A Lightning Port Headphone Jack Is an Awful Idea

Recorded on June 23rd, 2016

photo of old-timey 3.5mm headphone plug

Mini stereo plug, we barely knew ye.

The rumor going around is that Apple will remove the standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and make the Lightning port serve as a headphone jack. I bristle at this idea for many reasons:

1. Replacing the 3.5mm jack is not “inevitable”

Some people say “Well, Apple has to do this at some point, so it might as well be now, like they did when they left the 3.5-inch floppy out of the iMac.” I don’t believe that. Too often in technology, we think about what’s a good idea next month, next quarter, next year. We rarely think enough about things at the time scale of say, 10,000 years (see the Long Now Foundation). I’m not saying we have to dig up an iPhone in 10,000 years and expect it to still work, but it’d be nice if you could still get analog audio out of one if it happened to last 100 years. How easy will it be to dig up a Lightning-to-analog adaptor at that point? Yes, I’m saying that this piece of technology that’s 100-plus years old is still good enough.

2. How is it an improvement over an analog audio jack?

What does it do better? Does it pass digital audio and analog audio out through the same connector? If it only passes digital, I could see the argument that you could use a better outboard D/A converter of your choosing. But even if that’s the case, we know that audiophiles are the exception. In the vast majority of cases, we’re going to end up with even more severely underpowered headphone amps and converters bound up in external dongles or embedded in expensive headphones that drain the iPhone’s battery (which, by the way, negates the whole “more space for a battery” argument).

If the Lightning port passes analog audio out, it’s even more of a mystery, because we already have a perfectly good connector for that.

3. Including a pair of Apple Lightning earbuds with every iPhone doesn’t help

Everyone knows that Apple earbuds always suck worse than the lowest-end Sony earbuds. Al-ways. I only use the Apple earbuds when I want to make phone calls hands-free or in a noisy environment. They are and have always been shit and life is too short to listen to them for music, or even podcasts. We did not evolve from fish just to get this far and drink bad beer and listen to Apple earbuds.

4. Cylindrical plugs handle tangential forces better

A tangential force (like a “moment arm” in Statics in engineering school) acting on a right-angle 3.5mm headphone plug just causes the plug to rotate harmlessly in the jack, keeping its connection all the while. A similar force applied to a right-angle Lightning plug puts undue strain on the wire, the joint, and the tiny Lightning connector itself.

5. How much more space do we need inside the iPhone, really?

I hear the argument that even if they don’t need to make iPhones thinner, that the space taken up by the 3.5mm jack requires too much depth inside the phone. I don’t believe that reclaimed space will be used for more battery power if we go Lightning. I think Apple will increase battery power just enough over the last generation, like they always do, and use that space for something else we don’t need. If they’re really running out of battery space, stop making thinner phones. Leave them where they are. They’re getting too hard to grip anyway.

6. Don’t even get me started on Bluetooth headphones

Bluetooth headphones are needlessly complicated, further compress the audio, and are one more thing to charge. Bluetooth AptX Lossless is supposed to be better, and I believe it is, but in its current implementation, it’s like saying, “well, he doesn’t beat me as much as he used to”. I haven’t read anything that says AptX Lossless is 100% lossless. It dynamically falls back to lossy when there’s not enough bandwidth to be faithful to the original signal.

As is it now, even though the D/A converters on the iPhone aren’t world-class, they’re pretty good, and if you play Apple Lossless or FLAC out of them through the analog port to a decent pair of headphones, you get real lossless audio.

I only use Bluetooth earbuds when I’m mowing the lawn. Otherwise, they’re for people who don’t know or don’t care.

7. Obviously, the incompatibility with a universe of existing audio equipment

As mentioned in the BBC article above, mountains — MOUNTAINS — of electronic waste would result. “Just get a dongle”, you say. I don’t want a Lightning-to-analog dongle in my pocket to scratch up my phone, or be another point of failure between the phone and the headphones. And I don’t want to buy an expensive new pair of Lightning headphones or earbuds. I like my cheap, incredible Sony MDR-E10LP earbuds. I am old. Get off my lawn.

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