The iPhone 7 Says Goodbye To The Headphone Jack

Apple Inc.’s big reveal of the iPhone 7 yesterday was exactly what a lot of pundits feared. Instead of releasing a true innovative successor to the iPhone 7, we got something more like the iPhone 6S-S. Certainly there are a few fantastic standouts among the new features such as water resistance,the dual camera with optical zoom and the improved retina display, but the big story of the event was the long-rumored removal of the headphone jack. Apple has elected instead to standardize on using the Lightning connector for all future wired accessories, while doubling down on wireless and announcing a new wireless headphone option, the $159 AirPods as the future.

Apple AirPods

Before the Apple loyalists among you start to get out your torches and pitchforks, I’d like to state for the record that I am not opposed to moving towards wireless headphones – in fact I think it’s a really good idea, but audio quality and battery life both have to be respected in order to make this change. I (and many other tech journalists it seems) was hoping that Apple would innovate and introduce a new bit-perfect wireless technology for headphones with the iPhone 7, perhaps finally putting a bullet in the lossy audio issues we have all experienced with Bluetooth. Instead, Apple has made what amounts to a savvy business decision and have cloaked it in marketing to play it off.

Apple’s announcement of their proprietary W1 wireless chip was perhaps the ultimate gut punch for those of us hoping for more. Instead of the lossless solution we hoped for, the W1 appears to be little more than a Bluetooth Low Energy chip with a couple of tweaks for quick pairing, Siri integration and sensor readings. More insidiously, since Apple has taken a standard technology and made it proprietary, they can now charge a license fee to use it. This is not evil of Apple, it’s just a very savvy business decision that I believe is targeted at their profit margins more than the audio experience.

We all know consumers hate inconvenience, and dongles are very inconvenient. With the elimination of the 3.5mm headphone jack and the move to a dongle, Apple has just encouraged third party hardware manufacturers from the more obvious headphone companies to the less obvious DSLR trigger makers to pay a license fee of $4 for every device they manufacture so they can use lightning connectivity. Just imagine how much more money Apple will haul in when every almost every headphone sold to an iPhone user from now on makes them money. I have no doubt that a similar licensing fee will soon be required to utilize Apple’s W1 wireless chip and quick pairing technology.

Charging a license fee for a convenient feature is not wrong by any definition, and Apple deserves kudos for their quick pairing tech, provided they are willing to share it with other manufacturers. If they aren’t – then it’s nothing more than a brilliant stroke of protectionism that will enable them to sell more of those incredibly overpriced AirPods. I am positive that if Steve Jobs had been alive, this move would either have been avoided entirely, or he would have insisted on far better battery life and audio quality for the AirPods – the two real letdowns of this announcement. Cook and his team have proven again and again that they are operational business people and not visionaries. Many of us hope that they can make a strategic shift to leading from the front by innovating instead of making decisions that are clearly just protecting their revenue stream.

Is this good for consumers? Only time will tell. For now I’ll continue to hope that the next iPhone does something to move the needle for wireless audio.

 

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Dave Upton

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21 Comments

  1. Interesting take on it. While I hadn’t thought about it until now, I think you are right. It was less about design and more about licensing and selling accessories.

  2. Did anyone see Colbert’s Late Show segment on this a few nights ago? Classic!

    I’m always patting myself on the back for never buying into Apple and their proprietary schemes.

  3. “Apple’s announcement of their proprietary W1 wireless chip was perhaps the ultimate gut punch for those of us hoping for more. Instead of the lossless solution we hoped for, the W1 appears to be little more than a Bluetooth Low Energy chip with a couple of tweaks for quick pairing, Siri integration and sensor readings. More insidiously, since Apple has taken a standard technology and made it proprietary, they can now charge a license fee to use it. This is not evil of Apple, it’s just a very savvy business decision that I believe is targeted at their profit margins more than the audio experience.”

    I don’t understand this analysis.
    1) Apple doesn’t own Bluetooth and isn’t charging license fees for Bluetooth headphones to work with the iPhone
    2) There’s no indication that Apple license the W1 chip. They don’t license the S or A chips.

    So….going to make a fortune from Lightning headphone licenses eve as they kill the market for wired headphones?

  4. Gotta be honest, I like wired earphones primarily to keep sources of radiation as far away from my brain as possible. I rarely if ever talk into my phone, it’s either through a wired headset, or on speakerphone with the phone well away from my head. I’m not a fan of using wireless earphones due to increased radiation exposure. Just my personal views.

  5. Problem: many people use devices beyond head phones. Things like card-readers for people who use a phone as a point of sale device and insulin monitors. There are a lot of things that use the analog port for more than just a pair of headphones.

