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Will Apple mark the end of 3.5mm headphones?

Posted: 05 May 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:analogue audio jack? 35 mm headphone? peripherals? headphone jack?

Ever since Apple announced its pending acquisition of Beats in late May 2014 (the deal closed that same August), persistent and escalating rumour has suggested that the company was going to leverage the technologies it obtained to obsolete the 3.5mm analogue audio headphone jack currently found in the company's iPhones, iPads, and various iPod models, not to mention its laptop and desktop computers.

Some of you may know Beats primarily from its Beats Music subsidiary, a subscription music service which Apple was keeping to leverage in bootstrapping its own then-embryonic Apple Music efforts. But there's also the Beats Electronics subsidiary, which manufactures and sells portable speakers, headphones, and earbuds, and other hardware devices. That latter division is what fuelled prognosticators' angst.

By means of review, Apple has a long history of both being an initiator in transitioning the industry away from various standards, as well as embracing proprietary approaches. The original iMac dispensed with a built-in floppy drive, for example, a decision that PC makers later replicated. More recently, the company dropped optical drives from the bulk of its MacBook laptop models. And Apple's scorn for Adobe's Flash format, spearheading a rejection that has since broadened to other systems, software, and content providers, is well known at this point.

Regarding proprietary standards, there's the Apple Desktop Bus, used to connect early keyboards and mice to Mac systems. Similarly, the Apple Display Connector was used to tether early displays to systems ... it was an extension of DVI that also encompassed USB and power connections; a good idea, mind you, but still proprietary. Apple was also the innovator of the FireWire high-speed data transfer interface, which later admittedly became industry-standard IEEE-1394 but achieved only modest beyond-Apple adoption (due in no small part, I've heard, to Apple's high royalty payment expectations). Similarly, Apple was first to adopt the Thunderbolt interface that it co-developed with Intel, and which has achieved limited usage elsewhere (although newest v3, based on USB-C, may yet succeed more broadly).

So what's Lightning? Initially unveiled in conjunction with the iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod Touch, and seventh-generation iPod Nano in late 2012, its adoption has subsequently broadened to other newer Apple offerings. The svelte 8-pin interface, capable of carrying both data (including digital audio) and power, is the successor to Apple's prior, much bulkier 30-pin dock connector and can also be inserted with either side facing up. At the time, Apple rationalised the transition for both ease-of-use and system-slimming reasons; to the latter, not only could phones and other devices be slimmer, but more buttons, ports, and other hardware could be packed onto whatever system edge included the Lightning connector. It's also important to note that from that point forward, Apple garnered not-unsubstantial licensing revenue from third-party developers leveraging the Lightning port, by means of its MFi certification programme.

Since Apple's already navigated the 30-pin to Lightning transition, what's the incremental motivation to additionally drop the legacy headphone jack connection? Further slimming potential, for one thing. Check out these published iPhone 5 blueprints, for example; you'll see that the Lightning Connector is 3.36mm thick, which is even thinner than the diameter of the 3.5mm headphone plug, far from the added required thickness of the connector which the plug mates with (shown as 4.83mm in the iPhone 5 blueprints). Admittedly unknown in both cases is the incremental thickness of internal terminal tethers to either connector, but it's presumably scant-to-nonexistent in the Lightning case, whereas it's notable with the headphone jack (see here and here for mechanical-spec examples). And since the iPhone 5 marked Apple's first Lightning implementation, it's not unreasonable to assume that the company's made further connector-slimming advancements since then.

Total bill-of-materials cost comparisons also need to be considered. As mentioned earlier in this write-up, the Lightning port is already capable of bidirectionally passing digital audio, along with power. Couple this with D/A conversion and class D amplification built into the headphones, as Philips has already been doing for more than a year, and you've obviated the need for the functionally redundant analogue headphone jack. Folks using Bluetooth headphones and headsets are already set, as well. And for existing analogue headphone (and mic-inclusive headset) owners, an external Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter containing the aforementioned ADC and amp circuitry can provide a legacy bridge.

Then there's the aforementioned revenue (and profit) angle. Not only does Apple garner licensing revenues from MFI certification relationships with third parties, it also directly benefits from "Apple Beats" brand preference. Any guesses whose Lightning-based headphones and headsets Apple will be stocking in its own stores? On that note, I wonder whether or not Apple will bother bundling earbuds in the new Lightning-only hardware it sells. How many of you use a wired headset at all with your iPhone ... and if you do, how many of you rely on the buds bundled with your smartphone, versus separately buying upgrades?

-Brian Dipert

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