Hear this: Apple confirmed today (Sept. 7) that the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus will not have the standard 3.5 headphone jack. The company’s eliminating the port to make room for a stereo speaker on the base of the phone.
“It makes no sense to tether ourselves to our mobile devices,” said Apple marketing head Phil Schiller. “Some people have asked why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone… It really comes down to one word: courage.”
Grandiose verbiage aside, this is a huge move in the audio world. Ever since rumors started swirling of a jack-less iPhone, there’s been widespread outrage on the internet. A petition that started in January has garnered more than 300,000 signatures to keep the standard headphone port. “This is right out of the Apple corporate playbook,” states the petition, noting the change will force iPhone users to replace their headphones and in the process “create mountains of electronic waste.”
True to its current obsession with minimalism, Apple has aggressively streamlined the shape of its products and eliminated standard ports over the past decade. It used the introduction of minimalistic gadgets to phase out the floppy drive (iMac G3, 1998), phone jacks (MacBook, MacBook Pro 2006), ethernet ports (MacBook Air 2008), and CD/DVD players (MacBook Air 2008). Earlier this year, it made its most dramatic design omission yet with the new MacBook, replacing the USB, monitor, and power ports with the new USB-C standard.
The headphone jack was the last of the original ports to remain standing since Apple released its first mass-market PC in 1984. “Our obsession continues to simplify and improve,” Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design office, said in a video shown at the event.
While many are up in arms about the change, professional audio engineers and researchers actually see the news as positive. “Consumers don’t want cables, and we see this as a natural opportunity,” says Sean Olive, former president of the Audio Engineering Society. He notes that sales of wireless headphones in the US overtook wired ones for the first time ever this year. In June, NPD Group reported that Bluetooth-enabled models accounted for 54% of headphone sales. “We knew this was coming,” he says.
Instead of the nostalgia over the loss of a tiny hole on the side of the gadgets, the issue at heart is about possibilities for sophisticated tech devices without the cord. After all, who doesn’t love cordless phones, irons, speakers, mice, and wireless headphones when we’re running around?
Audiophiles have long clung to their cables (and vinyl records), believing wireless technology compromises the listening experience. But Olive, who is the research director for audio company Harman International, says the jack connector actually has little impact on acoustic quality. The two most critical factors to good sound quality are the headphone’s speaker (called the surface transducer or exciter) and the original sound recording.
The current industry standard, Bluetooth 4, is “good enough” as any wired connection, he adds, and the release of Bluetooth 5, which is expected in late 2016 or early 2017, promises to make fidelity even better. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group boasts that the newest standard will double the speed of connections and increase the capacity of data broadcasts by 800%.
Olive argues that Apple’s move to eliminate analog ports will help accelerate scientific research that could benefit a wider audience. As an example, he said an international conference on headphone technology he co-chaired in Denmark last month delved into hearing aid innovations.
As for environmentally minded skeptics, engineers note that the headphone cable is actually the first thing to break. “You can imagine without cables there’s going to be less headphones thrown away,” says Olive. “In that sense, there should be less environmental waste.