In Defense Of The Headphone Jack


UPDATE: Apple has announced the iPhone 7 and, as widely rumored, they’ve removed the analog headphone jack. Apple argues that it takes “courage” to do so, but a few weeks ago, we responded to that idea. You can find that response below.

When it comes to modern life, there’s probably nothing more universal than a headphone jack. If something electronic has speakers, it has a headphone jack. Everyone has a pair of earbuds wrapped around their phone or tucked in a pocket, or perhaps a full-sized set of cans hanging around their neck. Still, major tech companies have decided the headphone jack is useless, and are campaigning to get rid of it. But their arguments are outweighed by the jack’s virtues.

The Case Against The Headphone Jack

Apple’s plans to get rid of the headphone jack are well known by this point. This isn’t particularly surprising, as Apple has both a tendency to strip out things it decides its customers don’t need, and a refusal to accept standardization. Nearly a decade ago, nearly every smartphone manufacturer came together and agreed to use USB as a common standard, ending the bad old days of proprietary chargers and data ports for everything. Apple was, and remains, the sole hold-out, part of its philosophy of retaining total control of both hardware and software.

What’s surprising is that instead of treating Apple like the outlier that it is, the rest of the tech sector is siding with it. The Moto Z, Motorola’s latest phone, has no headphone jack, and Intel recently made a presentation promoting a new audio standard that makes USB-C, a type of port similar to Apple’s Lightning connector, as the jack of choice.

Intel’s argument really boils down to two things: The headphone jack adds thickness to the phone, and consumers prefer thinner phones. And, more importantly, it’s a more efficient way of listening to audio. The headphone jack is analog, while music on your phone is digital, so not only does the port have to be wired into your phone in a relatively complicated workaround, that makes it impossible to incorporate digital effects like noise-canceling into the phone itself. Instead your headphones have to take on those jobs. Using USB-C will make for a less complicated, more straightforward listening experience.

And these arguments are absolutely true, as far as they go. But there are problems Intel and Apple aren’t talking about, possibly because there aren’t any good solutions.

The Case For The Headphone Jack

The biggest, most glaring, and most obvious problem is simply that by throwing out the headphone jack, literally billions of headphones, earbuds, and other gear that rely on it are now suddenly obsolete. Apple alone has moved at least half a billion sets of those distinctive white earbuds boxed with every iPhone. And it, of all companies, should know how just how popular the minijack is: After all, Apple owns a company that built its name on $300 headphones.

Consumers don’t seem excited about the switch, either. Already, images are going around of a small dongle to let you keep your headphones. Faced with headphones that will likely be an expensive upgrade or a $10 length of wire, it’s not hard to guess which option frugal smartphone users will opt for. Many see earbuds as something you buy from a vending machine or a drugstore, and that may be a difficult market to raise prices in.

Another issue is that the fewer ports a piece of technology has, the less versatile it is. With no headphone jack, everything — from charging to listening to music — has to be done out of one port. It’s fair to argue that few people listen to music on their earbuds and charge their phone at the same time, but it’s also worth asking what the convenience is for the consumer, here. Not helping matters is Intel’s somewhat odd insistence that, thanks to USB-C, you can plug your phone into a display and watch movies on it, when that problem has already been solved by Google’s Chromecast.

Speaking of wireless, none of this would be a problem at all if wireless earbuds were a convenient solution. But even Apple has been struggling to make wireless earbuds better, and even if they were, it’s difficult to summon enthusiasm for yet another object to charge. And why should music fans go around with headphones that might die on the train, when they have headphones that will simply plug into their phone?

Finally, there’s the issue of battery life. USB chipsets are notorious power hogs, and Intel’s solution is, essentially, to turn off various features on your phone while you listen to music. It’s difficult to see consumers wanting to compromise on battery life, of all issues, and again, the versatility of your phone is compromised. Isn’t the whole idea that we do more with our smartphones, not less?

Cutting The Headphone Jack Is The Past, Not The Future

All of this, the dongles, the over-engineered solutions, the proprietary connectors, the optimism of insisting some more subtle pros outweigh some rather glaring cons, is painfully familiar to any gadget fan. The idea that consumers should be expected to buy a dongle, of all things, in the twenty-first century seems faintly absurd, like being asked to pick up a Pet Rock or buy a Flock of Seagulls “cassingle.” This is logic from the mid-’90s, not the 2010s.

Whenever a widely used technology has left the market, it’s because consumers have seen the virtue of its replacement: DVDs were better than VHS, buying single songs digitally was better than shelling out for the whole album on a disc, and a smartphone was far more useful than a flip-phone. So far, the tech industry has failed to make that case with USB-C headphones. And if they don’t find those virtues, they may find themselves rushing to wire a headphone jack back into their products.