Technically Speaking

In its ongoing quest to make things thinner, lighter, faster and better, Apple is rumored to be considering ditching the headphone jack from future iPhone models. 

This is not that new of a rumor. In the summer of 2014 my brother, a consummate Android user, first told me he heard about this possible drastic move. I remember then thinking it sounded like a horrible idea, but the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus came out and the headphone jack remained intact. Likewise for this year’s 6S and 6S Plus, though the S models are always just upgrades to internal components, full model revisions are saved for the whole numbered versions.

So here we are again, facing down the wave of iPhone 7 rumors. This iteration of the HeadphoneGate, as I will call it because I’m not very imaginative when it comes to naming things, comes from a Japanese website that says Apple is going to “abolish” the classic 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of an all-in-one Lightning port. This is being done in the name of thinness. The headphone jack is one of the last things left on the iPhone since the beginning. They have tried moving it from the top to the bottom to make more room internally, but no matter where it was on the device, they have been stuck with it. It’s a port that was made popular with the Sony Walkman and it must annoy the design folks at Apple to still feel stuck with it.

Apple has a long history of dropping support for legacy devices. Just a year ago we were all bemoaning the fact that Apple was planning on doing away with all disk drives on all of their computers. I was against that move too, but when I took a minute to think about it, I don’t really use the DVD-ROM in either my home or work computers all that much.

Here’s the rub though, the headphone jack outputs audio in analog. The Lightning Port, meanwhile, outputs audio in digital. If the 3.5mm headphone jack was removed then not only would all of your headphones at home suddenly be incompatible, but you would have to purchase an adaptor so they could plug into the Lightning Port. Here’s where that gets really complicated though. The adaptor would have to include an onboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC), thus bumping the price of such a product up from the under $10 range to around $30 a piece.

Previous rumors about such a move have spurned headphone manufacturers into action. Newer headphones come with the adaptors built in already but if you can tell which headphones at Walmart have built in DAC and which don’t then you are better at this than me.

As was said, the potential removal of the headphone jack is said to be in the name of making the phones even thinner, but here’s the thing, the iPhone 6S is 7.1mm thick but the most recent iPod Touch (basically the iPhone without the phone) is 6.1mm thick. So when Apple says they want to do away with the headphone jack so the phone can be thinner it’s really just their way of making excuses and not saying it is in the name of progress. As a personal note, I think the 6 and 6 Plus lines are too thin. I have a 5S and I think the weight and thickness are perfect. Any lighter and it starts to feel flimsy and fragile.

There are of course other ways to listen to music on your iPhone. I have a wireless Bluetooth set of headphones that works well enough. I turn them on, they detect the iPhone and connect automatically. I can also control my music and make calls while wearing them without taking the phone out of my pocket. But Bluetooth headphones tend to be more expensive. Apple sets a $100 price point difference between their wireless and wired Beats headphones. Bluetooth headphones also don’t always sound as good as their traditionally wired cousins, which could upset some audiophiles.

Manufacturers of headphones are also not going to be happy about the change because it means having to adapt as well. Now each set of headphones they make will have to be compatible with both a traditional headphone jack and an Apple iPhone. Meaning they might have to produce two versions of each model, driving up their own manufacturing costs and thus passing that cost on to consumers.

With the millions of headphones out there on the market I don’t really anticipate seeing the 3.5mm headphone jack going away this year, but if Apple really wanted to make the change I would invite them to start selling headphones that do connect to the Lighting Port as an alternative, maybe start with the earbuds that come packed in with each phone they sell to start. So when the change is finally made it won’t seem nearly as drastic and sudden. 

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