Percussa micro super signal processor
One hole that should stick around. Photo (CC-BY-SA) William Hook.

One hole that should stick around. Photo (CC-BY-SA) William Hook.

Is Apple coming for your headphone jack? It’s a question I’d seen bouncing about publicly. Now, Macworld’s Marco Tabini goes as far as suggesting that the end of the analog headphone jack is a likelihood, and even “might be a positive change.”

Hit the road, jack: Why Apple may say goodbye to the headphone plug [Macworld.com]

See also Forbes’ Gordon Kelly, though that story isn’t as balanced as Tabini’s, and gets muddled on the subject of “digital” outputs and “exceedingly high lossless” output – whatever that means. The difference in output is 48KHz instead of 44.1KHz, which amounts to very little; both can be “lossless.”

I’ll let the (justified) screams of “noooooo” die down for a moment, and then first debunk the notion that this is a good idea (as it apparently isn’t obvious to everyone), then suggest a few reasons why Apple might promote Lightning adapters and its new Beats brand, but leave the headphone jack alone.

I could be wrong, of course. And maybe Apple really is about to embark on a really dumb idea. But before we get hysterical, let’s consider the first two points.

I am completely positive that eliminating headphone jacks is a bad idea – and reasonably optimistic that Apple would agree.

First, one admission (updated, after comments):

This isn’t just click bait from the tech press. Would Apple consider removing the headphone jack? “Consider”? Yes, almost certainly. Any physical jack you put on any hardware design is something you will consider carefully. Those decisions represent cost – in manufacturing, in space for the rest of the design, in support. And that’s true on big hardware; it’s an order of magnitude more true on small hardware.

Furthermore, these jacks really do get clogged with dirt, and, worse, headphone plugs routinely snap off while plugged in. They’re a support issue. The question isn’t whether Apple would consider replacing them; the question is why wouldn’t Apple consider replacing them.

But considering and acting are two different things, and there’s both an argument for keeping the jack from our user perspective, and an argument for why Apple might reach that conclusion from their manufacturer perspective.

Eliminating the Headphone Jack Would be a Huge Regression

Apple has done something Microsoft and Google couldn’t even begin to do with their mobile devices: Apple has made the iPhone and the iPad essential tools for musicians, producers, and DJs. And having already established the iPod as the iconic listening device, they did the same for the iPhone, not only for music, but TV and movies, as well.

Eliminating the headphone jack would hurt that strategic advantage. Apple might well be considering it, but it would be a grave mistake.

The headphone jack isn’t like a floppy disk, or the printer or SCSI port, or any of the other antiquated technologies Apple wisely eliminated from its devices. It’s not a “legacy” port; it’s a standard, and even a necessity — all audio transmitted to speakers uses analog signal. It isn’t like the analog audio in jack, which was ignored both by consumers (they didn’t need it) and pros (they used a more serious tool for better quality). And it isn’t even like the CD drive – indeed, it’s the opposite, as it drives consumption of music and apps through Apple’s own channels.

For new, iOS-specific consumer hardware, Bluetooth or Lightning can make sense. But that shouldn't mean ditching musicians, producers, DJs, and consumers eager to consume Apple's apps and content. Jacks still have their place. Photo (CC-BY) Callan Brine.

For new, iOS-specific consumer hardware, Bluetooth or Lightning can make sense. But that shouldn’t mean ditching musicians, producers, DJs, and consumers eager to consume Apple’s apps and content. Jacks still have their place. Photo (CC-BY) Pawel Maryanov.

Headphone jacks are essential for pros. It’s easy to argue this for creative music users. We use the headphone jack to play iPhones and iPads onstage, something that’s even been featured in Apple TV ads. Sure, an adapter might work, but it’d be a big step backward for mobility, which is the whole advantage. A lot of us do our monitoring on the road with an iPhone, and wouldn’t want a big, clunky adapter dangling out of our iPhone.

In the process, it occupies a Lightning port that we need to use with other hardware. We also rely on studio-quality headphones from makers like Audio Technica, AKG, Sony, Sennheiser, and the like. And no, we don’t ever use Beats in the studio; even Beats executives concede their hardware doesn’t provide the reference-grade audio needed for monitoring.

The issue is so significant to pro users, in fact, that I imagine Apple dropping the headphone jack would lead at least music creation developers to go buy a Microsoft Surface device the same day. That’s not being hyperbolic: it’s such bluntly-obvious necessity that Apple departing from it would shake the confidence of some of its key developers and users.

Headphone jacks are essential for consumers. I think it’s just as easy to argue that nixing the jack would be a bad idea for consumers. Part of what the iOS platform does is to function as a consumption platform, straight out of the box. Average consumers expect headphones they’ve purchased over the past decades to “just work” with the iPhone, which means they’re listening to music and watching TV and movies straight away. Adding a barrier there to the single most important step in the consumption chain would be just plain irrational from a business standpoint.

Headphone jacks aren’t in need of retirement in the first place. Tabini’s arguments for why the headphone jack is inferior are flawed. It’s true that it adds a hole to the device, and that that hole is subject to physical failure as well as dust and moisture – though adding a big, honking adapter out of the tiny Lightning port is subject to physical failure. But saying the problem with headphone jacks is that “it’s old” is just ridiculous. In the 1800s, people weren’t listening to high-quality digital audio through those jacks on mobile devices. Yes, they were using cables – but we don’t say the iPhone is a 19th Century, Thomas Edison-style device just because it runs on electricity.

