Several reasons why Apple could (and should) pull the plug on the headphone jack

By , Jan 12, 2016

iPhone 6 headphone jack

Greed! Greed! Greed! Apple will kill the headphone jack out of greed. They just want to sell you $30 adapters.

This ridiculous claim is the result of narrow thinking. After all, it’s much easier to yell “greed” than trying to think of rational reasons why Apple would pull the plug (pun totally intended) on the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Apple is of course no stranger to that kind of situation. The company has been known for killing various technologies over the past few decades, and the bright side is that all of us have survived to tell the story.

In this post, I lay down a few more or less plausible reasons why Apple could eventually leave the headphone jack behind. 

Making $$$?

Let’s get this out of the way now, shall we? Like any corporation, Apple’s goal is to make money, and the company has been known to be incredibly good at doing just that. One way Apple makes money is via its MFi licensing program, a program that, among other things, provides third party accessory makers “hardware connectors and components that are required to manufacture iPod, iPhone, iPad, and AirPlay audio accessories.” There is of course a cost associated to being part of that program, and because it’s all under NDA, we don’t really know what the numbers look like, but Apple is certainly set to make money by allowing accessory makers to make Lightning-to-3.5mm jack adapters, or Lightning headphones, for instance. This is peanuts, though. Revenue from the MFi program are probably the equivalent of a drop of water in the ocean for Apple, so saying Apple would pull such a move to make money is somewhat idiotic because a) of course Apple wants to make money; and b) revenue would be insignificant. If I had to make a guess, I’d say money is last (if at all) on Apple’s list of reasons to kill the headphone jack.

Making devices thinner and lighter

Apple has quite the obsession with making thinner and lighter devices. Look at just about every iteration of every product the company has made in the last few years for proof. There are of course the odd years (iPad 3 was noticeably heavier than its predecessor, so is iPhone 6s), but as a general rule of thumb, Apple aims at making thinner and lighter products. It’s the way technology works. It’s progress. It’s what allows you to have an iPhone in your pocket that is more powerful than the Pentium II 350 you had sitting under your desk 20 years ago. Admittedly, I don’t believe size and weight is a driving force behind the potential loss of the headphone jack. If anything, it would just be a nice side benefit.

Making more space for more battery

We’re now entering a more rational territory. If Apple was to get rid of the 3.5mm jack, that would leave an empty space inside the shell of your iPhone, and what better use could the company make of this space but using it for more battery? It makes tons of sense. It makes tons of sense until you see how big that port really is… Unless Apple was to completely reengineer the layout of internal components, I don’t really see a way to substitute that port for more battery. It’s still an interesting idea.

iPhone 6s headphone jack
Look at the size of that headphone jack connector (courtesy of iFixit)

Preparing for high fidelity audio

There has been increasing chatter about how Apple could start offering a high-fidelity audio format for iTunes, and if the rumors hold true, then this may be a reason to drop the 3.5mm jack in favor of passing audio through the Lightning port. The benefit is that audio then travels to the headphones digitally, avoiding interferences that may occur when the analog signals travel over the wire, especially inside the iPhone where other signals are present from radios. The digital-to-analog conversion would then happen in the headphones. However, there is no real indication at this point that it would make a difference at all in sound quality.

Because wireless is the future

Let’s circle back to an idea that I briefly mentioned above: progress. Progress wants devices to be smaller, faster, and lighter. Progress also wants devices to become physically independent of other devices. That’s the whole idea behind going wireless. Just like your same old Pentium 2 was physically connected to a modem back in the day, your iPhone can connect to the web wirelessly. By the way, don’t you find it timely and convenient that iPhone 7 is also rumored to offer wireless charging? It’s basic progress, and that same progress is currently being held back by the headphone jack, which let me remind you, was invented in the 19th century (seriously)! Apple has never been too friendly with older technologies. As painful as it might seem at first for users, Apple loves to be first to show the path to the future (RIP floppy drive, CD drive, 30-pin connector, USB-A). There is no reason to believe Apple wouldn’t want to kill this antiquated technology in favor of Lightning and Bluetooth.

Bluetooth all the way

Speaking of going wireless, and beyond the idea that it is part of the future, it’s worth noting that such a move will heavily rely on Bluetooth, at least for the foreseeable future. And guess who became a promoter member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) last year? Right, Apple of course. As we noted at the time, Apple now holds a continual seat on the SIG Board of Directors and can influence future development of the standard even more than before. If going wireless is the future, this transition will in parts happen over Bluetooth, and as clunky as this technology may be in its current state, Apple is making sure that it has a say in the direction it is going.

No pain, no gain

I understand people might not be excited at the idea of losing the audio jack, but this is the price to pay for progress. There will be a transition period, which might come at a financial cost for some, and when this transition is over, we will look back at all this realizing it was for the best. Think about it for a second: do you really wish we still had floppy disks?

The world is going wireless, and while true music lovers will still be able to enjoy audio with headphones plugged in the Lightning port of their iPhones, the average listener will be just fine using Bluetooth. That’s just progress.

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  • zabrawn

    To make the iPhone water resistant. Its obvious!

