Killing the 3.5mm jack on iPhone 7 is good for audiophiles in long-term

Apple iPhone 7 iPhone 7 plus audio
Apple iPhone 7 iPhone 7 plus audio

The rumours are true: Apple has removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. In the short term, this will result in a lot of downsides for audiophiles. However, in the bigger picture it was inevitable and could actually improve the listening experience.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak summed up the problem with wireless headphones earlier in the year, commenting:

“I would not use Bluetooth … I don’t like wireless. I have cars where you can plug in the music, or go through Bluetooth, and Bluetooth just sounds so flat for the same music.”

iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus equipped with Lightning jack

Some of the available iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models.
Some of the available iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models.

Apple replaced the 138-year-old headphone jack technology with its proprietary Lightning jack. The latter shares a number of similarities with USB Type-C, which has been used to power MacBook models from early 2015 onwards. The change to Lightning enabled Apple to make the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus waterproof and slimmer. It also allows a bigger screen without changing the dimensions of the device. Preorders for both new models open tomorrow and they will be available on September 16.

Lighting has other advantages over the analog headphone jack. For example, the 3.5mm jack can cause interference on digital devices. A purely digital solution also allows developers to move the audio circuitry from the phone into the headphones. In general smartphone headphone power amplifiers are nothing to get excited about. Moving the amplifiers into the headphones, if matched by a quality product, will enable better audio quality on the go.

Apple: Removing headphone jack from iPhone 7 took “courage”

At the San Francisco iPhone 7 launch, Apple marketing vice-president Phil Schiller explained the design shift:

“The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us.”

Now, here’s the bad news: the reality is that Apple is forcing iPhone 7 users to pick between wireless headphones, Lighting-equipped headphones or the included 3.5mm adaptor. All of these options present problems.

Current Wireless headphones have sub-par sound quality compared to the wired brethren. Furthermore, constantly monitoring their battery state is a hassle. Lightning headphones are rather light on the ground currently. In time there is no doubt that there will be many third party developers joining that market. Even so, it will result in a format war and you may not be able to get your preferred model with a Lightning jack. Finally, no one likes using an adapter on smartphone headphones. It might be (barely) acceptable on a desktop PC, but unintentionally pulling the jack from a phone adapter is inevitable.

Apple reveal Lightning EarPods and wireless AirPods

So what is Apple offering us in light of these issues? The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus will ship with Lightning-equipped EarPods. Unfortunately you can’t use them while charging your device, as the iPhone 7 only has a single Lightning jack.

As an alternative, Apple are offering $159 wireless AirPods.  These headphones don’t ship with the phone and will become available in late October. It’s disappointing that users have to wait two months to get their hands on the Airpods, especially as they are one of the most notable advances. They can connect to any Apple device that runs the latest version of its operating system (iOS 10, macOS Sierra or watch OS3).

The Airpods are designed to “eliminate the hassles of wireless headphones” by including sensors that automatically play and pause media. Even so, they still only offer five hours of battery life. I own a pair of wireless headphones with the same battery rating and keeping them charged is a constant hassle.

Apple did not equip the Airpods with linking cable. As a result users have raised the likelihood that the 16.5mm x 18mm x 40.5mm headphones will present a choking hazard to small children. Furthermore, misplacing one or both of the tiny Airpods would be simultaneously easy to do and very expensive.

Can Apple win the oncoming format war?

Will the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus turn Apple's fortunes around?
Will the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus turn Apple’s fortunes around?

It’s not the first time Apple has tried to drag consumers kicking and screaming into a new era. The launch of the iMac in 1998 was met with controversy as it was the first computer to remove the floppy disk drive and replace it with USB. The floppy was a computing standard at the time, while the USB was the new kid on the block. Initially Mac USB-compatible products were light on the ground but they became common following the release.

In 2008 Apple introduced the MacBook Air. Marketed as the world’s thinnest laptop, this advance was made possible by the removal of the CD-ROM drive and Ethernet port. They were both ubiquitous at the time but I can’t remember the last time I used the CD drive on my computer.

Apple’s smartphone market share dropped 1.7 percent from the second quarter of 2015 to the second quarter of 2016. The company now sits on 12.9 percent, which is well-behind Samsung at 22.3 per cent. The fate of the iPhone 7 will show if Apple still have the power to lead the market.

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