Photo via p_a_h (CC-BY)
Two years ago I realized I really didn't like wired headphones.
I was sick of having to untangle my earbuds every time I pulled them out of my backpack. I was sick of replacing my earbuds when the flimsy rubber cables inevitably frayed and cracked. I was sick of having a wire connecting my ears to my pocket, and having to thread that wire through my jacket or avoid accidentally tugging on it as I walked. Plus, I've been a public transit rider every day for the last decade, and I can't even begin to count the number of times my earbuds got caught on some part of a bus or subway and unceremoniously yanked from my ears. With the launch of the Bluetooth-reliant Apple Watch on the horizon, I decided in the fall of 2014 that it was time to rid my life of wires entirely.
Fast forward to 2016 and Apple has adopted a similar mission: removing the tried-and-true, hundred-year-old 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and championing wireless audio in its stead. I'm not here to try and defend Apple's decision, or convince you that it was a great idea to kill the 3.5mm headphone jack now. If you're still outraged about what Apple's doing and you’re getting ready to troll me for writing this article, you should probably stop reading.
There are a ton of great reasons why removing the headphone jack from the iPhone is stupid, annoying, or “user hostile”, many of which I agree with. Regardless of all those reasons, the headphone jack is actually, officially, gone from the iPhone, and more smartphone, tablet, and computer makers are likely to follow suit. If you're calming down, ready to accept that truth, and maybe even excited to embrace a wireless audio future, it won't be very hard to adapt to this new reality. A little annoying? Yeah. Slightly costly? Maybe. But not difficult.
Apple includes wired Lightning EarPods in every iPhone 7 box, but the real future of audio for the iPhone is wireless, so embrace that and give wireless headphones or earbuds a try! They don’t have to be expensive—try a cheap $20 or $30 pair from Amazon to dip your toes in the wireless audio pool.
If you’re like me, you’ll quickly fall in love with the freedom and comfort of wearing headphones without that annoying dangling wire. Once you know you like the wireless life, consider making the jump to higher-end wireless headphones from a company like Beats, Bang & Olufsen, Jaybird, or Skull Candy, or go all the way with Apple’s completely wireless, super tiny AirPods.
People like to focus on the downsides of Bluetooth headphones: unreliable connections, poorer audio quality, and batteries that need frequent charging. Only serious audiophiles will notice a huge difference in audio quality with Bluetooth headphones; for the rest of us the quality is perfectly fine. Bluetooth audio quality has never bothered me, and Apple has made enhancements to iOS to eliminate Bluetooth audio “lag” when watching videos or playing games. As Apple hopes to prove with the AirPods, unreliable wireless connections can be solved with a bit of engineering. With more companies moving toward wireless headphones, we’ll see rapid improvement in wireless connection speed and quality. Even now I have very few problems with my Bluetooth earbuds (the Jaybird BlueBuds X) staying connected to my iPhone, without the engineering “magic” of Apple’s custom W1 wireless chip.
On the issue of charging, yes, Bluetooth headphones means another device in your life to charge, but it’s not as much of a hassle as it sounds. Most of us have to charge our smartphones every night so we can get through the next day, so add charging your wireless headphones to that routine.
Every night I take 30 seconds to plug in my iPhone, Apple Watch, MacBook Pro, and Jaybird earbuds together on my bedside table so I’m all charged and ready to go in the morning. For the very rare occasion that my wireless earbuds run out of juice, I carry a back-up pair of wired earbuds in my backpack.
Adapt with Adapters
Adapters aren’t fun, but in a situation like this they are a necessary evil. Apple’s trying really hard to level with users by making their Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter only $9, plus they’re including one free in the iPhone 7 box, so take advantage of that cheap price and just put an adapter everywhere. Got a favourite pair of wired headphones you want to keep using? Attach that adapter and leave it there. Got an AUX cord in your car? Put an adapter on there too and leave it attached. Leave one in your desk at work too, just in case.
I firmly believe that adapters are a stop-gap solution in this case. Apple eventually wants to ship wireless earbuds in every iPhone box, and at some point soon every device in your life will have Bluetooth in it. Most already do. Having to use and carry adapters is the most annoying part of the switch away from the 3.5mm headphone jack, but it does mean all of the devices you plug into today can still plug into an iPhone 7.
Apple didn’t give the best explanation for why they decided to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone this year. Saying it takes “courage” to kill older technologies and move forward comes off as conceited to some.
Whether you were satisfied with Apple’s explanation, the one thing they did say that will prove to be true is that by ending their reliance on that headphone jack, Apple, Beats, and other companies will be forced to improve wireless audio standards and features. Sound quality will get better. Wireless connectivity - whether Bluetooth or something new - will get faster and more reliable. Battery life in wireless headphones will improve, as the devices themselves get smaller. Headphones will get smarter and more capable, as Apple demonstrated with the intelligent device switching, one-step pairing, and enhanced microphones inside the AirPods.
Don’t forget that Motorola already removed the headphone jack from the Moto Z, their 2016 flagship smartphone, and that trend will continue. As the industry as a whole moves away from the headphone jack, they’ll be forced to innovate and improve wireless audio. That’s a fact.
It may be that the 3.5mm headphone jack never fully disappears from our world. It’s embedded in so many devices across so many categories of products that Bluetooth or some other wireless audio standard may never permeate. For smartphones at least, it’s clear that the future of audio will be wireless, even if it takes a bit of a rocky transition period to get there. I bet in a few years, we’ll look back on the controversy of the 3.5mm headphone jack’s death and laugh.