Killing the 3.5mm Jack: How Simple is Changing into Needlessly Complicated
You could almost hear the sound of the nails pounding down into the proverbial coffin this week when Lenovo announced the Moto Z sans the 3.5mm headphone jack. Lenovo is not the first company to drop this port in favor of a thin body, LeEco has done it as well, but it is the first major US and international device to do so.
It will hardly be the last: the iPhone 7 (or whatever it will be called) looks to be dropping the port and no doubt we will see other manufacturers follow suit. While this change will be spun in favor of the consumer, do not be fooled; pushing this change today is in no way a benefit for the consumer and only stands to divide a market that currently enjoys OS, OEM and worldwide parity.
In order to understand the possible effects of this change, one needs to have a basic understanding on how things work currently. Tucked away in your device are two components (typically bundled together), the DAC and AMP. The Amplifier, AMP for short, simply amplifies the audio signals that are generated by the DAC or Digital Analog Converter. All music and sounds on your device are stored digitally (1’s and 0’s) and in order to hear them you need it to be converted to Analog which is where the DAC works its magic. From this point all the headphones need to do is carry the signal to the speakers and your ears, most have no need for converters or amplifiers in the headphones themselves.
USB-powered headphones will (in theory) run a lot like Bluetooth headphones which have their own DAC/AMP. Your phone passes the raw data through to the headphones and it does the required converting. This can be a great thing. Instead of relying on a poorly-calibrated DAC in the particular phone that you are using, you can instead move that component to a piece of hardware you can control. So if 24-bit uncompressed audio is your thing you can have it with any audio source. While this increases the cost of the headphones it will also produce better quality audio if you are willing to put some money into it, which is a win in my book. Another advantage is you would experience the same audio quality and nuances on any device due to the DAC being part of the headphones, being someone who enjoys many phones and great audio quality this again would be a huge win. The future looks bright then, right? Well, not so fast…
Remember I said that rumors point to Apple removing the 3.5mm jack as well. Likely, Apple will sell more next generation iPhones in the first month than Motorola hopes to sell total for the lifetime of the Moto Z. This will flood the market with people needing new headphones instead of their old ones. Apple being Apple means they are going to push their already-available Lightning port standard for headphones instead of USB-C. So when accessory makers are looking towards their future products there is little doubt they will err on the side of Apple instead of Android and Type-C.
Furthermore, Apple owns Beats Audio which it will absolutely use to push its own interests. So while Apple will be successfully pushing its customers towards its Lightning port powered headphones on an established (Apple) standard with readily available products, Android OEM’s that choose follow Lenovo fight a largely uphill battle and an empty ecosystem.
Secondly, audio over USB has its own very confusing future. While USB Type-C powered headphones are available, there are few in number and high in cost. Users will be forced to use adapters to run their legacy 3.5mm powered headphones. Lenovo is going to be providing an adapter with the Moto Z but specifically how it is going to work is unknown, it will mostly likely use an in device DAC like phones use now with a passive adapter. If adapters aren’t your thing the current USB-C spec supports analog audio out from a DAC through USB-C headphones. However, at the time of this writing many major players in the headphone market have yet to produce USB-C headphones especially at a cost that allows users to easily transfer to this new technology. The transition appears to be a very slow one as this spec has been out since 2014 with little to no movement in the space. For people purchasing phones that lack a 3.5mm headphone jack it would seem you are either going to be “forced” to spend more money on a Type-C pair of headphones or look towards adapters, a far cry from plugging in any old set of earbuds or any excellent set you already own.
The thing I find funny about all of this is that current Android phones have no problem running USB-powered headphones while still maintaining their legacy support with the 3.5mm port. Many audiophiles on both platforms already use outboard USB DAC’s as it allows users to bypass the built in DAC for a dedicated and superior one, making USB headphones rather pointless. This is their choice and if they chose to use the 3.5mm port they still could. While there is no doubt that USB Type-C will replace the analog 3.5mm port in the future, there is no need to force such a change on consumers, especially today with next to no infrastructure.
In this article I purposely avoided the discussion of wireless technology and its impact on headphones. Bluetooth 4.0 and the upcoming BT5 are great options, but people who prefer quality over convenience will still grab for a cable every time. Just like gamers prefer Ethernet to WiFi, Bluetooth just doesn’t offer the same quality, at least not yet and not affordably.
In the pursuit of vanity, Apple and Lenovo are going to take something simple and change it into something needlessly complicated. Manufacturers will be forced to choose between shipping headphones with a 3.5mm jack and no DAC, or including a DAC and then choosing between Lighting and Type-C, not to even mention Type-C without a DAC. Users will be forced to choose between using their old headphones which they may have spent hundreds on with an adapter, or making the required change to one of these new types of headphones. Costs will increase and user choice will go down, and they will be forced to make a change they may not be happy with. Is that worth the price?
No matter how it is spun, by removing the port from phones at this point in time we the consumers are the ones to lose.
Originally this article incorrectly referenced a technology Intel creating for USB-C audio. Since the time of the originally writing it was pointed out that USB-C spec does allow for Analog output in its current state. The article has been updated and the original reference is below:
While the adapter being a DAC itself is a possibility, there is an alternative that Lenovo could use which is an “in-development” technique being worked on by Intel. That method utilizes unused pins in Type-C to pass analog audio from a phone’s DAC through to an un-powered USB-C set of headphones or through an adapter to a legacy 3.5mm jack.