Dubai – MENA Herald: The Apple iPhone 7 is likely to spark a rapid shift away from the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack on high-end smartphones when it goes on sale this year, says leading technology retailer, axiom telecom. The new-generation iPhone is rumored to drop the familiar audio output when it is released this year, but axiom Managing Director Faisal Al Bannai says the two most popular operating systems, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, both offer better alternatives.
“The 3.5mm audio socket has been with us for more than 50 years, and has been the standard for portable music since Sony launched the original Walkman almost 40 years ago – even longer, if we consider transistor radios,” said Mr. Al Bannai. “The quality of music reproduction from portable music players has improved exponentially in that time, but the headphone jack will never let us experience that change fully.”
To listen to music stored or streamed as digital files, a digital analog converter (DAC) changes the digital data stream into an analog electric signal, which then drives an amplifier, which then drives a loudspeaker to produce sound. The 3.5mm jack can only carry an analog signal, so the DAC must be housed within the player. For a smartphone, the compromise between size and performance limits the quality of DAC, and therefore the music experience.
As an alternative, both Apple and Google also offer audio output via their data connections: Apple’s eight-pin Lightning connector, the micro-USB used by Android devices, and wirelessly via Bluetooth. For these, the phone sends digital information, and the DAC can be housed externally, so headphone manufacturers can choose a combination of DAC, amplifier and loudspeaker purely based on performance.
“Many people combine their smartphone with very expensive, high-quality headphones for listening to music, and these have in themselves become desirable brands,” said Mr. Al Bannai. “Sending a digital signal puts the headphone manufacturers in control of choosing the DAC, as well as the amplifier and speakers, so each component can be matched for quality. Music fans will be able to get a better experience from their smartphones. This unlocks more of the technology’s potential.”
Several headphone brands have already premiered Lightning headphones in anticipation of the iPhone 7, and Apple itself owns one of the market leaders, Beats by Dre. True audiophiles, wanting the very highest fidelity for their music, are impressed. The models already on the market are generally high end, but we can expect more affordable options to follow quickly when the iPhone 7 arrives.
There was previously speculation that Android devices would be the first to make this shift, when Google included native USB audio in the operating system’s 2014 Lollypop update. That meant Android phones could go without a 3.5mm jack, but device manufacturers chose to keep it. While smartphone makers may be confident they can give customers something better, Apple’s decision to remove the 3.5mm jack, rather than offer it alongside the Lightning port and Bluetooth, is about size rather than music quality. The rise of the smartphone has reversed the constant shrinking of mobile phones prior to the late 2000s, but the previous obsession with overall size has been replaced by an emphasis on having the slimmest possible device, particularly at the upper end of the market.
“The height and width of any smartphone is now determined by the size of the screen, so having a slimmer handset is now the key to making it more compact, and less bulky to slip into a pocket or bag,” said Mr Al Bannai. “At the cutting edge of design, the 3.5mm required for the headphone jack has become the obstacle that stops the case becoming slimmer. Apple could potentially shave as much as 1mm from the thickness of the iPhone case just by removing it, and if you look at the micro-USB slot on Android devices, it is visibly narrower than the headphone input from top to bottom.”
“Apple is taking a calculated risk if it does go ahead with this change, which seems fairly certain. There may be some consumer resistance, but buyers in that segment will most likely accept losing the old-fashioned headphone jack if it means having the slimmest phone on the market, and if they can see that there is a viable alternative – which there is. If Apple moves, others will follow very quickly, and in fact, the leading Android brands will probably already have their own super-slim, micro-USB only designs well on the way to production.”
That does not, however, mean the end of the 3.5mm socket completely – not yet, at least. The new-generation of headphones will come with an extra cost, so in the mid-range and budget markets the old-fashioned headphone jack is likely to remain a desirable feature. Even as industry experts were speculating about the iPhone 7, Apple was launching its new mid-range offering, the iPhone SE, complete with stereo audio jack listed as one of its features.
“For more affordable phones, customers emphasize value, which extends to accessories, such as headphones or earbuds, as well,” said Mr. Al Bannai. “Particularly for budget phones, the perceived inconvenience of losing the headphone jack would outweigh any advantages for the time being.”