    Also, I guarantee you these super tiny wireless headphones? get lost like crazy.

  6. Aye.  Glad I didn't bother waiting for the 7 either…

    Will seriously consider switching back to Android for my next phone if Apple doesn't either reverse course or make the needed push for drastic improvements in wireless headphones.  No way I'm spending $$$ on lossy, subpar headphones w/ mediocre battery life… and using a dongle (in most situations) is a no-go…

    OK, just saw the "dongle" they apparently include w/ the 7.  Not as bad as it originally sounded… though still not great — wonder how durable it is and how it sounds (compared to the old headphone output) though.  Maybe I'll buy an adapter to try on my 6s to see for myself since it's not that expensive and might save some wear on my headphone's connector — analog audio connectors can be a weak point…

    _Man_

  7. Will seriously consider switching back to Android for my next phone if Apple doesn't either reverse course or make the needed push for drastic improvements in wireless headphones.

    If I'm not mistaken, some recent Android phones are also missing headphone jacks.

  8. If I'm not mistaken, some recent Android phones are also missing headphone jacks.

    And I wouldn't be switching to those either.  Do note that I'm not saying I would never go wireless, but I'd need compelling reasons to do so, including the needed "drastic improvements" in such wireless audio.  And it doesn't sound like Apple has actually provided that improvement yet… and their proprietary W1 chipset so far only seems to improve BT pairing and not much else — battery life (and the need to manage that) will still be a big issue and audio quality will be an issue as well (although the latter is admittedly probably less so for the average, on-the-go usage).

    I did also qualify my comment that the "dongle" option doesn't look as bad as it originally sounded and might be a good enough workaround for me… though there's the issue of recharging while using that — and I doubt many will find a bigger dongle that adds extra port for recharging to be a good way to go.  I do also wonder how durable that adapter will be — connectors are often the weak link in these things, and the lightning connector isn't exactly known for its durability, which will be tested all the more w/ this usage.

    https://www.buzzfeed.com/johnpaczkowski/inside-iphone-7-why-apple-killed-the-headphone-jack?utm_term=.qq9R3oPll#.flOZRl7DD

    It's good to see why they felt the need for this change… though the wireless solution(s) really needs more drastic improvements (and offerings), if the idea really is to move us all in that direction (and not merely reclaiming some space on the phone).

    FWIW, I don't need the phone to be so thin though and might actually prefer a moderately thicker phone, so at least some of the gains they made could've been done w/ a slightly thicker phone IMHO.  But yeah, I know thinner sells (apparently big time), so I won't begrudge them too much for that…

    I'd also add they probably don't need to worry about "serious" audiophiles w/ these changes as long as they maintain some viable workarounds, eg. lossless digital audio via lightning connection.  That crowd wouldn't really be using the 3.5mm jack w/out additional gadgetry anyway, if they're using that jack at all…

    Hopefully, there will indeed be drastic improvements in wireless audio in the near future, if we're really being forced in that direction…

    _Man_

  9. There are ways that Apple could have handled this better:

    1. They could have provided two Lightning ports on each phone.  You'd still need to use the adapter to plug in standard headphones, but at least you'd have a port left for a power cord.

    2. They could have included a slide-on "extension" for each phone that plugged into the Lightning port, and in turn provided a Lightning port + a standard mini-audio jack.  (Think of the battery grips available for some (D)SLRs).  A slide-on extension could be left attached semi-permanently (and so might be more convenient than an adapter cable), but would not impose any size or weight penalty on those who did not need the headphone jack.

    3. They could have offered a standalone wireless receiver similar to the one in their new wireless ear buds.  This would have rechargeable batteries, an amplifier, a volume control, and a standard mini-audio jack.  This would allow all sorts of ear buds and headphones to work with the iPhone 7 in a "less cordless" way (no need for the headphone cord to run all the way to the phone; just to a receiver that could be worn almost anywhere).

  10. My only concern is the quality and durability of the headphone adapter. I preordered the 7 Plus 256GB Jet Black, and have a high end Westone UM3X IEMs that are my daily drivers, so I will use the headphone adapter. I know I'm paranoid, but I try to keep sources of radiation away from my head/brain. I don't hold my phone to my ear for long periods of time, I use either speakerphone or the wired Apple headphones. I don't have a problem with the low-strength magnets in standard headphones being in my ears because we have decades of proven safety using standard headphones. But the radiation from cell phones and bluetooth devices that sit in your ear…the jury is still out. Plus on a sound quality level, I prefer wired to bluetooth connections for music.

