Apple could make your old headphones obsolete with the next iPhone

By on Nov 28, 2015 in Mobility Strategy | 0 comments

iphone 6 lightning port bottom 3.5mm audio jackTech Insider/Antonio Villas-Boas

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If you’re an iPhone user, your favorite old pair of headphones could become obsolete.

According to Japanese Apple blog Mac Otakara (via Apple Insider), Apple might ditch the traditional 3.5mm audio jack in the next iPhone because it’s too wide.

The next iPhone, presumably called the iPhone 7, could be more than one millimeter slimmer than the iPhone 6S. But making a smartphone that thin might be impossible if the headphone jack is left the way it is.

Instead of plugging your headphones into the traditional port, Apple might let headphones plug into the slimmer Lightning port, which is primarily used to charge the iPhone. 

The same Mac Otakara report suggests Apple’s earbuds that come with iPhones and iPods, called “EarPods,” could take on Apple’s Lightning connector instead of a 3.5mm plug. And since music coming through the Lightning port from an iPhone would be digital instead of analog (like it is from a 3.5mm connection), the EarPods would have a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) built into their Lightning plugs.

Though this is still a rumor, a move like this is entirely likely since Apple expressed interest in Lightning-enabled headphone accessories during last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Some Lightning-compatible headphones already exist, like Harman Kardon’s JBL Reflect Aware headphones, and Philip’s Fidelio headphones. 

Potential upsides

There are a few benefits to using the digital Lightning connection for audio over the traditional analog connection we’ve been using for decades now. As the rumor suggests, it allows for slimmer designs. 

And since the Lightning port is typically used for charging, headphones could also draw power from iPhones to power things like noise-canceling features, which often need batteries.

It would also mean lots of other technical changes. Since the Lightning connector is all-digital, Apple’s solution could give headphones more access to system controls. Also, digital music can sound better than analog music, even though the difference wouldn’t be perceivable with the relatively low-quality Apple EarPods. You’d need a fairly decent (and potentially expensive) pair of headphones to tell the difference between analog and digital music. 

philips fidelio lightning headphones applePhilipsPhilips’ M2L/27 headphones that use a Lightning plug to plug into iPhones.

Potential downsides

Getting rid of the 3.5mm audio port could actually have more negative effects than positives, at least for customers.

If your headphones can use the iPhone as a power source, that might drain the iPhone’s battery faster.

And unless Apple plans to include a free 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter with the new iPhones, people would probably need to buy a separate adapter to listen to music with their current pair of headphones.

A similar move like this has happened before. When Apple transitioned its iPhones and iPads from the old 30-pin connectors to the Lightning cords, all of those old 30-pin cables and accessories suddenly became obsolete, and Apple’s customers weren’t happy with the new $30 price tags for Lightning adapters.

If no adapter will be available at all, which seems unlikely, customers would need to exclusively use Apple EarPods or buy entirely new headphones with Lightning plugs to listen to music with the new iPhones.

There’s also the question of charging a new iPhone while listening to music. Again, it could require some kind of splitter adapter with two Lightning ports, which could be sold separately. Alternatively, Apple could add a second Lightning port to the next iPhone models, but that’s purely speculation on our part. 

Either way, 3.5mm connections for all devices, not just Apple’s, could soon begin to be phased out, as they do limit designers in how thin their devices can be. But changing those designs could have lots of implications for customers who like to listen to music through their smartphones.

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