headphones are not obsolete, but are using a universal format that’s far more flexible than Lightning.
  2. By removing the headphone jack, this is theoretically supposed to allow wireless headphones to proliferate. However, wireless headphones are not included by Apple as part of the iPhone 7 but must be purchased separately for $159. On top of this, the wireless headphones communicate via an old technology themselves (Bluetooth), which has reportedly been “enhanced” by Apple. How does this help when an analog signal is created from the digital signal? Again, this is dependent on the adapter and DAC provider, not Apple.
  3. Finally, since you cannot charge your phone and listen to music with a 3.5mm jack at the same time, Apple has left it up to third party adapters to solve the issue (perhaps they’ll release an adapter of their own, but this does not solve the following point). Third party adapters can deteriorate sound quality as cheap adapters are likely not to have excellent DAC’s and amplifiers built into them. For example, Apple can include a quality DAC and amplifier within the iPhone 7 if they wish, but since third party adapters are likely to be used by many consumers, this will lead to a whole curve (from good to bad adapters) existing in the marketplace. This means many consumers will think the iPhone 7 sound bad, while many will think it sounds good. The problem is that consumers are really listening to the adapter’s DAC, not Apple’s.

This all boils down to one truth: the 3.5mm jack solves all of the above problems, so why remove it? The answer is that Apple is indeed trying to steer users towards their own wireless AirPods, which costs $159. And if that’s not enough, Apple owns Beats, so if you purchase wireless headphones from Beats to use with your iPhone 7, Apple is still the beneficiary of that purchase.

The 3.5mm headphone jack is an analog connector which has thrived for decades and continues to offer the flexibility to use any brand headphone on any 3.5mm device. It’s a bird that’s not meant to be caged. But why cage the bird when you can get rid of the bird entirely?