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Apple takes a risk on audio, but do we really believe the claims?


Published onSeptember 9, 2016

Apple Airpods

While Apple isn’t the first smartphone manufacturer to abandon the 3.5mm audio jack, the launch of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus could mark a major turning point in the use of the century old connector. For better or worse, Apple has ditched the old jack, and along with it is declaring that existing headphones are old tech. Although, Apple says that it has very valid reasons for doing so.

If you watched through the iPhone 7 launch presentation, you might remember Apple saying something about having three good reasons for dropping the jack. The first, is that the company’s proprietary Lightning Connector is simply a better connection than the 3.5mm jack, secondly that removing the port allows the company to save on valuable space inside the phone for other tech, and thirdly that Apple ultimately views wireless as the future of audio anyway, and that the company is simply being courageous by taking the first steps. I have a different theory.

1 – Lightning is better than 3.5mm

There’s not much new to discuss here, it’s hogwash. We’ve already been over the pros and cons of 3.5mm versus the USB Type-C connector and many of the same problems apply. You can’t charge your phone while listening, 3.5mm adaptors are clunky and easily lost, and the end result makes no difference to audio quality. Okay, you can connect up powered headphones and USB Type-C is still fine for audio, but there are pros and cons to throwing away the well established standard.

I’d go so far as to say that that Lightning is actually a worse alternative for audio than USB Type-C. Firstly because its a proprietary connector that is only available on one brand of handsets. This instantly causes a big headache for manufacturers who want to reach as many customers as possible.

The universal adoption of the 3.5mm jack is its main charm. Tablets, smartphones, laptops, studio gear, it’s all on the same connector. There no royalty fees for using it, no digitally encoded data, and no DRM. Similarly, if customers buy Lightning Connector headphones, they can’t take them elsewhere. But I’m sure that Apple don’t mind locking consumers into their ecosystem through proprietary accessories. In fact they’re probably very keen on it.

2 – Apple can save on space for more tech

We’ve heard this one before, it’s something LeEco and Lenovo both said about their 3.5mm-less phones. But how big is a 3.5mm jack socket? Well, a quick check for components shows that many low cost sockets for mobile products are sized at less than 10 x 10 x 5mm, hardly huge.

Even so, with consumers demanding better camera, display, and processing features, along with a host of extras that all fight for component space. Every millimetre inside a smartphone seems to be precious these days. Of course, if the basic iPhone 7 was a little larger than 4.7-inches, this might not be such a problem.

“It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone. It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there’s a better, modern solution available, it’s crazy to keep it around.” – Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering
iPhone 6S battery and connectors
The 3.5mm jack (bottom left) isn’t any wider and barely any longer than Apple’s Lightning port. But I suppose that extra space could be used for something.

Of course, this type of decision opens up a whole new question about whether these extra components are worth losing compatibility with a huge selection of headphone and other audio products? Would you give up some “Taptic” feedback power or a small percentage of battery life to keep a 3.5mm jack? For some, this might be a worthwhile trade, but it’s not necessarily one that all consumers are willing to make.

3 – Wireless is the future of audio

Finally at point three, perhaps Apple finally has a legitimate point. If Apple is about to go all in on wireless, and there’s a good indication that they are, then removing the jack and offering a simple adaptor in the box is a fair step to take.

However, there are no real benefits to audio quality in moving over to wireless. In fact, the compression techniques used to transfer audio quickly over relatively slow standards like Bluetooth are not going to please picky audiophiles. Apple says that the AirPods use the 256 Kbps AAC file format, which is not going to suit those used to FLAC or ALAC. Not to mention the occasional connection and pairing issues.

From an audio quality perspective, it's pretty clear that the AirPods don't offer anything new.

Therefore, if you’re looking at this solely from an audio quality perspective, it’s pretty clear that the AirPods don’t offer anything new, they’re just change for the sake of change. However, the hands free nature of wireless does open the door for headphones to do some pretty nifty things, and these are probably the AirPod’s most interesting features.

Siri is accessed with a quick double tap up next to your ear, and can be used for calls, messages, navigation, and music controls. Apple isn’t the only one trying this out, Sony also has its own Xperia Ear pair of Google powered ear buds, and there are genuine uses here for hands-free phone use. The earbuds feature dual beam-forming microphones to filter out background noise when you’re talking. There are also infrared sensors in each bud that detects when it’s in your ear and turns them off to save on battery.

