The launch of Apple’s iPhone 7 has brought the death of the 1/8″ jack to reality. Many people are mourning this very, very old connector for listening to music. Yet at the same time, these people are demanding lighter, faster, wireless-er capabilities in the devices. Well at some point something has to give, and in this case, it’s the beloved 1/8″ jack.
I typically don’t like losing features from device updates, so let’s see what we lose from this one:
- The ability to plug a wire from headphones into the phone to listen to music and/or talk on the phone.
- The ability to use certain audio interfaces for recording guitar, etc.
- The ability to plug a credit card reader for my business.
- The ability to… wait a sec… is that really it?
Ok ok, I’m sure I’m missing a few other things like those dangly things people plug in the headphone jack, or portable fans to blow air at an ant, and some other things I found on Trendhunter’s 25 Phone-Plugging Accessories list. But if you look at the big picture, that headphone jack really doesn’t do much compared to all the other things we need our phone to do these days.
And I know someone is thinking “but Headphones and/or credit card readers are crucial to my day-to-day life!” Well, then for one, don’t get the iPhone 7 😉 But for two… the dang thing isn’t even in anyone’s hands yet. It’s less than a week old, and people are saying that the world of music as we know it is doomed. (We all know there are OTHER reasons the world of music is doomed; it isn’t related to hardwired headphones!)
What if 2 weeks from now, some company comes up with an amazing solution for this forced-wireless headphone usage? We just don’t know; it’s been days since the announcement and the rest of the industry hasn’t had time to adapt.
Dongle – What a weird word!
But speaking of adaptors, the iPhone 7 comes with an adaptor from the Lightning port to – you guessed it – an 1/8″ jack. So 1/8″ hard-wired connections aren’t dead just yet. But that opens up the dongle can of worms. Now I personally am (also?) not a fan of the dongle approach. I don’t know the source of these next 2 pictures, but it sums things up pretty well:
Now that is obviously a bit of an exaggeration, but this picture is a little closer to reality:
In this pic, we see a 1/8″ headphone jack (red), then the included Lightning to 1/8″ jack adaptor, and then we see an optional Lightning splitter, which would allow this person to listen AND charge their phone at the same time. This “charge and listen at the same time” wish is probably the #1 complaint after the automatic “hey don’t take away my stuff.” But when is the last time that you went jogging with headphones and charged your phone at the same time?
I know, I know. Many people lie in bed with headphones and charge their phone, or at their desk, etc.
But we are still focusing on the OLD, on the past. I’m not saying that in the future we won’t need to charge our phones, but we are clinging to “this is how I’ve always done it!”
Breaking Away From the Old
Remember when the 30-pin jack on the older iPhones and iPods were going to be scrapped for this new thing called Lightning? OMG what will we do? I have a 30-pin speaker thing, and a 30-pin adaptor for this, and a 30-pin whatever for that. Lightning is obviously going to be so bad, it’s so thin, and this, and that. Fast-forward to now and many people – if not everyone – prefers Lightning over 30-pin. It takes up less space in the phone allowing more tech to be put inside, you can plug it in without worrying which side of the cable is up, it handles all the audio, video and other data much faster, and on and on. Is there anyone mourning the 30-pin by now?
Again, I’m sure someone has an amazingly expensive something that is 30-pin only. But hey, there are adaptors for 30-pin to Lightning available – Apple didn’t leave us completely hanging. But the development of the new tech – Lightning – has improved how we work with our iOS devices. And did accessory manufacturers leave us hanging? Nope, of course not – they developed many Lightning accessories that benefit from the new tech as well.
The change stemming from the removal of the 1/8″ headphone jack has the potential for the same effect. Can I say exactly what that is right now? Not really. But a move like this from a huge manufacturer of consumer music players can easily push the industry into supporting the choice.
Wireless Improvements – Yes Please!
Apple themselves have already announced that they have improved upon wireless audio. Their new AirPods – no, not AirBuds – and a few upcoming items from Beats have a new chip/controller called the W1. We don’t know exactly what this chip does, but it is reported to improve the quality and stability of wireless headphone/earbud connections over what is currently available.
The way we all connect our wireless headphones currently is Bluetooth. Bluetooth is currently generation 4.x, and yet even after all this time, it disconnects and drops all the time. Bluetooth is generally rated for 33 feet between devices, but it is VERY line-of-sight. This means that the only thing that should be between the devices is air and nothing else.
I have some Jaybird Wireless Earbuds, the type with a cable connecting the 2 buds. I keep my iPhone in my back left pocket. I prefer to use the right earbud. It’s about 3 feet or so between the devices, yet even with such a small distance, I STILL get disconnects and drops all the time. It’s best when I stand up, but the moment I lean forward or sit down, it’s drop city because my BODY is in the way of the Bluetooth connection. Where exactly did they think I would be using these wireless headphones? NOT in my ears which happen to be connected to my body?
Well, actually it isn’t about where the headphones are, silly. It’s about where the PHONE is. Bragi is a company that had a pretty popular Kickstarter for their Dash headphones – probably one of the first truly wireless earbuds (absolutely no wires connecting the two) to hit the market and actually work. Well… sorta work. Customers have complained since day one about connection drops and not being able to connect.
If we look at their Optimal Bluetooth performance article, we learn how we are expected to use our phone with Bluetooth devices:
So as we can see, our 33 foot Bluetooth range gives us a LOW connection quality when the phone is in our pants pocket – about 3 feet away – and we have have a High to Medium connection quality when the phone is on our ARM or on our FACE! Why would I buy wireless headphones just to be forced to put my phone on my arm? At that distance, a wire really isn’t an issue!