    I've owned iPhones since 2007 and I've gone through several original Apple cables (original 30 pin cable, lightning cable) fray and tear from normal daily use. I'm pretty gentle on my gear. So on the surface I don't care about having to use the earphone adapter. If I get the same sound quality, which I expect I will, then no big deal. But if within a year or two that adapter begins fraying and tearing, or the coating cracks and exposes wire (which happened on my iPhone 6 lightning to USB cable after less than a year), then I'm going to be miffed if I have to constantly buy another adapter. If that's the case they better charge $10 or less, not the standard $19.99 or $29.99 for their dongles.

  11. One thing I need to find out about the headphone adapter: does it support only the headphone functions (i.e. L/R audio channels) or does it also support the wired headphones with mics that worked with previous iPhones? Because at some point I want to buy new Westone IEMs with a built-in mic that currently "works with iPhone" but that was clearly for iPhones with headphone jacks. Before I spend $500 on those, I'd want to know…

  12. Not a surprising comment, when somebody agrees with your POV.

    The title of the thread is "Why apple did it".  The guy lays out the case for doing so with a response to nearly every reason not to.

    Apple has gotten a lot of shit over their use of the word 'courage' but you have to give them credit for making a hard design change and being sanguine about their reasoning.

    Again, I guess you could be mad about having to use a dongle, but every single use case is covered.  The ONLY use case that costs you a cent out of pocket is if you want to charge and play at the same time, for which you need to buy a $40 adapter.  Even then, every use case is covered.  You lose no functionality in the end, with the tradeoff of an extra wire for those who need it in exchange for an extra hour of battery life for every single owner in return.  Plus some other minor advantages to boot.

    If that $40 adapter causes people to spend $700+ and lose all of their apps and media, I can only scratch my head and say "ok then, good luck with that".

    I can understand not liking this particular change.  With ya, support ya, had my own set of likes that havent always been covered by Apple.  But I don't get anything beyond that which results in either stagnating an upgrade or swapping to a competing system.  I just don't see it.  You can be mad about that too and mad at me for having it, but that's how I see it.

  13. Apple’s announcement of their proprietary W1 wireless chip was perhaps the ultimate gut punch for those of us hoping for more. Instead of the lossless solution we hoped for, the W1 appears to be little more than a Bluetooth Low Energy chip with a couple of tweaks for quick pairing, Siri integration and sensor readings. More insidiously, since Apple has taken a standard technology and made it proprietary, they can now charge a license fee to use it. This is not evil of Apple, it’s just a very savvy business decision that I believe is targeted at their profit margins more than the audio experience.

    I don't understand / agree with the analysis in the linked article. The assertion is this is purely a money grab by Apple by locking out third-party headphone makers. But:

    1) Apple doesn’t own Bluetooth and isn’t charging license fees for Bluetooth headphones to work with the iPhone

    2) There’s no indication currently that Apple will license the W1 chip. They don’t license their iPhone, iPad, or Watch SoCs.

    So….Apple is going to make a fortune from Lightning headphone licenses even as they work to kill that very market?

    If anything, Bluetooth headphone makers are probably toasting Apple for motivating lots of wired headphone users to consider switching to BT headphones for the first time. I know i'm in that camp.

  14. OK, just saw the "dongle" they apparently include w/ the 7. Not as bad as it originally sounded… though still not great — wonder how durable it is and how it sounds (compared to the old headphone output) though. Maybe I'll buy an adapter to try on my 6s to see for myself since it's not that expensive and might save some wear on my headphone's connector — analog audio connectors can be a weak point…

    I did also qualify my comment that the "dongle" option doesn't look as bad as it originally sounded and might be a good enough workaround for me… though there's the issue of recharging while using that — and I doubt many will find a bigger dongle that adds extra port for recharging to be a good way to go. I do also wonder how durable that adapter will be — connectors are often the weak link in these things, and the lightning connector isn't exactly known for its durability, which will be tested all the more w/ this usage.

    I don't like the elimination of the headphone jack…and figured if I upgrade to an 8 (or maybe even a 7 down the road), I'd get the dongle.  But I, too, would be concerned about putting double the stress on the lightning connector jack.  I've had some questions on past phones of finding my phone hadn't charged on certain nights (albeit infrequently) because the plug wasn't sitting exactly right in the jack.

  15. The title of the thread is "Why apple did it".  The guy lays out the case for doing so with a response to nearly every reason not to.

    Apple has gotten a lot of shit over their use of the word 'courage' but you have to give them credit for making a hard design change and being sanguine about their reasoning.

