So, an almighty kerfuffle as Apple removes the minijack headphone socket from its latest iPhone. An early seeding of the rumour mill in this regard made sense for Apple, to lessen the brick wall of disbelief that might otherwise have greeted the move if announced to an unprepared room, but still, it’s a hot topic around the water coolers of tech-world.
So why do it? The most quoted reason is to allow a slimmer iPhone 7. Slimmer it is indeed, at 7.3mm for the iPhone 7 plus, or 7.1mm for the iPhone 7. But hang on — I use an iPod touch for a lot of my portable music listening, and that’s a full millimetre slimmer still, at 6.1mm, and it has both a Lightning socket and a minijack output. So clearly it’s the Phone stuff making it thicker, not the socket.
Some have posited that it’s all a plan to give Apple’s own Beats headphone brand a market advantage. I don’t buy that, because it doesn’t much, given that any Bluetooth headphone is suitable for the new arrangement. Indeed with the news just last month that Bluetooth headphone sales overtook wired headphones in the US market for the first time, Apple’s decision looks firmly on trend, rather than self-interest or radical futurism.
What’s left as a reason? Most likely seems the cost saving and circuit simplification achieved by ditching the DAC and analogue output stages in the iPhone. Perhaps, though I’ve yet to see a commentator consider that the iPhone 7 still has a built-in speaker — so clearly there’s still some level of DAC and analogue output in there*.
Note also that Android phones may soon follow — not with Lightning, but with USB-C. Motorola has already done this on its Moto Z and Z Force.
So for us poor end users, what are the pros and cons of losing the minijack?
First the cons. You can’t use the Lightning socket for playback and charging at the same time, which you might want to do at home in the evening, or on a plane where you have a USB socket to hand and would prefer not to arrive at your destination with a dead phone. There are adapters already available to allow both at once, but frankly we’ve got enough adapters in our lives already. This objection doesn’t apply to Bluetooth headphones, of course, and as already noted, that’s where the market is headed.
Second, you can’t plug in your beloved selection of cabled headphones any more. But you can, of course — Apple’s Lightning-to-minijack adaptor is in the iPhone 7 box. This sells separately at just $12, almost worryingly low for a connector that must include a DAC and an analogue output stage. How good can it possibly be? (I’ve ordered one to have a listen, but it’ll arrive after we go to press**.)
The same question applies to the Lightning-equipped ear buds Apple is offering for $49 — that’s a small amount of money to spread across a DAC, output stage and the headphones themselves, even given the economies of scale enjoyed by Apple given the quantity of the things they’ll be rolling out.
So here we come to the crux of the matter. Previously there were two limitations on the quality of your headphones — the phone’s DAC and output stage, and the headphones themselves. Well the previous iPhone’s DAC and output stage were pretty good (despite its stubbornness at rounding down high-res music, assuming you went to the effort of loading it via some third-party program in the first place). In this issue Stephen Dawson has tested the iPhone 6s, along with LG and Samsung models, precisely to find out how well phones deliver music. And the answer is, on the whole, pretty darned well.
But now that job shifts outside the phone. You will have to pay for not only the headphones, but for the DAC and output stage too. This has always been the case in Bluetooth headphones, which of course require a power source, usually a rechargeable internal battery — charging is the big downside of Bluetooth designs. Lightning-equipped headphones can take their power from the phone with the signal; it remains to be seen whether this drains battery life faster or slower than having the phone itself do the work. But as a cost element, it clearly adds to the price of cabled headphones. And it introduces a second place where the sound quality can go wrong, with new possibilities for good headphones with a bad DAC, or a good DAC with bad headphones (it’ll be hard to separate the one from the other, of course). Cheap Lightning products are likely to sound very cheap indeed, as do cheap Bluetooth headphones.
But hang on, what about the pros here? Firstly Bluetooth headphone users don’t have to worry at all; no change. Even if you kept a cable around for emergencies, well, just keep the new adapter with it. And hey, the iPhone delivers high-res audio from its Lightning output for external DACs that can handle it — will this give Apple the kick it needs to allow high-res music to load more easily, via iTunes? Hopefully yes. High-res Tidal MQA streaming? Yes please. It also gives audio companies the chance to deliver higher-end high-res-capable headphones where they can control the sound more completely from digital source to diaphragm. The Audeze Sine reviewed in this issue do this very well. A pair of Philips Lightning headphones we’ve had for some years (never released in Australia) also do a good job. We have a whole new category to play with.
So to be honest, what’s the problem here? Those willing to spend more than the minimum on their audio should come through this OK, perhaps even better than before. Just remember that with Lightning headphones, it’s now about that DAC quality, as well as the headphones themselves.
Jez Ford, Editor
* Unless they’re actually pumping the speaker by mere density of digits; Bell Labs is purported to have tried this as early as the 1920s (I can’t imagine and couldn’t find out quite in what form)... direct digital driving is regarded as impractical at high bit-rates, requiring massive drivers of, er, 83 square metres for 16-bit audio by one estimate, but something simpler might be possible by filtering of lower bit-rates — it is just for a phone speaker after all.
** Now I have the adaptor, it's so incredibly tiny that I had a hard time believing there was a DAC in there at all. Perhaps the Lightning socket was passing the analogue signal and everything we'd said in the magazine was nonsense? Happily no, a Vietnamese website has bust one apart and confirmed there's a DAC in there.
And finally... a different way to bring back the iPhone' 7's minijack, from the strange people over at Techrax. Don't try this at home, kids...