The 3.5mm Audio Jack Debate: Much Ado About Not Too Much?
Given Apple’s recent penchant for (not) keeping secrets, we all knew this was going to happen. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus would not come with a 3.5 mm audio jack. Those wishing to use headphones with the device would have to use headphones that used the lightning port on the iPhones, bluetooth headphones or use an adapter that would let them plug their 3.5 mm jack headphones into the new iPhones.
No, this is not the first time we have seen a company ditch the headphone jack from a phone. And contrary to what many of the punditry on soapboxes would have you believe, phones without 3.5 mm audio jack are not part of some devious plan by Apple to unsettle an established world order. There were phones without 3.5 mm audio jacks even before the smartphone revolution started. Sony Ericsson’s iconic Walkman phone series, which was known for its audio quality, used Sony’s proprietary FastPort connectors. Nokia devices too often came with their own Pop-Port connectors. Neither the best selling Moto Razr or its iTunes supporting music oriented Moto Razr V3i had 3.5 mm audio jacks. In fact, right until about 2008-09, if you bought a phone, there was a decent chance that you would be locked into its accessory eco-system. And those screaming about how difficult it is to carry adapters around probably have forgot that these existed and sold in large numbers about a decade ago (adaptors that enable you to use your 3.5 mm headphone with a Sony Ericsson device are still available on Amazon). And before we forget, you could not listen to music while charging some phones as both headphones and the charger took the same slot. And in fact, many people used to advise us against charging a phone and listening to music at the same time, saying it might cause the phone to heat up.
The smartphone revolution that followed in the wake of iOS and Android brought in standardisation as regards audio and charging ports – we saw almost all manufacturers accepting the 3.5mm audio jack pretty much as a standard for audio and the micro-USB port for charging and data transfer. This did uncomplicate life, mainly for multiple gadget toting geeks who could now carry a single pair of headphones and a charger and use it across multiple devices. The general user, it needs to be noted, did not use as many devices. And to a large extent remained in the dark about these – we wish we had a penny for every time we have seen a person come around asking for a “Samsung charger” or a “Nokia charger,” unaware that their devices actually can be charged by ANY micro USB charger.
And yet, so quickly did the 3.5mm audio jack be accepted as a “given” that there was widespread surprise in 2012 when Oppo announced that its Finder phone would come without a 3.5mm audio jack and would instead have a headphone that would plug into the micro USB port. This shock was replayed two years later, we actually got to see a phone minus a 3.5mm audio jack – the R5, again from Oppo, which at 4.85 mm was the thinnest phone in the world. The importance attached to the audio jack can be gauged by the fact that when Oppo’s rival Vivo came out with a slimmer phone, it made it a point to stress that it had done so without leaving out the 3.5mm audio jack. More recently, this year, LeEco introduce the Le 2 and the Le Max 2, both minus the traditional audio jack, preferring to let users connect headphones either through Bluetooth or the Type-C USB port. Significantly, the company said that the reason for its decision was not any attempt at a slimmer frame but simply better audio quality. This was followed by Lenovo’s announcement that the Moto Z and Z Force would not have a 3.5mm audio jack and would instead depend on a USB-Type C port for wired headphones – slimness seemed to be the main reason once again, although there were some noises made about sound quality.
In most of these cases, the tech community was less than impressed by the decision. There were two main reasons for this: firstly, the adoption of a new standard meant that older equipment (headphones, speakers, etc.) would not work with these new devices unless one used an adapter (which meant having one more thing to carry around), and secondly, the fact that you would be charging the phone from the same port in which you had to insert the headphones meant that you could not listen to any audio on the headphones while charging the phone.
So when Apple ditched the 3.5mm audio jack, it was not exactly the first to do so. That has however not stopped the wrath of many tech writers from descending on the fruity named Cupertino company, citing the very reasons that they did before – inability to use existing accessories and inability to listen to headphones and charge the device at the same time. Interestingly, Apple’s rationale for dropping the port has neither to do with slimness nor sound quality – the new iPhones are not radically thinner – but with getting more space to pack in hardware. In this era of tightly packed components, every micro millimeter counts, and it seems that the 3.5mm jack was taking up more than its fair share of space inside the phone. Removing it allowed the company to place more hardware without having to increase the size of the phone itself significantly.
The fact that Apple itself chose to label the decision a “brave” one has also not gone down too well – many critics are pointing out that this was just an excuse by the company to make people shell out more for lightning port headphones or expensive adapters, filling the company’s coffers. Yes, doubtless that same accusation could have been levelled at those who moved to the USB Type-C port for headphone-plugginess but Type-C has the PR going for it, not being a proprietary standard like Apple’s lightning port. “Apple gets a penny out of anyone using the lightning port for its devices. This is just a money making exercise,” a critic pointed out.
