Jacking Off

 

Anyone serious about good sound from their smartphone relies on the humble 3.5mm jack, but there’s a threat to its survival. PAT PILCHER pleads for its survival.

 

It’s been over a year since Apple kicked off the insane trend of doing away with 3.5mm headphone jacks on its iPhones. Many thought that this was pure arrogance. I also saw it as a vehicle to earn Apple a pile of licensing revenues.

A lot of us have dropped serious cash on high-end cans hoped that this was a passing fad. Unfortunately, the 3.5mm headphone jack is still on the endangered list in 2017. We at Witchdoctor implore phone makers to think like smartphone users and not to kill the 3.5mm socket off.

It isn’t only Apple that’s axed the 3.5mm headphone jack. The (much overhyped) Essential Phone, Xiaomi’s Mi 6, as well as the iPhone 7 have no 3.5mm jack. Samsung, LG, Huawei, Oppo and others have so far have kept the 3.5mm socket… so far.

So, what of the alternatives? Apple and others often bundle a dongle adaptor to convert a 3.5mm plug into a USB C or Lightning port connector. Then there’s Bluetooth.

Neither option is good. Dongles add clutter to your pocket and are easy to lose. They also crap out and become yet another replacement item to buy.

The news isn’t much better for Bluetooth, which was originally designed to send phone conversations to a headset. Simply put, Bluetooth isn’t all that great at delivering hi-fi grade audio. APT-X/LDAC codecs might have improved things, but there’s still a gulf between wired and Bluetooth cans. Worse still, Bluetooth headphones need to get charged up. This is a problem that doesn’t exist with wired headphones. There’s nothing quite so useless as a pair of flat wireless headphones.

Wireless headphones

The 3.5mm socket is a universal standard that has worked for eons. It works well. The alternatives kind of suck.

So, why kill it off?

Dan Riccio (Apple’s senior VP of hardware engineering) says it’s about freeing up wasted space.

“It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone,” says Riccio. “It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there’s a better, modern solution available, it’s crazy to keep it around.”

But here’s the thing, I and many others don’t want phones to keep getting slimmer. The best way to describe this trend is that it is both bizarre and a complete waste of time.

Slimming down phones delivers diminishing returns. A phone can become too slim to hold. Slimmer phones also equals smaller batteries. This means more time hooked to a charger and less time being useful. Most of us hide our phones away in silicon cases. This makes a nonsense out of wafer thin phones.

Other phone makers say that ditching the 3.5mm socket doesn’t make that much difference anyhow. In an interview in 2016, LeEco’s head of R&D, Liang Jun told The Verge that dumping the headphone jack for USB-C didn’t make manufacturing easier, nor did it save much space.

But – and this is the big one – do alternatives to the 3.5mm jack sound better?

This is a curly one. Jack-equipped phones use an in-built amp and digital analogue converter (DAC) to deliver audio. USB/lightning-equipped phones don’t: digital audio data goes out the USB/Lightning port and zero processing gets done by the phone. Digital audio instead gets converted into analogue using a built-in DAC and amp on the headphones.

Lightning connector

Like most audiophile debates, the reality is often subjective and complex, but the argument comes down to the weakest links in both sides. The amp and the DAC are on USB/Lightning connected headphones. With the 3.5mm jack, the driver/crossover design of the cans is most often the weakest point. Further complicating things is the audio CODEC used. A decent high bit-rate codec may be on the phone, but the output gets limited to what CODEC the headphones use.

This brings me to the biggest rub so far. Hardly anyone makes decent USB or Lightning-equipped headphones. Most ear buds bundled with phones are rubbish. Most phone makers treat them as an afterthought to cut costs on.

This hasn’t been a problem in the past, as you could plug in a better pair. There are thousands of options sporting the 3.5mm plug. With USB or Lightning, your choices are far more constrained.

So, a message to any smartphone makers reading this: none of your customers asked you to kill the 3.5mm headphone jack. Don’t jack off.

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