  • Martin Boissonneault

    On this: “The benefit is that audio then travels to the headphones digitally, avoiding interferences that may occur when the analog signals travel over the wire, especially inside the iPhone where other signals are
    present from radios. The digital-to-analog conversion would then happen in the headphones. However, there is no real indication at this point that it would make a difference at all in sound quality.”

    There are a bunch of noise sources (oscillators and other ) inside the iPhone, iPad, iPod and most electronics. This electrical noise often gets a ride outside the device on the wires connected to it. This noise does affect the signal shape, and on the 3.5mm jack, the signal is sound. So, some interference is present on the analog sound.

    On digital headphones, the signal is 1s and 0s. The digital-to-analog conversion is in the headphones, far from the noise of the device (iPhone and such). the converted, analog sound signal should then be free of interference. It’s closer from “usage”, the speaker coil. Inches instead of feets. Less chance to pick up interference.

    Better sound? Maybe, but not certain. I’d say an oscilloscope could see a difference, but it would depends on the design of the headphones and the quality of the digital-to-analog converter. Would your ear pick up the interference? Maybe.

    I got myself a pair of Bose in-ear wired earbuds because Bluetooth sound quality is just too poor. Even if the signal is analog, wired is soo much better! And nothing to recharge!

    • Blaziken584

      The noise from the iPhone is sure to be present, but certainly not audible. The difference in sound is much more likely to be because of the DAC not being up to par if anything. Though the DAC on the iPhone is pretty good and the shielding seems to be pretty good as well.

      However this means that you will have to rely on the headphone maker to make a DAC/Amp which will either drive up the cost of wireless headphones or they will cheap out on the DAC/Amp so it’s really a mixed bag.

      That’s another variable I don’t want to have to deal with, if the DAC/Amp is good. If that’s the case, you won’t have the ability to even switch out the DAC/Amp, so you’re a bit screwed.

      And I agree, Bluetooth audio right now is in the gutter for sound quality.

      • Martin Boissonneault

        I do agree that the noise probably can be measured but not heard. One exception: Power hum from charging. I sometimes do hear it, but not always. Digital might be able to remove some electrical noise, if the noise is intense at that location.

        I do feel that’s not the reason Apple would remove the jack, more likely water resistance. Doing so, it might open a whole new can of worms: Electronic design quality in after-market headphones. Yes, we might see high quality DAC adapters and headphones, but for 12$ headphones, sound is just going to be lousy.

        I use Bose headphones with a matching profile in Audissey app for the best sound quality, as I use high quality sound files in my library. Many friends use badly converted MP3 files downloaded from the web with crappy headphones and seem happy with the sound quality (Ouch! My ears are bleeding!). I guess audiophiles are not the majority in Apple world, and since the DAC is no longer in the phone, Apple will say buy what you like. One more adapter, or more device to charge. Add that to the power adapter, power bank, cables, and the portable device needs luggage. Oh well, better than carrying a desk!

      • Blaziken584

        I’m glad I haven’t heard anything from my 6s while charging. I do agree, they are most likely doing it for water resistance and possibly to make their phone slimmer.

        I personally use AKG K7XX’s and even without an external amp the iPhone powers them pretty well. I’d hate to have to buy new headphones just for my iPhone while walking to work or something, though I’m sure there would be a Lightning adapter which would be annoying.

        Let’s hope these are baseless rumors, that’s all I can wish for right now.

  • Ernie Marin

    I bought a powerbeats 2 wireless headset, so for all i care they can remove the jack, honestly it’s a micracle it’s lasted this long to begin with.

  • Logan

    OK, I see your points, but here is my rebutle
    1. You say that Apple won’t make much money on third party accessories. While this may be true, I think it’s more likely that Apple will make their own adaptors, like the USB-C adaptors and 30 pin to lightning adaptors. So yeah, I think it’s a move to sell more adaptors and make more money, of which Apple already has plenty.
    2. You say that Apple will rely more on Bluetooth and lightning audio. Well, OK, but here is why I think that’s a bad idea. For one, analog is better. Just ask anyone who is in audio. Why else are people dusting off the old turntables and stereo receivers. As far as Bluetooth goes, while the technology has gotten much better over the years, it still doesn’t, and really physically can’t compete with a direct audio source because Bluetooth, much like all wireless technology, is subject to interference, which will significantly lower quality. Not to mention I’ve actually used wireless headphones and can attest to how low quality and low range they are.

  • mav3rick

    Propaganda in full swing.

    “Apple’s goal is to make money…” & “This website is not affiliated with Apple.”

    “thinner and lighter devices” – because every(NO)one wants a post-it note thin phone to held in their hand

    “more space for more battery” – every new “thinner and lighter” iphone got a bigger battery – NOT

    “high fidelity audio” – blatant non sense, writer have no clue about this, DAC will be just moved into the headphones with more pressure on headphones manufacturers; see them trying then to make small earbuds.

    “wireless is the future” & “Bluetooth all the way” – just slogans

  • Colin Steiger

    Technology doesn’t move fast enough for me. Please Apple, get rid of that obnoxious headphone jack. Lightning and Bluetooth are life. I haven’t used my headphone port since iPhone 4! Catch up people!