An executive in a phone company, however, points out: “Yeah, in the case of USB-type C, the manufacturer gets all the money. In the case of the lightning port, Apple and the manufacturer get the money. The point is that the consumer is still paying it. No one is here for the charity. Even the fella giving away free phone connections in Kingsmen had a motive!” There’s also a school of thought that believes that those who complain of not being able to use their older headphones with the new iPhones doth complain too much. “Look, you will be getting a pair of headphones with the phone,” a friend of mine in the audio industry pointed out. “And if you are the audiophile crowd that hangs on to the same pair of headsets for their music, trust me, you won’t be listening to music over a phone, but will be using a high-definition audio player like the new Walkman!”
And while not too many will admit it in public, there is a fair bit of derision for those who say that using adapters to enable usage of 3.5 mm headphones is inconvenient as you can lose the adapter. “That’s like saying – I cannot handle this because I am careless. Well, whose fault is that,” an executive at an electronics store snorted. “If you lose something, is that the manufacturer’s fault? If it is important enough, take care of it. People keep microSD cards, flash drives and SIM card adaptors carefully. Some even have cases for SIM card extraction tools. If it is important, you need to take care of it. Just keep it attached to your headphones, you won’t lose it.”
Which of course, brings us to the matter of importance – just how important is the 3.5mm audio jack? In terms of sheer numbers, it is massively so. Almost all devices with an element of audio in them, from phones to media players to televisions, have the 3.5mm audio jack in them. This near universality stems from the fact that it has been around for quite a while, almost since the sixties. Consequently, a lot of equipment from headphones to speakers is designed to be used with it. Which also means that a lot of the audio equipment and accessories people already have is designed to work with 3.5mm audio jacks. Which further means that a lot of it will not work with the new iPhones. Which has perhaps led to the angst with which some have attacked the decision.
But in terms of quality, is the 3.5mm audio jack a bit of a dinosaur, big but due for obsolescence? I am no audio wizard, but a few “sound-minded” people I have talked to concede that as a standard, it might have overstayed its welcome a bit. LeEco certainly surprised a lot of people with the clear superiority of its CDLA headphones over not just similarly priced ones with 3.5mm audio jacks, but ones which cost much more. There’s clearly some secret audio sauce out there that cannot be accessed by the 3.5mm audio jack. And as per some of the executives I talked to, the 3.5mm audio does come with its share of headaches – the most notable being that one has to provide most of the audio circuitry within the phone if one is using the 3.5mm audio jack while one has the option of moving some of it to the headphones itself in other cases, giving manufacturers more space to use better components (something LeEco has done with telling effect).
Interestingly, some of the audio companies are not too upset by Apple’s move to ditch the 3.5mm audio jack as it will enable them to make their headphones more distinct, because they will not have to depend as much on the circuitry in the phones and can work on placing more components in the headphones themselves. “Standardisation does tend to kill innovation,” an executive in a company renowned for its headphones told me. “Yes, we would love our headphones to work with every device out there. But we would love our headphones to be totally different from the others too. And that becomes difficult when standards are too rigid – you cannot innovate much within a template.”
So well, it does seem that those looking for noticeably better sound will benefit from the removal of the audio jack. The big question is: does the consumer care? The evidence from the past suggests that it all depends on the perception of value. After all, less than a decade ago, many of us were happy to carry proprietary headsets and chargers around as long as we liked the product to which they were attached. Notwithstanding the hue and cry from some quarters of the tech punditry, the stark fact is that there is no discernible evidence to suggest that the 3.5mm audio jack is very high on the priority list of those going for a new smartphone. Yes, it is undoubtedly convenient, but a deal breaker on the level at which some would have us believe? Consumers have compromised on factors like expandable memory and battery life (our Nokia E series devices used to last a week on 2-3 charges, remember), which we think are more significant in the past.
Which brings us to the point that we think a lot of the doomsday pundits are missing – at the end of the day, accepting a phone with or without a 3.5mm audio jack is the consumer’s call. The use of proprietary hardware with Apple devices is nothing new – the company pretty much likes to control the experience it offers. However, it is daft to think that it forces change down the throats of consumers, given the number of alternatives available. A person who values a particular feature always has alternatives today – something that was not the case a decade or so ago in the smartphone world. You don’t like the camera on a particular device, you can opt for another. You want better battery life? There are options. You want a metal frame? Go ahead and take your pick.
And the same applies for the 3.5mm audio jack. Those who value it have alternatives, and some formidable ones on the Android side. Apple cannot force people to use its standard. Screaming blue murder and accusing a company of ignoring consumers because it chooses to gamble on a certain feature is attempting to add a moral dimension to what is essentially a commercial decision.
Apple will not kill the 3.5 mm audio jack.
The consumer will.
And that’s their right.
No matter what the tech pundits and reviewers say
The consumer giveth
And the consumer taketh away.
(Note: In 1998, a computer was released with no SCSI or legacy ports – ports that were supported by most PC accessory users – or a floppy drive. There was instead a CD-drive and a new port that was relatively less used but was considered to be the future. Reviewers cried blue murder and said that the company was being elitist. The consumer thought otherwise.
The computer was the iMac.
The port was the USB port.)