Apple, don’t take my headphone jack away

I like thin, lightweight technology, but it isn’t the only criterion that determines what I use. If thin and light doesn’t give me the performance I need, I’m happy to choose something heavier or bigger.

When the iPhone 6 Plus came out, I bought one. Initially, it seemed absolutely enormous, and I thought I’d never get used to it. Now I’m on the 6s Plus and would never go back to a smaller iPhone. The battery life and the bigger screen for Braille screen input make it the right choice for me.

After being a MacBook Air user for three years, I recently bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro with all the specs maxed out. It includes 16GB of RAM and 1TB solid state storage.

Compared to my MacBook Air, the Pro feels heavy and thick, and I’ve therefore given it the nickname “The Big Kahuna”. But it fits in my backpack just fine when I travel, it isn’t really that arduous to take places, and the thing is, it goes like a rocket. I enjoy having OS X for a few apps and functions, but Windows is still my primary operating system. With a laptop this fast and powerful, I can run JAWS in a virtual machine with superb results, and still tend to iMessages and FaceTime calls.

Sometimes I pick up my old MacBook Air and think, “oy, what have I done? This thing is so cute!” But the performance factor soon reminds me that I made the right decision for my particular needs.

There’s plenty of choice of form factor in the MacBook line now. If you want to go ultra-portable, there’s the new 12-inch retina MacBook, which is just adorably thin and light, with compromises to match. It sports a single USB type C port, which is the only way both to connect peripherals to it and charge it. And the keyboard is, to put it charitably, an acquired taste.

So when it comes to Mac, Apple now has a line-up that can meet the needs of the road warrior who wants something really light for a bit of word processing, email and web surfing, all the way to someone who needs plenty of grunt and is willing to lug it around.

There is not so much flexibility in the iPhone stable, where there are usually now two current models with similar specs but different screen sizes. So when I read a rumour that Apple may dispense with the 3.5mm headphone jack in iPhone 7 models, it had me concerned.

Before I explain why, let me be clear that Apple itself has made no official statement about the future of the headphone jack. It’s only a rumour. But I read a lot of technology sources, and have come to know which sources tend to be more reliable. The source of this story, the Japanese technology site Mac Otakara, has a good track record. No news site that reports things like this gets it right 100% of the time though. It’s also possible that Apple wants to monitor customer reaction to the idea, by letting it leak. But there’s no doubt that decisions as fundamental as this are being taken now, or probably have already been taken.

You can read an English summary of the story at Mac Rumours.

Even if the story is wrong, and I hope it is, I want to write a defence of the headphone jack for those who think its loss wouldn’t be a big deal. Some of us really, genuinely need it.

The story suggests that the 3.5mm headphone jack will be dispensed with, because it’s preventing Apple from making the iPhone thinner. If they removed the jack, they could shave more than 1mm off the thickness of the phone.

If this rumour is correct, Apple would probably include Earpods with a Lightning connector, since specs for headphones that use the Lightning port have been available since 2014.

According to the story, the Lightning port would include a digital to analogue converter, so you’d still be able to connect 3.5mm headphones. There is no word in the story that this Lightning port would be in addition to the one already on iPhones, implying that you’ll have one port for both charging your device and listening to wired headphones or connecting the device to a mixer.

My first objection to this rumour is a philosophical one. 3.5mm headphone jacks are ubiquitous. The standard is supported by a massive number of manufacturers. It would be sad if Apple required its users to carry a proprietary adapter, probably sold separately, to connect standard equipment to their single proprietary port. But they’ve done this before. Even on my maxed out MacBook Pro, I have to buy a special adapter just to connect to wired Ethernet.

My remaining concerns relate to functionality. As a hearing-aid wearer, I use my iPhone with a cable between the headphone jack and my hearing aids about 95% of the time. There’s no latency because it’s analogue all the way, and since no Bluetooth is involved, it’s energy efficient in terms of hearing aid battery usage. The Lightning to analogue adapter would be one additional device to carry, use and potentially lose, and it would mean that I couldn’t use my iPhone in the way that is optimal for me while I’m charging it. There’s also the possibility that the digital to analogue converter may introduce latency. That wouldn’t be important for most tasks, but it would be detrimental to all VoiceOver users who use 3.5mm devices, not just hearing aid wearers.

