The Death of the Headphone Jack

Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

Remember that other little port that you used to have on your phone? It was a circle, not a rounded rectangle. I know, it might be hard to remember.

The iPhone 7 was unveiled on September 7th 2016 to a surprised San Francisco audience. The phone would be released a week later and it would be the first major smartphone that would do away with the unwitting headphone jack. Such a move was so unexpected that it wasn’t even a concern; not on the radar of any tech head. The 3.5mm headphone jack was just a conventional part of a device. But Apple, as ever, decided to drive change. So they did away with the standard adaptor for audio that had been around since 1878.

Whether you think it’s out of greed for future sales or out of an impressive forward thinking-mentality, the switch has sparked major change throughout the industry and has been the source of Apple’s best-selling product: the headphone dongle. Not only that, but it has instigated an entirely new lineup of products.

So by this point we’re used to Apple making unexpected decisions that wind up changing the tech around us. But why would every other manufacturer, even those that had scoffed at Apple for making the choice, decide to follow suit? One wouldn’t assume that it was to drive sales of their own proprietary headphone peripherals. More likely, it’s something else.

First, there is the positive of extra space. Getting rid of a component that just takes up internal space on a device will help manufacturers to improve other aspects of the phone and/or make the device smaller. The benefit of including a headphone jack as compared to the benefit of having extra internal space to work with is probably a clear choice. And for those smartphone manufacturers that continued to hold out on the old technology, like Samsung, they probably saw little return for their effort in continuing to include a headphone jack in their devices. That means that those who were so passionate to hold on to the port probably weren’t passionate enough to make it a purchasing criteria.

The second benefit is the drive for change. Up until the release of the iPhone 7, wireless headphones were available, but they weren’t the most common listening device. Now you see more people with AirPods, wireless Bose headphones, cheap wireless products from Amazon, and everything in between rather than their wired counterparts. And as someone who has made the switch, it’s incredible how much more convenient it is to not have any wires to worry about.

So maybe Apple decided they would no longer design devices with a headphone jack because they thought their customers would buy their wireless alternative in AirPods. Why would anyone need a headphone jack if everyone would use AirPods instead? Whether or not this is true, the result is clear: they were right.

Minor deficiencies in sound quality can be forgiven in exchange for the luxury of not needing to worry about wires getting caught or tangled.The unavoidable downgrade in audio quality in the transition from wired to wireless devices is hardly noticeable for the casual user, many of whom clearly prefer convenience. Despite their keen ear in the studio, even many professional music producers will wear wireless headsets on the go rather than wired alternatives simply because of their convenience.

As we look back at audio media formats throughout recent history, CDs had a clear edge in audio quality as compared to digital, and records had an edge on CDs. Now, boutique options are available for both, but convenience in portable audio devices won over quality which is why you don’t see anyone walking around with a high-quality walkman and a pair of studio headphones. So although the sound quality of bluetooth will almost certainly fail to match that of wired audio, the technology still has room to grow, and many users are fine with where it is now.

Now that there aren’t really any major smartphone manufacturers that are developing headphone jacks in their flagship devices, it’s probably safe to say that it’s time to let it go. And while this might be bad news for some people, it’s important to look at the positives here. In order for anything good to happen in technology, change needs to happen. There must be an impetus for innovation. Only in pushing limits and adding constraints can companies have the drive to innovate. And if that means we all go without the headphone jack, then that’s okay with me.

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Jacob Mitchener

Jacob Mitchener

(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.