    Again, I guess you could be mad about having to use a dongle, but every single use case is covered.  The ONLY use case that costs you a cent out of pocket is if you want to charge and play at the same time, for which you need to buy a $40 adapter.  Even then, every use case is covered.  You lose no functionality in the end, with the tradeoff of an extra wire for those who need it in exchange for an extra hour of battery life for every single owner in return.  Plus some other minor advantages to boot.

    If that $40 adapter causes people to spend $700+ and lose all of their apps and media, I can only scratch my head and say "ok then, good luck with that".

    I can understand not liking this particular change.  With ya, support ya, had my own set of likes that havent always been covered by Apple.  But I don't get anything beyond that which results in either stagnating an upgrade or swapping to a competing system.  I just don't see it.  You can be mad about that too and mad at me for having it, but that's how I see it.

    Sorry, but I don't get mad, I just spend my monies for the products that best fits my needs.  As to getting mad at you, the only gripe I had with you was with some of your comments to those that don't support your POV.  I found them somewhat insulting.  Furthermore, I can careless what phone you have and how you spend your monies.  In short, it's none of my business!

  16. “It should go without saying, but these Lightning headphones also work the same way with any and all other iDevices with Lightning ports going all the way back to the iPhone 5. If you’re the rare person who doesn’t have any devices without a Lightning port, you won’t have a problem swapping the 3.5mm earbuds out for your Lightning ones and getting on with your life.”

    http://arstechnica.com/apple/2016/09/iphone-7-and-7-plus-review-great-annual-upgrades-with-one-major-catch/

    The important thing for me, should I upgrade iPhones before headphones, is I can en-dongle-fy my headphones and use them with my iPad Air 2 as well.

  17. If that $40 adapter causes people to spend $700+ and lose all of their apps and media, I can only scratch my head and say "ok then, good luck with that".

    I can understand not liking this particular change.  With ya, support ya, had my own set of likes that havent always been covered by Apple.  But I don't get anything beyond that which results in either stagnating an upgrade or swapping to a competing system.  I just don't see it.

    You bring this up from time to time regarding people switching ecosystems (whether for this issue or some others), but thing is not everyone has spent quite that much $$$ on particulars that should keep them tied to an ecosystem.  Also, some of us actually have multiple devices (in the family) in both systems and might not need to repurchase everything.

    We're not talking DSLR systems w/ expensive lenses, speedlights, etc. afterall — and even there, the avg camera user doesn't spend quite that much, if anything beyond the kit lens, anyway.

    Also, Apple has a tendency to break that ecosystem argument anyway by periodically changing their proprietary connectors (at least some of which seem more frail and expensive than standard ones).  In fact, they're doing a bit of that w/ this change… albeit still allowing enough backward compatibility via the "dongle" — and I'm assuming the dongle approach actually allows full functionality for headsets designed specifically for their devices, eg. the mic and remote controls, w/out meaningful loss in audio quality.

    For instance, if my $100-150 Sennheiser headset loses mic or remote control functionality, then I'm being forced to spend waaaay more $$$ than I'm invested in any system-specific apps to replace/upgrade them anyway.  I do own one app (plus add-ons) that costs about as much, but it actually covers both iOS and Android versions though *and* is used by multiple users across multiple devices (vs my headset that's realistically only meant for one user, so would need one replacement for each user).  Meanwhile, our next most expensive, iOS TomTom app has already been pushed into irrelevance/retirement by Google Maps/Nav, so no real loss there…

    And really, how many avg users do you really think has actually spent more $$$ on system-specific apps (that they would actually need to replace, ie. probably not most $1-2 games that they've probably outgrown, if they bought any at all) than decent wired headsets (and just want them to work w/out fuss or compromise), relatively expensive extra cables and other hardware add-ons (that are periodically forced into obsolescence or simply die because of relatively frail connector design), etc. etc.?

    I'm pretty sure most people spend waaaay more $$$ on the phones themselves, headphones, other accessories that often need replacing (especially for iOS devices), phone plans, cracked screens, insurance, etc. etc. than you yourself spend on apps that don't offer free/cheap cross-platform upgrades…  Any costs to switch apps ecosystems (as long as comparables exist in both) are probably more like a drop in the bucket for most.  And if one switches back, they've already spent most of that $ before — not like you'd be switching back and forth between a multitude of diff platforms afterall…

    Anyhoo…

    _Man_

  18. For those of us concerned about losing functionality with the dongle, we can rest easy:

    “Here’s the good news: Apple’s little adapter, which converts the digital audio stream from the iPhone (and it’ll work on any device running iOS 10) to the analog signals required by our ears, works fine and sounds fine. My old wired iPhone headphones worked well with it, right down to the microphone and control buttons.”

    https://sixcolors.com/post/2016/09/iphone7review/

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