When leaks about what the chassis of the iPhone 7 might look like hit headlines earlier this week, technology columnists and industry analysts jumped on the chance to report that Apple’s next device may finally ditch its 3.5mm audio port altogether. Instead of clinging to the nearly-ancient technology, the next iPhone could begin paving the road to a world where we’re finally past the point of relying on cords to listen to our audiobooks, podcasts, or playlists altogether.
But why do we still use audio jacks in 2015 that were invented in the 19th century? And what’s going to be the next best thing that comes along to replace it?
Digital Killed the Analog Star
When discussing the nuts and bolts of how your digital song on your digital phone plays as an analog audio signal to the analog speakers inside your headphones, it helps to know how the transmission of audio actually works first. Not to slow anything down with an entire technical manual on the subject, but in short, it looks a little something like this:
To explain what we’re talking about even further, we’ll follow the lifespan of a song from start to finish via a Spotify selection.
First, a song is recorded: in 2015, this almost always done with a specific mix of digital and analog tracks mixed together inside a computer sent through an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), which is then used to digitally master that music into the final track. This file is uploaded to one of Spotify’s servers, and next, the company makes the song available to stream over the air at a quality level of 320 kilobytes per second, or the same quality as an average CD rip if you pay for the monthly Premium service.
Your phone takes that digital data (about 7MB for a full song at 320kbps), and sends it through what’s called a “digital-to-analog converter, or DAC. The DAC is usually installed inside the phone itself, and is designed to take the binary data of your song and translate that into analog audio signals, morphing each one and zero into a series of different currents and voltages that push the driver inside a headphone to create the sound you eventually hear. The jack on the end of every smartphone is attached to a very small DAC, which allows you to plug in everything from a pair of headphones to a full stack of tower speakers and still get the same amount of sound out of either. And while the headphones would be loud enough considering their size, conversely the sound would be very quiet on larger speakers without the help of an external amplifier to boost the signal.
The trick of keeping headphones small is relying on a DAC that’s stored inside the phone, the computer, or the laptop to take care of the heavy lifting. As such, 3.5mm audio jacks have survived this long because they’re the essential, universal way to play music on any device in 2015, but doesn’t all this back and forth conversion seem like a little much?
Why Not Just Get Rid of the Wires Altogether?
Without wasting any more of your time than we have to: it just doesn’t sound as good, as much as we might want it to.
When looking at this debate, it’s easy to draw parallels toward another argument that’s been raging with PC gaming geeks everywhere for years – wired vs. wireless mice. Even with all the advancements made to wireless mice and the technology it uses to communicate every click or scroll your mouse makes, the responsiveness is still miles behind what you’d get with a wired setup. This is because the air between the transmitter and the receiver (in the case of mobile music: the phone to your headphones) isn’t always an empty space. There are walls and floors and denim-lined pockets to get through, all of which cause resistance on the wireless link between two devices.
To handle audio, currently Bluetooth transmits over what’s known as the A2DP standard, short for the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile. And while Bluetooth 4.2 is plenty fast enough to digitally transmit the file of your song in a few seconds, actually getting it to play out of audio speakers is another job entirely. This is handled by a DAC installed inside the Bluetooth headphones themselves, and while the quality of wireless signal decoding continues to get better as time goes on, most audiophiles already know you’d never listen to your favorite album over Bluetooth unless you were completely out of other options.
Cost comparatively, a pair of $300 Bluetooth headphones won’t sound as good as good as a wired pair simply for the fact that the wireless version need extra components like a battery or onboard DACs in order to work. Without the need to include these, wired headphone makers can squeeze those extra dollars into higher quality drivers, which leads to higher quality sound at the same price. Not only that, but a higher price means less availability in the developing world, regions where Apple continues to do gangbusters selling pre-owned devices that work with basic 3.5mm headphones.
The Best of Both Worlds
If Apple really wants to commit to ditching the audio port, they’re going to need to have something that sounds just as good and is as easy to plug in to boot. The company’s MFi program has confirmed that Apple wants more people to start thinking about the Lightning port as a one-stop shop for everything from charging to plugging in your headphones…but this is easier said than done.
First, there’s the issue of sound quality. While adding Lightning audio to say; a new pair of over-the-ear Beats headphones does seem enticing, what kind of monopoly could this lead to? What about the manufacturers who can’t afford to license Apple’s proprietary connection technology to add to their earbuds? Will they simply move on to Android devices instead? What about DRM restrictions, which when attached to a digital audio stream, can automatically prevent anyone from listening to pirated music on that device?
People want to use their smartphones the way they want to use them, and potentially putting rules on top of that about where or how you jam out alone or with friends could backfire immensely if approached without enough caution. History has taught us that the problem with trying to introduce a new way of doing something in the digital world, is that from the very start everyone has to be on board the ship at once – or no one will be. Apple has had an incredible ride over the past decade and a half, dotted with very few missteps, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t massively over-calculated their position in the past or paid the price as a result.
This isn’t to say it can’t be done – and if there’s anyone who could, it is absolutely Apple – but it’s going to be a uphill climb to wipe out a way of listening to audio that’s older than recorded audio itself. Even though the iPhone 7 may be attempting to take the first step for us, it’s likely that the audio port won’t be going anywhere for a few more years. Apple will have a long road ahead of them filled with a lot of people who need convincing, and right now there are just too many wired headphones compared to other Bluetooth options that still lack the umph they’ll need if true audiophiles are going to start taking it seriously as a way to enjoy high-quality music or movies.
In order to truly change the marketplace for good, Apple will need to do a whole lot more than just take the aging analog audio jack off their next model. They’ll need to help push Bluetooth forward to move past a2dp as its only means of getting consistent sound from one place to the next over the air, and quell the consumer’s concerns about using Lightning audio as a way to introduce DRM restrictions on certain types of music.
So then, it seems the main reason why we still use analog audio ports because for the time being: they’re what works best across every section of the market, without fail. They’re cheap to manufacture, hold up for years at a time, and provide the same level of quality no matter whether you’re listening on a Sony Walkman from 1997 or an iPhone 6s.
That kind of ubiquitous reliability can’t be overestimated, and although Apple has led the way when it comes to encouraging consumers to leave certain technologies in the dust (where they belonged), they also thought FireWire was going to be a revolution in connectivity – and just look how that worked itself out.
All this in mind, it’s clear that we need to start thinking about this as a society, and look forward to wireless as the logical progression of our audio enjoyment experience. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t always mean what we think it does, and sometimes, it’s just a precursor to “don’t fix it unless you know you can do better”.