But there’s always Bluetooth, and that’s the way the world is going, right? There may be a few exceptions, but the majority of Bluetooth audio I’ve used on iOS is laggy with VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader for blind people like me, that I find it a frustrating, sub-optimal experience. Streamers for hearing aid wearers often power down very quickly after VoiceOver has stopped speaking, to save energy. This means that hearing aid wearers who use VoiceOver with Bluetooth streamers often must cope with missing the first second or two of what VoiceOver is saying, as the Bluetooth streamer powers up after detecting audio. If you’re taking a phone call or listening to music, that’s no big deal, but for a VoiceOver user, it’s not a good experience. And Bluetooth streamers chew through hearing aid batteries faster than an analogue connection, imposing additional costs on hearing aid wearers.

Taking hearing impairment out of the mix, there are many people who use the 3.5mm jack, and want to do so while charging their device. Bonnie, for example, has a pillow speaker, because she likes the radio on at night. It plugs into her iPhone while it’s charging.

We may be about to see a similar controversy with iPhone to the one that greeted the new MacBook’s single USB C port and all the inconveniences that go with that. When that controversy was at its peak, proponents said that Apple often likes to move the tech agenda forward, and that they’re uniquely positioned to do that by making “bold” decisions like this. Sorry, I don’t consider a single port for peripherals and charging a bold decision. It’s just a pain. If you want to use multiple devices, you have to buy some sort of hub, which detracts from the convenience of having an all-in-one device.

I realise that as a VoiceOver user with a hearing impairment passionate about getting the most optimal audio experience, I’m a minority within a minority. But if this rumour proves to be true, it will be my queue to seriously examine other mobile options. I really don’t want a phone one more millimetre thinner, when it’s going to create an experience for me that would be poorer.

Would you be bothered if Apple took the 3.5mm jack away? If so, how do you use the jack at the moment? Share your views in the comments.

13 Comments

  1. Lulu Hartgen

    Because of suffering from chronic Migraine, I use special ear canal headphones. they are mainstream, but hard to find and not cheap. They are small, lightweight and portable and I carry them with me everywhere so that I can use them with all my devices because they are the only kind of headphones I can use without letting myself in for chronic pain. If the iPhone 7 loses it’s standard headphone jack I will have to by an adaptor which, as you have pointed out, is one more thing to carry and possibly lose. I also know, from using adaptors in my iPhone dock, that adaptors can sometimes be extremely unstable and can suddenly stop working just when you don’t need them to. For me, Bluetooth is not an option as the poor quality of sound and lagginess triggers Migraine.

    There are so many things I love about my iPhone, but its increasing largeness in size is already causing me problems. If we lose the headphone jack, which I really hope is just a rumour, I will probably have to look at alternatives which will be a really sad day for me.

  2. Rick Lewis

    Much of my iPhone use is via the headphone jack, patched into the inputs of a radio with decent speakers, or patched into an audio mixer. I’d not only be disappointed if the headphone jack vanished, I’d feel ill-served as an iPhone user because important functionality would be missing, or handled in a less practical way.
    When I do wear earphones of any sort, I have to use over-the-ear models or another configuration; earplugs make my ears sore very quickly.
    If the iPhone went to a nonstandard method, it could be much more difficult to find suitable headphones.

  3. Nicki Keck

    I would be very much bothered by this. I use my earphone jack sometimes for my Earpods, because quite frankly, dictation sucks with Bluetooth, and you can’t record audio messages on Messenger or audiobooms at all with them; at least, i have not found a way to do so. When I asked about it to others using audioboom, I was told it was not possible. Also, I find that sometimes, the quality of Bluetooth headsets, at least the ones I’ve used, is sorely lacking sometimes when talking to people on the phone, so I use my Earpods in that case as well. I would really be quite upset if this option were taken away. Also, as someone with a slight hearing impairment, one that doesn’t require a hearing aid at this point, but may, at some point, in the future, the concerns you raised about that could potentially be a problem for me one day in the not-too-distant future.

  4. dave

    I do prefer 3.5 jacks when I have them, but I know if Apple decides to drop it, I wouldn’t be surprised. It will just show us again that accessibility doesn’t matter much to them.

  5. Rich Cavallaro

    I agree with all your points Jonathan and what others have said. For me, I use my 3.5 mm jack all the time when listening to music and other media on my iPhone. So, if Apple were to make one have to use an adapter through the lightning port, I really feel for me that would be a step bakcwards in functionality.

