I’ll be honest, I hated it when every phone used to have a proprietary headphone connector back in the early 2000s. When phones such as the N95 started to introduce the 3.5mm headphone jack, it was nothing short of a revelation for me. ‘Finally I can use normal headphones without an adaptor’ I thought. It’s no exaggeration to say that the inclusion of the humble 3.5mm jack heavily influenced my phone purchasing decisions for the best part of a decade.
I know no one wants to look like the luddite here, or risk appearing unimaginative, by criticising Apple’s move away from 3.5mm headphone jacks. Historically that’s been a bit of a fool’s errand, since Apple has a habit of showing the rest of the industry the way and proving its detractors wrong, just as it did, for instance, with the removal of the floppy drive in its Macs.
I’m happy to be proven wrong. But right at this very moment I have my doubts about this move, and here’s why.
With the removal of the 3.5mm jack plug we’re effectively being given three choices: use Bluetooth headphones (which has been a very reliable standard for years now), use a Lightning connector, or ditch the iPhone in favour of something with a 3.5mm plug.
Firstly, I suspect people aren’t going to enjoy having to use an adaptor. The fact that this is a mobile device makes the use of adaptors rather more annoying than using them on, say, a computer. With a computer, an adaptor just sits there most of the time, not moving. However, phones move around in your pocket. As such, adaptors are going to be lost or eventually fail as the wires flex, requiring that they be replaced. And authorised Apple adaptors have historically been rather costly. This will put many people off.
That leaves us with Bluetooth. Admittedly Bluetooth is much more robust than it once was. But what of people like me who genuinely find that the current raft of Bluetooth headphones doesn’t suit their needs?
For one, there’s the constant need to charge them. There’s also the fact that I like to keep headphones in my pocket at all times. This is impractical with a pair of Bluetooth cans. The alternative is in-ear Bluetooth headphones that are wired together, which tend to irritate me due to the awkward positioning of the wire (and still have a wire to tangle, therefore representing the worst of both worlds). And where in-ear buds are not wired together they’re easily lost, expensive, easy to lose individually and, right now, tend to suffer from connectivity issues and poor battery life.
Many would argue that wireless headphones will improve as a result of Apple’s move. I certainly hope so. Though that still leaves us with the current issue of sound quality that is inferior to wired headphones. Until we move away from Bluetooth that fundamental bandwidth issue will persist.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Lightning is a much more flexible standard, able to carry audio, video and, well, anything really. And for me, the biggest upside of this move is that lightning-connector headsets allow for the delivery of pure digital sound to the headphones, resulting in improved sound quality. In this sense Lightning is a superior option for connection to kit such as stereos.
However, even replacing 3.5mm headphones with the clearly superior Lightning connector standard seems like, overall, a sub-optimal solution for the foreseeable future.
Firstly, there’ll be a cost premium associated with buying Lightning headphones (there always seems to be with officially-licensed Apple kit). Secondly, if one goes down the Lightning route, you’re left with headphones you can’t use with anything else without an adaptor.
A whole raft of third party accessories (including expensive kit such as stereos and in-car systems that would be fine for decades with 3.5mm connectivity) will also be left with obsolete connectors within a few years when Apple updates its connectors.
Yes, Apple will probably prove me wrong and make a success of this. The industry has a habit of watching what Apple does, and following suit. As a result, this blog will make me sound like the worst kind of Luddite. But for now the removal of the 3.5mm jack just feels irritating.
The simple fact remains that Apple’s connectivity standard is not yet the de facto standard. And until the world realigns around Apple’s vision, in the short-term at least, I think I’m going to pine for the old 3.5mm.