Why the headphone jack must die


Wednesday morning, Apple (APPL) will unveil the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. As you’ve probably heard, they won’t have headphone jacks.

Yes, that’s right: The headphone jack is going away, starting now.

And not just on the iPhone. In fact, Apple’s not even first. Moto led the revolution in the US with its gorgeous new Moto Droid Z phones—which have no headphone jacks. In China, LeEco and other companies are already omitting the jack. Other brands worldwide will be following suit.

The Moto Droid Z phones have already ditched the jack.

I can see why you might find this news shocking and upsetting. Eliminate the headphone jack? That’s insane! We need the headphone jack! How are we supposed to listen to our music, our YouTube videos, our Facebook clips? Are we supposed to just throw away the expensive headphones we’ve bought?

Whoa there, folks. You will still be able to use headphones. The electronics companies are eliminating only the round 3.5-milimeter jack, not the ability to listen.

You’ll still have three options for listening through headphones or earbuds:

  • Wirelessly. Sooner or later, everything goes wireless: Internet connections, file transfers, even power charging. And already, sales of wireless Bluetooth headphones are growing faster than wired ones for the first time. The convenience and sound quality of Bluetooth buds have been steadily improving, and they’ll only get better when Bluetooth 5.0 comes out at year’s end.
  • Using Apple’s earbuds. Apple will include new earbuds with the iPhone that plug into the Lightning (charging) jack. Other companies already make headphones that plug straight into the Lightning jack, too. On Android phones, you’ll plug the included earbuds into the USB-C jack.
  • Using an adapter. If you have a favorite pair of older ‘phones, you can plug them into the Lightning or USB-C jack with a little adapter. (Apple includes one in the iPhone 7 box; you can buy additional ones for $9 each.) Some will have splitters so that you can charge your phone and plug in headphones simultaneously.

Nobody loves adapters, of course—unless there’s a really good reason for them. In this case, there are at least two.

Reason 1: Age and bulk

The 3.5-millimeter jack is the oldest technology that’s still in your phone. This connector debuted with the transistor radio in the early 1960s; it was, for example, on the Sony EFM-117J radio, which came out in 1964. This is the audio connector of the 8-track tape player (1967-ish) and the Sony Walkman (1979).

This is not cutting-edge technology.

In short, the jack that everyone’s whining about is 52 years old.

As a result, it’s bulky—and in a phone, bulk = death.

“The device makers would love to get rid of that jack. It makes your phone thicker than it has to be,” Brad Saunders told me last fall.

He’s the Intel executive who led the charge to develop USB-C, which is quickly replacing the standard USB and Micro USB connectors on new phones, tablets, and laptops from Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), Apple (on the 12-inch MacBook), Samsung, and others. More specifically, Saunders sits at the nexus of 600 electronics companies—and knows what’s coming.

He points out that the 3.5-millimeter jack, by today’s standards, is huge on the inside. The cylinder that accommodates your headphone jack is now among the bulkiest components of your phone!

Inside the phone, the headphone-jack assembly is ridiculously bulky by today's standards.

The headphone jack is what’s preventing phones from getting any thinner. It’s the limiting factor.

A lot of people really love thin phones. But if you don’t care about thinness, you can put it another way: The headphone jack is what’s preventing phone batteries from getting bigger. You do care about battery life, right?

Fact is, jacks and connectors come and go. And every time there’s a transition, we, the people, wail and moan. “Don’t move my cheese!” we cry. (I’ll cop to it: I’ve sometimes been among them.)

But if you look back, you can see how foolish some of our foot-stomping was. We screamed bloody murder when Apple eliminated the floppy drive, and again when it replaced the SCSI and ADB jacks with USB. Face it: We, the people, really don’t make good product designers.

I mean, check out the back of this 1985 Mac Plus. Can you spot the only connector that hasn’t been replaced by something smaller, faster, and more efficient? Is this what we want our smartphones to look like?

Reason #2: Sound quality

Your music is digital. All of it: The songs you buy, the songs you stream.

Alas, the 3.5-millimeter jack is analog.

Your phone contains a cheap consumer digital-to-analog converter, whose job it is to convert the signal output from your digital music files to your ancient analog headphone jack. So no matter how much sound quality is locked away in those files, by the time it reaches your headphones, you’ve lost some audio quality along the way.

In the post-headphone jack era, your music will remain digital until it reaches the headphones, which can have a much nicer converter. You’ll skip over that analog conversion business—and get better-sounding audio.

The headphone jack must die

There may be other reasons to get rid of the headphone jack, too. Maybe it’ll be easier to make our phones waterproof. Maybe it’ll lower the cost of the phones, and goose the reliability.

But for most people, better battery life, thinner phones, and improved audio quality are reasons enough.

The biggest legitimate worry about the post-3.5-millimeter era is that we’ll lose compatibility. You won’t be able to plug my Android earbuds into your iPhone, or whatever. You’ll need one adapter for Lightning devices, and one for USB-C devices like Android phones. (Or, more realistically, you’ll have your Lightning earbuds and one adapter for Android phones, or vice versa.)

Well, Bluetooth is already a universal standard, so there’s that. And for wired headphones, maybe, if we’re lucky, Apple will get smart and move to the sensationally great USB-C that most Android phone makers are using.

In the meantime, let the presses roll. The 3.5-millimeter jack: Dead at 52 after a long, productive life.

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David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.

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Why the iPhone headphone jack must die

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