Also, much as Apple likes to “own” the experience, they do still own the digital-to-analog converters that drive that headphone jack in the first place.

Lightning and Bluetooth don’t cut it. In order to eliminate the headphone jack, Apple would need all audio on iOS to be routed through Bluetooth audio, certified Lightning hardware, or (while Tabini doesn’t mention it, and they’re not Apple-certified) USB audio devices. (Presently, class-compliant USB audio devices work via the Camera Connection Kit, including on iOS 8, though Apple doesn’t talk much about that – perhaps in a conflict between the people responsible for the actual audio plumbing and the marketing and consumer-facing teams. And, well, yes, it’s weird that something labeled for cameras also happens to support specific pro audio gadgetry.)

Lightning certification is a major barrier for manufacturers. It adds cost and slows device shipment, and places additional requirements on design. That makes it all but untenable for the smaller manufacturers who make higher-end devices – pro audio is out. And Bluetooth audio adds latency, which knocks it out from use for a wide variety of music and audio apps that make use of the low-latency, high-performance, high-quality audio engine Apple built into iOS.

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our jack was still there... Photo ().

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our jack was still there… Photo (CC-BY) Callan Brine.

Considering the Facts: Apple Might Keep the Headphone Jack

Marco Tabini has some strong indications in his Macworld story for why Apple might make the switch. But there may be more than one way to read these indications.

Apple has added Lightning cable certification for headphones. This bit makes a lot of sense. By using the Lightning port, Apple can ensure headphones are made specifically for iOS, using not only playback features but adding high-quality audio in and out, easier configuration, and advanced features like active noise cancellation and other DSP operations.

However, it’s possible to add this functionality without having to eliminate the headphone jack in the process. In fact, the move to certifying Lightning devices makes so much sense that it’s a bit of a reach to assume it has to mean Apple is also dropping the analog jack. It’s a move that could make perfect sense in isolation.

Control. This one’s a mixed bag. It’s true that Apple gets more control over headphones made for their devices by forcing vendors to go Lightning only. But that does nothing for Bluetooth headphones – that’s a standard, and it’s entirely out of Apple’s hands. Bluetooth audio setup has gotten a lot better, but it’d still hurt average consumers to force them through the steps of Bluetooth audio configuration or buy all new Lightning headphones. Some consumers might just give up and use their iOS gadgets for media consumption less often – back to why I think this would be a dumb strategy.

Beats. Here’s where CDM readers started to freak out. At least, the logic in one direction makes sense: if you’re going to force all iOS headphones to use Lightning, you’d better buy a really big headphone maker. But the reverse doesn’t necessarily hold. Buying Beats still makes sense for Apple to get a better foothold in streaming and build better connections with the industry. And Beats is already the most successful headphones company in history, a perfect companion to Apple’s product lines – in a world that has headphone jacks.

Oh, yeah, and another thing – because so many consumers have spent big on Beats headphones, they won’t be very happy if they have to buy those headphones again just to use them with Apple’s devices. Previously, when consumers weren’t spending much money on headphones and used the horrible white earbuds that came in the box, the upgrade cycle would have been painless. But as Beats has grown the high end of the market, people have splurged, spending upwards of $200-300 and more for better cans. Those people won’t be happy with white earbuds, and they won’t be happy if forced to buy an adapter.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Let me be clear: I think Apple should keep the headphone jack. If they kill it, yes – it’s pitchfork time. The analog audio jack is the single most important connection in music and sound in a world that has become increasingly complex and proprietary. For once, we’re not nitpicking: this matters.

Now, is Apple pondering doing something this barbaric, this strategically unwise, this … um, stupid?

Yeah, possibly. I disagree with Mr. Tabini about the merits of such a move. But I think he’s got a reasonable argument for why Apple might really be doing it. I just think he ignores the reasons why Apple might – and I hope I’m right, and he’s wrong, for the good of audio humanity.

Would we survive? Probably. We’d all wind up buying big, stupid adapters just to do exactly the same thing we do now. iOS software is good enough that some of us would go through it anyway. Other musicians would wind up spending huge amounts of money on inferior, consumer-grade headphones from companies like Beats. Audio quality or convenience would suffer, one way or another, and you’d pay for the privilege of things being mostly worse.

It wouldn’t be the end of the world, or the end of iOS. But it would be a regression, and I do hope rational voices prevail at Apple, and it doesn’t happen.

There’s no point in getting angry about this until it actually happens. But now is a great time to point out just how bad it’d be. Because, at the very least, we can hope someone at Apple is reading. Lightning headphones and Bluetooth wireless are great – but not at the expense of one jack that makes the platform so great for music. And yes, Apple, the rabid pro audio users and music-making celebrities who stood by you in your darkest hours do keep a ready supply of pitchforks and torches, right in the supply closets in our studios, actually.

You know how all those complaints about floppy and SCSI turned out to be wrong, and Apple was wise to move into the future because it was better?

For that to work, you need the future to be better than the past. This time, it isn’t.

So, let’s wait it out and see if Apple has already worked that out.

My money is, they have.