  6. Steve

    While I too would really miss the standard headphone jack, Apple is no stranger to doing their own thing and just assuming the industry will just deal with it. Many of the things Apple has done — the original charging port, lightning connectors, early adoption of nano SIMS — has caused quite a bit of initial up-set but in the end, solutions have quickly evolved to help us integrate these changes into our daily lives. If Apple truly does switch to the lightning connector for audio, how long might it be until we start seeing headphones and other peripherals on the market with cables that can accommodate this? I’m guessing this will happen pretty quickly as no audio manufacturer is going to want to potentially exclude the large Apple market.

  7. Bibi

    You make excellent points here. I am a sound professional and use the headphone jack for several different purposes when I’m on the road. Adapters are just one extra source of problems which I try to avoid at all costs. I realize that tech tends to move forward whether the user (or the market) is ready or not, but taking away the headphone jack would be a huge disadvantage for me and a compelling reason not to upgrade to an iPhone 7.

  8. Tim Noonan

    An extra adaptor would only make the phone longer and make a headphone connection more prone to stress and bending. Clearly in today’s world no design decisions would be taken that would diminish the viewing experience of the device.

    I have a fantastic and wonderfully comfortable pair of Bose in-ear noise cancelling earphones, and though I don’t use them all the time, I find them invaluable in noisy environments. I wouldn’t buy a replacement pair of these to accommodate a new connection type, and since they already have a battery module that adds some inconvenience, adding an adaptor on top, would be totally unweildye.

    Earpods are fine for every-day use, but if one already has an investment in high-quality earphones, the change will be both inconvenient and potentially expensive.

    As a parallel, When Apple dropped support for optical output on the new Apple TV it cost me 1500 dollars to upgrade my surround-sound receiver to one with HDMI. Its ture that I have benefitted overall from the upgrade, and get better sound, but it made the Apple TV even more expensive than its already hefty price.

  9. Maryann Migliorelli

    As someone who uses her phone either in a pocket or purse most of the time I too worry about adapters in the lightning port.
    There are also times when Bluetooth headsets are inappropriate like when I’m walking outside and their signals are interrupted frequently by passing cars and other signals. Also battery life is more quickly diminished when using Bluetooth for audio.
    I also want to mention my husband’s preference for plugging the IPhone into sound sources or directly into his cochlear implants. Bluetooth options for TCoil use don’t always keep the integrity of the sound produced from direct connections.
    If the newest IPhone models came out without headphone jacks we will most likely keep our IPhone 6s rather than upgrading. The jack loss wouldn’t justify the thinness of the new phone.

  10. SeaNoEvil00

    Hi,
    I normally wouldn’t buy into any discussion based, as this is, on a report of a rumour but there’s an interesting philosophical question at play here…
    I can see how each of us has adapted an audio solution that works with current technology to meet our specific needs. We have worked within the framework provided by the 3.5mm jack, made investments in time and technology and have an audio solution that meets our needs.
    As a consequence of this, have we become overly protective of what we have? Perhaps even to the point that we . are fearful of change?
    The solution seems obvious, petition Apple to keep the 3.5mm jack. It’s what we know and like. It just works…
    But does that sort of fearful thinking not have a consequence of it’s own?
    How long are we asking Apple to keep the 3.5mm jack? The iPhone8? The iPhone10 or the iPhone100? What potential advancements are we prepared to forgo to keep this jack? In the future, as mew technologies emerge, are we likely to look back and see that our fears of today are justified and that the3.5mm jack really is the pinnacle of audio transferrance?
    To finish, I remember a similar discussion in the Blind Community about the transition to touch screens…
    Have a great day.
    Sea No Evil.

    • Jonathan Mosen

      Technology absolutely has to advance, but something as universal a standard as the headphone jack should be changed after agreement across the entire audio industry. There is some excellent Android hardware, more capable than Apple’s in some respect, that is doing just fine with a 3.5 MM jack.

  11. SeaNoEvil00

    To be perfectly honest, I am completely ambivalent about the future of the 3.5mm jack. If it stays, great. If it goes, then I’ll act like any rational consumer and assess the alternatives when time comes.
    In response to your comment, the fact that we all go out and replace our Technology as frequently as we do suggests that we want to have the latest and greatest gear. Ask yourself though, which cutting edge technology company ever grew to prominence with the motto “Doing just fine.” ?

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