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It’s official. Apple has removed the standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Instead, your headphones will connect via the Lightning port now. But don’t worry, this is a good thing.
Yes, it will initially be annoying. Suddenly, your favorite pair of old headphones now no longer work with the iPhone 7 without the use of an included adapter, and you can’t charge and listen any more. But over time, this change will be beneficial.
Why Did Apple Remove the 3.5mm Jack?
On the face of it, it seems like Apple has made a move that no consumer wanted. And that’s largely true. No one was complaining about the 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s a ubiquitous standard, used in phones, music players, car stereos, TVs, and other devices. So why has Apple taken it out?
The simple answer: to make its phone better. You see, the 3.5mm headphone jack might be ubiquitous, but it isn’t efficient.
The 3.5mm port is an analog output on the phone. The lightning port is a digital output. Needless to say, all the circuitry in the phone is digital. So accommodating analog technology isn’t ideal.
The iPhone has to convert “music” from a string of digital binary 1s and 0s into analog signals. For this, it uses something called a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). The quality of the DAC goes a long way in determining sound quality.
Once the DAC converts the signal, an amplifier takes over. This amplifier’s job is to take the signal and boost it, so that it can sound clear and loud over any connected cable. Again, the quality of the amplifier affects overall sound quality.
By taking out the 3.5mm jack, Apple is removing the need for these two components. The lightning port and lightning input are both digital, so the phone does not need a DAC any more. The iPhone 7 can thus be more battery efficient, and have room for other components (like a bigger battery) in its slim case.
The DAC and amp will now sit in the headphones. Yes, the headphones still require analog output, since they use physical moving parts. There are already headphone amps for audiophiles, but most don’t come with a DAC.
What Happens Now?
The shift here is significant because digital output is standard. An iPhone 7 can’t send better digital files than an iPad. So if you use the same Lightning headphones on both, you’ll get the same quality.
Apple will be shipping one pair of Lightning headphones in the box. So if you use Apple’s EarPods, you’re already good to go. Third-party manufacturers like JBL and Sennheiser should launch Lightning headphones soon too.
We already said that sound quality depends upon the DAC and amp. Different Lightning headphones can use different DACs. For argument’s sake, a $20 DAC won’t be as good as a $100 DAC, and that’s why the $100 headphones will sound better.
Potentially Better Audio
Shifting the DAC to the headphones puts the onus on headphone manufacturers. Companies like Bose or JBL will now need to differentiate their products based on built-in DACs. They will have to improve on their technology to stand out from the crowd too.
Putting the DAC in the headphones also makes it easier to incorporate features like active noise cancellation. Active noise cancellation requires a power source. The 3.5mm analog input can’t draw power, so noise cancelling headphones have a large battery. But Lightning headphones will be able to draw power from the iPhone, and thus get active noise cancellation in a smaller package. Heck, you’ll even get noise cancellation in regular earphones.
Can I Only Use Apple’s Lightning EarPods Now?
Not at all. You can still use your favorite pair of headphones with their 3.5mm headphone adapter. But you will need to use the adapter that comes in the box, or buy a better one.
Before you moan, remember, the adapter is just going to be a small extension, probably about an inch or less. It’ll be strange initially, but you’ll get used to it in no time.
This adapter will house the DAC and amp. So again, a better quality adapter will mean better sound quality. Look out for reviews of these. But remember, Apple’s EarPods do a lot more than play audio. You’ll probably miss out on those features.
The Best Way Is to Go Wireless
At this point, you may be tempted to ditch that cable entirely. Even Apple launched the new wireless AirPods for this reason. Stop worrying about 3.5mm or Lightning, just buy the best Bluetooth headphones for any budget.
Bluetooth audio technology has come a long way. Yes, it still doesn’t match the quality of wired headphones. However, the difference isn’t as big as it used to be. For any regular user, Bluetooth sounds good enough — especially if you’re streaming compressed audio in the first place.
The AirPods aren’t Bluetooth. Apple has made a new wireless chip it calls the W1, which apparently holds a connection for longer without affecting battery life. Also, this technology claims to be better than Bluetooth at transferring audio files. However, given it has just launched, there are no reviews of it. And the $159 price tag is pretty steep!
Bluetooth or not matters only for audiophiles. If your ears can distinguish such audio quality, you know that the iPhone doesn’t have great sound output anyway. You’re better off putting your music on a dedicated music player like the Fiio X3, to go with your high-end headphones.
The One Problem: Charging While Listening
Shifting the audio to the Lightning port means that you can’t charge your phone and connect headphones at the same time. You don’t have two separate ports any more. That’s going to be a big problem for some users.
There is no easy solution for this. Hopefully, there will soon be special adapters with an input and an output. That way, you can charge with a great Lightning cable in the input, while playing your music through the output.
At the moment, you’ll have to choose one of the two though. That’s another reason to go with Bluetooth headphones.
The Ideal Solution: Bluetooth With Wired Audio
For now, I’d say the best thing you can buy for a good audio experience is a pair of Bluetooth headphones with a detachable cable. You can happily listen to music wirelessly this way, while charging your phone. If your headphones battery is running out, connect it with the provided cable.
That detachable cable will be 3.5mm-to-3.5mm right now, so you will need to use a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter. Maybe in the near future, we’ll see Lightning-to-3.5mm cables with a built-in adapter.
Do You Agree or Disagree With Apple?
Apple’s move to discard the 3.5mm headphone jack is controversial. Already, you have people ecstatic about it, and some who hate it. Which side of the fence are you on?