/That damn jack: 2017 edition

That damn jack: 2017 edition

It’s been over a year since the rumors that Apple will be killing off the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 started to circle around the tech community in a furious manner. Despite numerous contradictions, it was confirmed when Apple unveiled the iPhone 7 in September, even down to saying that one of the reasons that they killed off the jack was “courage”. Despite the high-profile nature of Apple’s decision, other manufacturers have tried beating Apple to the punch, LeEco and Motorola being some of them. But while companies like Samsung and Google have mocked Apple for it, a leaked render of the Pixel 2017 seems to indicate that Google will be following suit. Despite being a render from an unofficial source and thus, not entirely confirmed, it’s time to discuss over the headphone jack again and why manufacturers are still silly for killing it off in a premature manner.

The audio jack is a universal standard that’s been in service since the 19th century, with the 3.5mm variety been in use since the 1950s and has seen multiple revisions to its design to allow stereo output and mic input among other things. Its primary purpose is to transmit audio, although it has seen use as other purposes, such as the connector used to transfer data on the current iPod Nano. Because the jack transmits an analog signal, a digital-to-analog converted is used to convert the digital signal into an analog one, which then drives the cans on headphones.

The jack has been a stable in most portable devices for a long time now, with only a few devices omitting the headphone jack for whatever reason, one of which being the T-Mobile G1 and some other phones before that. Its ubiquitous nature and hassle-free operation has made it a mainstay for a long time, which no clear successor in sight even today.

SO THEN WHY KILL IT OFF NOW?

There’s no real clear answer that will put that question to rest, because the decision to simply remove the headphone jack with no actual successor other than using the same port for charging the device is a big head-scratcher. I personally find Apple’s claims for removing the headphone jack pretty silly because the age of the standard doesn’t matter as the headphone jack is that old for a reason and even though it’s old, it still does its job just fine, and can even drive very good headphones and lossless audio when paired with a good DAC and amplifier like on the LG V20. And no Apple, “courage” is a pretty bad reason. Really, the only answer I can come up with is that by moving over to Lightning, Apple can then make money off accessory makers for the use of their proprietary standard for future headphones. Not that I’m complaining because that’s exactly how business works, but it really does feel like a likely explanation since we’ve seen phones that have water-resistance while keeping the jack. Of course, they added a larger Taptic Engine, though part of me wonders if the better haptic feedback is really worth losing such a ubiquitous feature.

As for the Android side, the only answer I can come up with is to copy Apple. Honestly, I don’t get why this is even a thing. Just because Apple did it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. LeEco and Motorola did it before Apple, but have not really compensated in any real form. Samsung has kept the jack on the Galaxy S8 along with LG and some others, while HTC has ditched the jack in favor for its USonic feature which, while great, is a head-scratcher in its proprietary nature as it doesn’t work on most other USB-C with the Moto Z being an exception. And rumor has it that despite mocking Apple in a commercial for the first model, the second generation Google Pixel may also be the next device which omits the jack.

Honestly, I don’t get it. The 3.5mm jack was liked universally due to its ubiquity and hassle-free operation while also being adaptable. By moving over to these 2 standards while also having different proprietary standards over USB-C, this encourages issues such as fragmentation and confusion over its operation, not to mention being unable to change while listening to headphones without a splitter.

TO ALL THE NAYSAYERS

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. After all, I’m expecting people to come in and say that I’m whining and that I don’t embrace new technology. However, my question to those people is what part of this is new? All this does is move the audio hardware away from the device and into whatever dongle or accessory that is connected. This isn’t all that new. To address some of the things I’ve seen on the internet lately;

The headphone jack is old and outdated: Old it is, but outdated it isn’t. The jack has seen improvements over the years and phones like the LG V20 can detect the impedance of whatever audio hardware is connected and automatically adjust for it. On the XPERIA Z2 at least, noise cancelling can be used through the jack, albeit though some types of earbuds, something that USonic on the U11 can also do. So yes, it’s old, but it’s also gotten smarter over time.

Bluetooth: Bluetooth isn’t quite there yet. Advancements have been made since, such as Qualcomm’s aptX codec and version 5 of the wireless standard, but the true evolution comes when big bitrate files can be played over Bluetooth without issues, all while ensuring that BT headphones can last a long time on a single charge. Much has been improved since they’ve come about, but more needs to be done until they can be considered a viable alternative.

It’s the future: I’d be inclined to disagree. A future where a headphone jack is replaced by dongles isn’t what I’d call progress, especially since you’re losing stuff like the ability to charge while listening to wired headphones. A future where heavily improved Bluetooth with a wired backup capable of handling lossless files reign supreme is what I would call progress, however.

CONCLUSION

This isn’t an article designed to bash manufacturers for this trend. But I think that manufacturers are silly to be completely abandoning this standard in favor of different alternatives which aren’t really successors to the audio jack. USonic, for instance, is a really good system and would’ve been the driving force, but its proprietary nature means that it sadly doesn’t have much reach due to its limited compatibility. Lightning is only in use on Apple’s products, so while they’re popular, they aren’t in anything other than portable products sold by Apple. Android itself also has only baseline compatibility with USB DACs, meaning that a third-party app with dedicated drivers is needed to properly power the hardware to its full potential.

There are still hurdles that need to be ironed out, which is probably why companies like Samsung and LG have retained the jack and focused on improving the hardware that powers it so it can better drive higher-quality audio files toward headphones with higher impedance. While I don’t know exactly how long these companies will keep the audio jack for, as long as companies like Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Sony keep making headphones with 3.5mm plugs, the standard will remain in service, presumably for a very long time as it is an audio standard, and audio standards usually don’t die for a long time.

In short, we’re just not there yet. No amount of PR justification is going to convince me otherwise. It’s just a dumb move that makes no consumer sense and seems to either be the result of following the pack or as an additional source of revenue. Until Bluetooth is fully ready for high-bitrate audio or the audio industry makes a new standard that’s a complete upgrade to the existing 3.5mm jack (and maybe have something like USonic), that jack will remain a common sight, and you’d better not lose that damn dongle. And quite honestly, I’m tired of the double standards people have when discussing topics like this. I mean, come on. Just because company B followed what company A did doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Even if it’s my favorite company, they deserve criticism for such a silly move. Have some integrity for once, sheesh.

Another side note. If the Google Pixel 2017 does indeed not come with a headphone jack, it would make this spot in the launch video for the 2016 model look kind awkward.

MMhm.