This is how all Bluetooth devices work though, it isn’t limited to Bragi’s devices. That. Really. Sucks. It’s almost like, what’s the point? Revision 4.x of Bluetooth hasn’t been able to solve this plaguing issue yet? Dang! Well what could it possibly take to light a fire under the tech’s butt to make improvements. Possibly… the removal of an on-board hard-wired connection? Naw, don’t do that, people will complain!
But wait, that’s exactly what Apple just did! When Phil Schiller announced the removal of the headphone jack at Apple’s Keynote, he already knew that there would be an instinctual negative reaction to the news – well that’s because we always know almost everything about upcoming products well-before they are announced… But aside from that, he and Apple are getting a lot of flack for using the word “Courage” when describing this design choice.
Phil said it takes courage to do something as big as this. Taking an age-old connector off of the device, a connector that is so familiar to everyone and is almost assumed to be on any device in the future forever and ever. But familiarity can easily breed laziness. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the developers and scientists behind Bluetooth are lazy at all. But if the industry has its hard-wired fall back, what’s the urgency in making true improvements? Probably none.
So now it’s gone from the iPhone 7. And Apple has developed a companion chip and protocol to improve the Bluetooth connection. Since the moment the pre-order started for the new phones, they were out of stock and pushed back later and later. Right now you’d be lucky to get one in December. This is typical of Apple releases, specifically the new number-version’d iPhone. But if everyone was so disappointed that the headphone jack was gone… why are the phones selling like they always have?
Audiophiles – Does it matter?
I always like reading self-proclaimed audiophile reviews about things. I am a musician. I have a pretty good ear and definitely enjoy higher quality playback and recordings. To a point though. I love reading when an audiophile posts a blog telling all about the numbers, bitrate, and other fine details of new headphones, audio protocols, and the like. And after that 10 page article telling why it SHOULD be better, they say “therefore I definitely hear a difference.” Well of course you do! You just told me and yourself what to expect and hear!
The human brain is an amazing thing. Amazingly gullible, I mean. I’ve played 2 recordings of the exact same guitar recording for people, yet told them the first is at a lower quality, and the 2nd is higher. I then asked them to tell me the qualities they heard that made the 2nd sound so much better. You’d be amazed at the responses. From different mic technique on the guitar cab, to higher bitrates, to “you obviously used a better guitar,” I heard it all. When I then told them that I had mixed it up! The FIRST recording was the higher quality… then they gave me reasons their initial reactions were wrong – specific things that they now realize they didn’t pay attention to initially. Amazing.
So maybe the brain isn’t gullible, but just too prideful. After I finally told them the actual truth – both recordings were exactly the same – many would just not admit to being fooled. They were absolutely sure I made changes to the recordings. Some went back and argued that the 2nd was indeed the higher quality, and so on. We really have trouble admitting when we are wrong these days. It’s this pride or gullibility (is that a word?) that makes me not believe ANY audiophile reviews of anything. I typically like to make my own opinions of audio gear, and like usual, basing my first opinions on an average of reports and reviews on anything.
As expected, the audiophiles are sharing how hard-wired will always be better than wireless and how Apple’s choice is the worst decision ever made ever. Well, honestly I also believe that hard-wired usually sounds better and is of course more reliable than wireless. In the music world of things, someone reacted to this iPhone 7 news by saying something like “yeah, one day we’ll get rid of all our XLR mic cables and 1/4″ guitar cables to perform music during a gig.” Um. We’ve been doing that since 1947! Wireless microphone and guitar systems have been around for so long and used almost exclusively in the biggest shows as long as I can remember.
Is Enough Really Enough?
Which brings up the discussion of “How much quality is ‘enough’ quality?” Whenever you read an audiophile’s review of gear, you have to keep something in mind: they are self-proclaimed audiophiles, therefore they have to always adhere to the nth degree of everything. They will be reviewing things against the strictest standards they can possibly come up with. Some of this is actual data, some of it is showing how much they know for credibility. So when these people are saying “wireless headphones sound like absolute garbage compared to my amazing uncompressed audio protocol that only 3 people in the world use and recognize the difference”… what does that really mean for mere mortals like us? Probably nothing!
I know people who claim to be able to hear the difference between 44.1 kHz audio and 48 kHz audio. Ok, there are MANY people who say they can hear the difference. Maybe they can, or maybe they are fooling themselves. At any rate, does that actually matter? To some, yes. But to the general public, not at all. The average listener doesn’t even notice the typical MP3 “sparklies” in the high frequencies with low quality files. So why would they care about some small detail in hard-wired vs. wireless audio?
The typical wireless audio quality – assuming no dropouts – is so close to what hard-wire can provide. Now of course this is where opinion comes in. But it’s not like wireless delivers only 30% quality vs 100% of hard-wire. I would say it’s closer to 90% or even 97%, something more in that range. DSP and other manipulation can help improve the quality as well.
So where does all this get us? The headphone jack is gone: it’s true. But we get a free adaptor to allow us to use our 1/8″ gear. Can we charge and listen at the same time with that? No, not without another piece of gear. But if we want to look toward the future of tech and usability, we have to abandon old comforts here and there to embrace the new technology that – let’s face it – the general public typically ends up liking and preferring. Better wireless is on the table here, and Apple is offering a new take at it with their AirPods and Beats’ products. This could force a change in the wireless audio accessory market, and we could get better gear as a result. To move forward, we must not cling too hard to the old that could be replaced for the better.
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