You Can Pry My Headphone Jack From My Cold, Dead Hands
When has the headphone jack ever done anything bad to you? It's just a bit of negative space, a few tabs and wires. What's so bad about that? Apparently, there is a lot bad about it. Suddenly companies are hating on the headphone jack, and trying all kinds of ways to obsolete or otherwise banish it. First it was Apple, and now it's Intel - hardly two lightweights. What's going on?
Alert readers will know that I've recently commented on the rumor that the upcoming new iPhone will omit a traditional headphone jack. Although we won't know for sure until the phone's unveiling, that omission would certainly be controversial. You can read my comments here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). It doesn't make any sense to me, but if Apple wants the audio to flow from the Lightning port or Bluetooth, instead of a traditional jack, so be it. It's their phone, not mine.
But now a more industry-wide, anti-jack initiative seems to be taking shape with Intel taking the lead. Intel is arguing that the function of the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack should be replaced by the new USB Type-C port. In particular, at a recent Intel Developer Forum, engineers Brad Saunders and Rahman Ismail outlined an audio standard that would use the USB Type-C port for headphone playback.
The USB Type-C port can already be found in some higher-end laptops and phones, and seems to be gaining traction. Admittedly, it's a nice piece of kit; for example, it can carry much more power which means faster charging, and it can convey DisplayPort video to monitors. Also, the connector is reversible so you won't insert the cable incorrectly half the time.
It hasn't been used as a headphone jack, but with new audio standards, it could be. The big winners would be companies that make USB controller chips; using the port for headphone purposes gives those companies control of a little more of the phone real estate. A case could also be made that omitting the traditional jack would free up some space inside the phone. Ah, another "advantage" just occurred to me. A digital-only output would make DRM easier to enforce by encrypting the "compliant" output audio stream.
Of course, the downsides are plain to see. Without a 3.5mm jack, a few billion headphones become obsolete unless each one gets an adaptor of some sort. Losing the jack would also accelerate the trend toward Bluetooth headphones, which I am morally opposed to for sound-quality reasons. Also, clearly, with a digital-only audio output, the D/A converter and headphone amplifier would need to be located in the adaptor or in the headphone, which is problematic in itself, and would be redundant to the audio circuitry still needed on the phone for operating the phone's microphone and internal speakers. Finally, unless you add even more complexity, you couldn't listen with headphones while charging your phone through the USB Type-C port.
So, is that the grim future we're facing? In a world awash in 3.5mm headphones, future audio products will let us choose between an (Apple) Lightning connector or an (Android) USB Type-C connector? Instead of universality, we have incompatibility and another connector war? Seriously?
Charlton Heston, where are you when we need you?