When the iPhone 7 was launched in September, the most newsworthy headlines about the new device weren’t what you might expect. In fact, the most talked about aspect of the iPhone 7 is what wasn’t included: a headphone jack.
Anyone who owns an iPhone has most likely used it to play music; for most, the phone replaced their iPod. Simply plug a set of earbuds into the 3.5mm jack, and it was no different than listening on any other digital music player. Yet while an auxiliary jack for headphones or earbuds was an expected feature on an iPhone, it also represented some issues for Apple.
For starters, any type of jack is a potential failure point for the device. Now granted, most people are able to protect the iPhone jack fairly well, thanks to phone cases and the fact that most devices are kept safe from dirt, moisture, and other contaminants, but there is always a risk. Who doesn’t know someone who dropped their phone the wrong way or had another accident that led to the headphone connector snapping off and getting stuck in the jack?
Perhaps more importantly for Apple, though, is the fact that a 3.5mm headphone jack adds width to the iPhone – and Apple is all about making their devices thinner and more streamlined with every iteration. Without the headphone jack, it was possible to shave a few more millimeters off the thickness of the phone, and create the thinnest device ever. Given that all engineers in all industries are being challenged to develop ever smaller microcontrollers and small model PICS, this quest for a thin device makes sense.
Despite the benefits of removing the jack, though, consumers still had concerns about the change – most notably, how would they listen to music or other content without a headphone jack? The answer was a Lightning jack, and as it turns out, it’s actually been a welcome change for iPhone users.
Digital, Analog, and Better Sound Quality
When the news broke that the iPhone 7 would not have a headphone jack, users were concerned. However, what they failed to realize was that while we may be used to the technology, it’s not the most efficient – and it’s not necessarily the best way to listen to music.
Without getting into the differences between analog and digital recordings in general – and perceptions of the quality of either – it’s important to realize that all music played on an iPhone is digital. However, a 3.5mm headphone jack is an analog device, meaning that the iPhone must use a digital to analog converter, contained in the phone, to convert the binary code of the music into an analog form, which is then amplified so it can be heard in the attached headphones. This process can have a significant effect on the quality of the sound heard through the headphones.
By removing the headphone jack, Apple is accomplishing several things. For starters, music can potentially sound better because it isn’t being converted to analog and amplified – it’s being transmitted in digital form to the headphones via a Lightning jack. Not only that, but by removing the DAC and amplifier from the phone, the phone can accommodate a larger battery, thus helping ensure a longer battery life for the device.
So How Do We Listen Now?
Some iPhone users were concerned that the removal of the standard jack meant that they would not be able to listen to music on their phones with headphones at all. This is not the case. The new phones come equipped with a Lightning port, as well as a single pair of Lightning headphones. The new Lightning headphones contain a DAC and amplifier in them, but because the new port and jack are digital, the process of converting sound does not need to take place in the phone.
This has the potential to improve the sound of music in several ways, not the least of which is the fact that headphone manufacturers are now going to have to work harder to create headphones that have exceptional sound, especially with a wireless focus. Apple has essentially put that pressure on the headphone manufacturers, and with that competition will come better sound.
Of course, using non-Lightning headphones will require a Lightning converter (one comes with the phone) but most users who have upgraded to the iPhone 7 have found that the change is not as bad as they expected it would be. And since future versions of the ubiquitous device will most likely be designed the same way, it’s only a matter of time before we are all used to it.
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