Apple’s annual iPhone product launch event is arguably one of the biggest events of the year in the technology industry, and this year was no exception. The September 7 event saw the release of a few software applications, new Apple Watch models and of course the highly anticipated iPhone 7 and 7+. Both devices sport a fresh new design with upgrades to the internals including a new A10 Fusion chip, a brand new 12MP camera, a re-engineered home button with taptic feedback first seen in the Apple Watch, and of course, as the rumours predicted, the removal of the 3.5MM headphone jack.
The latter change is probably best described as an alteration rather than a feature. The removal of the classic headphone jack has been the subject of great debate in the tech world since it was widely speculated that Apple would make the change so as to make the iPhone’s enclosure just 1MM thinner, the 3.5MM jack socket being the thickest component contained within. Described by Apple as a decision requiring “courage”, The change saw mixed reactions both before and after the official announcement, many praising apple for their forward thinking yet many sceptical or expressing disappointment and even anger toward Apple for their apparent lack of consideration for the customer.
I fell into the latter camp, the headphone jack of my current iPhone 6 being one of the most utilised features of the phone. I see the inability to directly connect a pair of headphones to my device as an impracticality that I’d rather deal without. I had no interest in wireless headphones due mostly to their sound quality and unreliable connectivity, and the headphones on the market that connect using Apple’s digital Lightning connector are largely designed for style over substance and thus can’t hope to offer the sound quality I enjoy from my traditional headphones.
However Apple’s decision is in fact not an illogical one. While I still feel that carrying a headphone adapter everywhere I go makes the device somewhat cumbersome and impractical to use, from a sound quality perspective Apple ditching the headphone jack may actually be a very good thing.
To understand why, it’s important to understand how the analogue audio output of a typical device functions. First and foremost, the digital audio is converted to an analogue signal using a device called a DAC (a digital to analogue converter). That analogue signal is then passed, in the case of an iPhone, to a headphone amplifier chip which boosts the tiny signal to a level that is capable of driving your headphones, usually about 30MW or so of power. A minuscule amount of power that may be, but it’s enough to drive an average pair of headphones such as Apple’s EarPods to reasonable levels.
There are a couple of limitations with this design. Firstly, as Apple quite rightly pointed out, such devices take up a reasonable amount of space inside the iPhone’s already cramped enclosure. The 3.5MM jack is the largest component inside the iPhone, and the chips required for the audio circuit to function take up yet more space on the iPhone’s logic board. Those chips also consume your battery, especially if you’re driving a more power hungry pair of headphones at mid to high volume levels.
And the iPhone is of course built down to a price, meaning that the components used in its audio circuits must come at a price point far lower than that of a dedicated device. This means the components in use are not necessarily of the best quality, particularly the headphone amplifier which, although very good, is easily surpassed by a dedicated external device.
Apple’s lightning connector, however, provides a direct digital audio feed. A device that connects to the lightning connecter must contain its own independent DAC and, in the case of an adapter to connect your traditional headphones, a headphone amplifier chip. Many headphone users choose to opt for an external headphone amplifier to drive higher quality headphones from their iPhone. Such devices are typically battery powered and take their audio output from the comparatively low quality 3.5MM output of the iPhone. However, Apple’s decision to remove that output paves the way for devices which must interface directly with the superior digital lightning connector, resulting in superior sound quality for the end user. Such devices can also be powered directly from the iPhone itself which, with the advantage of modern digital amplification could result in some tiny and efficient devices able to easily outperform the bulky portable amplifiers on the market today.
For those who wish to retain the headphone jack as a more permanent feature of their iPhone, there are already a couple of products on the market offering a headphone amplifier integrated within an iPhone case designed to fit current generation models. Arcam’s MusicBoost is an example of such a product, and although there’s no word yet on whether or not the device will receive an upgrade to fit the newly designed ipHones, such a device is the perfect solution for those wanting a headphone connection without the adapters they’d otherwise require.
Let’s not forget also that Apple are, for once, including a 3.5MM adapter in the box along with a pair of EarPods which feature a direct lightning connection. Apple should be applauded for including such an accessory with the iPhone as such devices are usually made available as an option at a hugely inflated price.
At the same event, Apple unveiled their new wireless AirPod headphones, featuring a brand new W1 wireless chip. Designed to cleverly integrate with the iPhone and Apple Watch along with all of your other Apple devices via iCloud, £159 ($159 in the US) gets you a pair of in ear headphones packed with some seriously cool technology. The AirPods will automatically connect to your iPhone when they’re inserted into your ears, and switch to mono mode automatically when your’e using just one. They include a wireless charging case which offers an additional 24 hours of battery life, coupled with the 5 hours offered by the batteries within the headphones themselves. The case itself is charged via an Apple Lightning connector, and a single connection with your iPhone is sufficient to use the AirPods with every supported Apple device you own. It’s too early to comment on their sound, though there will certainly be an in-depth review following their October release.
The removal of the headphone jack from Apple’s iPhone is a landmark move in the mobile industry. The miniaturised version of the industry standard quarter inch jack, first used in telephone switchboards and believed to date back to 1878 first saw wide use in transistor radios, and later personal entertainment devices such as the Sony Walkman. Billions of devices exist that utilise the 3.5Mm connection standard. However as technology advances, it’s inevitable that such standards must be superseded. The jack plug is unlikely to disappear from the professional and high end consumer audio industries any time soon. But where our mobile devices are concerned, isn’t it time to move on?