The wireless charging capabilities and neat carry case also at least partially address the hassle of charging up headphones that offer at most 5 hours of battery life. Although this drops to just 2 hours if you’re using Siri a lot.

Apple also made a bit of a fuss about its new W1 chip inside the AirPods. Essentially, this is just Apple’s custom Bluetooth modem to transmit data. The company says there’s also some secret sauce for fast pairing with iPhones and additional “magic”, but the company is keeping quiet about exactly what this is. Presumably the added benefits are locked off from non-Apple products that try to pair up with the AirPods. Apple is already planning to use this chip in upcoming Beats products and may sell it to third party companies too.

“The idea that there’s some ulterior motive behind this move, or that it will usher in some new form of content management, it simply isn’t true. We are removing the audio jack because we have developed a better way to deliver audio … The transition is inevitable. You’ve got to do it at some point. Sooner or later the headphone jack is going away. There are just too many reasons aligned against it sticking around any longer. ” – Apple SVP, Phil Schiller

Of course, all of this technology is not cheap. One has to wonder how much of the component budget was left for actual decent audio components, such as the DAC, the amp, or the driver. Apple’s wired earphones aren’t exactly known for their quality already. For $160, Apple offers all of these fancy features, or you can go and buy some really good sound quality oriented headphones for the same price or less, although they’ll probably be wired. The requirements for wireless technology are going to cut into the sound quality per buck of headphones, which is not great for music enthusiasts.

Wireless technology and extras are going to cut into the sound quality per buck of headphones, which is not great for music enthusiasts.

The real motive?

The elephant in the room that we haven’t mentioned so far is that a major push into audio, particularly in the emerging markets for wireless technology, is a potentially huge cash cow for Apple. It is not secret that iPhone sales are pushing up against the wall. Global smartphone growth has slowed and Apple’s typical high-end markets are already portioned up by the major brands. There’s very little room to manoeuvre into another’s territory without risking upsetting existing customers.

While some Android manufacturers continue to battle it out in in the budget and super-mid tiers of the market, the slowing global trend represents a different challenge to Apple. Apple has already seen its first quarterly decline in iPhone sales ever, and that’s putting a lot of investor pressure to find new areas of revenue. In Q3 2015, iPhone’s sales were down 14.9 percent and declined 23.6 percent in terms of revenue.

iPhone sales forecast 2016
Forecasters are predicting a peak in iPhone sales, which will leave Apple in search of new revenue streams.

Accessories are a lucrative business that Apple is yet to fully tap into, and using proprietary pieces of technology, including its Lightning port and wireless W1 chip, and software services could be used to hook customers out of competing products and into its own extended product range. Integration into Apple’s existing popular services, including iTunes and Siri, and added convenience over competing products could give the company an edge.

“when taken in combination with the W1 chipset, a rise in convenience is offset by a clear aggregate move by Apple to move iOS device owners’ accessories purchases away from third parties and industry standards, and more distinctly into Apple’s own product families. This is particularly relevant given declining iPhone sales,” – Paul Erickson, Senior Analyst, Connected Home at IHS Technology

It’s highly unlikely that Apple will completely lock off competitors from using its wireless technology, as it’s still another potential source of revenue. In fact, Apple has already made it clear that its AirPods will work with any Bluetooth smartphone. Although some features, such as Siri and seamless Bluetooth connectivity, are going to be missing when used with Android devices, and battery life will be lower.

Likewise, including clumsy and expensive to replace 3.5mm/Lightning/USB Type-C adaptors might just be enough to convince consumers that the wireless alternative is just worth the convenience. Outside of its AirPods, the Beats brand and its growing range of celebrity endorsements to appeal to the more fashion or brand conscious out there. The company looks to have all of the angles covered.

moto z force review aa (14 of 16)

Apple isn’t the only smartphone company ditching the 3.5mm jack, so perhaps the 3.5mm connector is finally on the way out after a good century in the business. These manufactures may have a point about newer and better technologies on the way. A prevalent USB Type-C connector for audio, video, and data would be quite handy, but the same can’t really be said for Apple’s proprietary Lightning port.

Maybe, in the not too distant future, Bluetooth will support the best quality audio with low latency, or some other wireless standard will come along that works seamlessly across a huge range of devices, but we just aren’t there yet. Perhaps this isn’t really about music at all, and handy new wireless personal assistant features are the next big step for mobile worth ditching 3.5mm jacks for. The big question is, do Android manufacturers need follow suite just yet?

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