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You may have noticed that the new iPhone 7 has ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack for good. Despite Apple’s “courage”, the decision caused outcry from around the internet. They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last to remove the beloved analog jack.
The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) recently published the specifications for USB Audio Device Class 3.0. The aim is to “establish USB Audio over USB Type-C as the primary solution for all digital audio applications, including headsets, mobile devices, docking stations, gaming set-ups and VR solutions.”
In other words, we may actually have a viable replacement for the headphone jack. Let’s take a look at it and see how good it looks (or doesn’t).
What Is USB Type-C Audio?
You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused by yet another USB type as there are a lot of them. USB Type-C is the reversible USB connector that has started appearing in devices since USB-IF finalized the specifications in 2014.
USB Type-C is designed to make life easier for users (they only have to worry about one type of cable/port) and make production easier for manufacturers (they don’t have to support so many different connectors).
It also enables device manufacturers to use the USB Type-C port to output to many modes like HDMI or VGA. Type-C cables can also send and receive up to 100 watts of power — this is significantly more than the 2.5 watts available to most micro-USB type connections.
USB Type-C Audio is the latest iteration which aims to standardize audio output using USB Type-C. This means that device manufacturers will now be able to send and receive power, transfer file data, output video, and output audio all using one single port.
According to USB-IF, this will allow thinner, longer lasting, and potentially waterproof devices.
The Good Parts of USB Type-C Audio
Devices which support the 3.5mm jack have to convert the digital signal into an analog signal for headphones. This is done through a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). Removing the jack means that manufacturers can remove the internal DAC, freeing up precious space inside devices.
By ditching the internal DAC, there will be less processing for the phone to do, potentially improving battery life. However, any adapter for analog headphones will have to include a DAC which will need to be powered by the phone. In place of shaving another millimeter off phone thickness, manufacturers may opt for increasing battery sizes instead.
Being able to remove the 3.5mm jack will also allow for more phone manufacturers to make their phones waterproof. There will be no need to panic when you drop your phone down the toilet.
The fact that USB Type-C can support multiple digital inputs at one time means that adding inline remotes which work with all devices will be a lot easier, too. This may also mean that hotword detection — like “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” — can be natively supported through USB Type-C headphones.
The Bad Parts of USB Type-C Audio
You may have heard of the USB Type-C cables that were destroying devices. These cables were manufactured outside of USB-IFs specifications, and eventually Amazon banned them from being sold.
The specification should be the standard for all manufacturers to work from to ensure compatibility between devices and other cables. If a similar situation were to happen with USB Type-C audio devices, you may end up spending a lot of money on a new set of headphones and find that they don’t work with your phone, for example.
And then there’s the other big issue. After the announcement of the iPhone 7, the internet lit up with one big question: “How can I listen to music with wired headphones and charge my phone at the same time?”
The solution was an adapter from Belkin which allowed you to use your headphones and charge — but only in a setup involving three separate cables, which is far from pretty, clean, or convenient. So even with USB Type-C Audio, you may still need a similarly unwieldy setup to charge your phone and listen at the same time with USB Type-C headphones.
During the transition from analog to digital, there will need to be adapters to support the millions of analog headphones that users currently have. The adapters will need to include a DAC which can vary dramatically in quality. The lower quality adapters will be cheap, while a decent one may set you back almost as much as another pair of headphones.
Removing the headphone jack and forcing users to buy more accessories is likely to push people towards Bluetooth headsets.
The reason the 3.5mm jack has been such a mainstay throughout the decades is that it is simple. There is no charging and no additional cables. You simply grab your headphones, plug in, and you are ready to listen. Simplicity was the key to its success. USB Type-C Audio complicates that process, and may increase the price of any new headphones.
USB Type-C Audio vs. Bluetooth
Analog jack aside, USB Type-C Audio’s main competitor is Bluetooth. Most current Bluetooth devices are currently using Bluetooth 4.0, a specification released back in 2010. Six years later, Bluetooth 5.0 was announced. This will quadruple the operating range, double the speed, and provide an eight-fold increase in data broadcasting capacity of Low Energy (LE) devices.
Bluetooth is already starting to replace a lot of analog connections, and now that Apple has announced that they’re going to move almost exclusively to Bluetooth with the iPhone 7, USB Type-C audio has stiff competition since products won’t start appearing until at least Summer 2017. This will give the already-established Bluetooth devices space to claim the market.
How Soon to Expect USB Type-C Audio?
The majority of USB devices are still using Micro-USB type connections, despite USB Type-C specifications being made available back in 2014. While there will be nothing to stop manufacturers implementing the new spec with their next devices, or making non-specification products, we likely won’t see many devices on the market that can support USB Type-C Audio until Fall 2017 or later.
Even then, it will be a long time before they make a substantial dent in the market. Based on the adoption rates for USB Type-C and Bluetooth 4.0, it could be as late as 2019 before we see Type-C Audio as standard across devices and accessories. There’s always the possibility that Bluetooth 5.0 will cause demand for USB Type-C Audio to be lower than expected, further delaying widespread adoption.
Slow Progress May Be for the Best
Technological progress is something we all enjoy, but not when it makes all our old tech redundant. Slow adoption and competing technologies may mean that USB Type-C Audio never catches on, or it may become a runaway success as a replacement to the 3.5mm jack.
There are definitely benefits to USB Type-C audio like better audio quality, in-line controls, and hotword detection. Apple may not be “courageous” as they labelled themselves, but in order to make progress maybe a similar bold move is needed from other manufacturers.
What do you think of a jack-less society? Would you welcome the move to digital audio? Or do you think we should just stick to what works? Let us know in the comments below!