The End of the 3.5mm Headphone Jack? – The Science and Future of Audio Connectivity
Despite the moans and groans of music and podcast enthusiasts worldwide, we may very well be in an era that marks the end of the 3.5mm headphone jack. With announcements from the latest generation of smartphones, from the Essential to Google’s Pixel and even the iPhone, that are no longer going to ship with a 3.5mm audio input, consumers are now faced with a choice. They can either stay with older technology or take what feels like a significant leap out of their comfort zone and transition to using headphones that connect via a Type-C or lightning cable. To help you make this decision, today’s post will explore whether there’s a real or noticeable difference between AUX cables or the new varieties, and if so, why that might be the case.
How Audio is Processed
To understand why there may be a quality difference between using the 3.5mm standard headphones or ones equipped with Type-C or lightning plugs, we need to first explain how audio is processed. Back in the day, when you listened to the latest and greatest tunes on records or cassette tapes, audio was hard encoded. Take vinyl as an example. To make a record, a manufacturer imprints grooves on the circular disc. When you put the record on a player, the latter’s stylus flows across these grooves, creating vibrations which transform into audible sound.
When CDs and MP3s came along, music was encoded as data, a series of 1s and 0s which required software and hardware to translate into sound. To perform this function today, smartphones include a piece of technology called an audio codec, whose job it is to understand and convert input into digital data, and that digital data into sound. Audio codecs include a digital-to-analog (DAC) converter, which is the system that turns the data stored on your phone into sound from your earphones, and an analog-to-digital (ADC) converter, which does the opposite, translating your voice or other noise into digital data. An audio codec is often paired with an amplifier which augments sound moving in both directions.
Enter the 3.5mm Headphone Jack
Generally speaking, today’s 3.5mm headphones are rudimentary speaker systems. They are used to interpret amplified sound, sending that signal to their coils so as to move a set of drivers to create sound. You can read more about this process in some of our other blog posts. All of the conversion from analog to digital and vice versa happens in the smartphone itself, and then is sent via your headphone’s wires to be pumped out as sound. The result can sometimes be a loss of sound quality, depending on whether your smartphone has its own dedicated audio codec chip and the quality of your headphone’s materials.
The enduring popularity of the 3.5mm headphone jack comes from a simple mantra: it just works. No fumbling with dongles and jiggling connections. We’ve also all been a part of the AUX jack fan club for so long that change is nerve-wracking. So, why do it? Well, it depends on who you ask. Proponents argue that removing the jack has dramatically improved the look of smartphones, that there are superior alternative formats out there to be used like the Type-C or lightning cables, and that wireless will also define tomorrow’s audio listening. The suggestion is that this future is simply being pushed to the foreground faster than expected by Apple and others, although it was going to happen anyway. Detractors suggest that the 3.5mm is still a powerful tool, that its removal has had no impact on phone construction and design, and in reality, this is just an excuse for companies to sell more of their own proprietary dongles, wired headphones, or wireless earbuds. The truth, in all likelihood, sits somewhere in the middle of this debate.
Is There Any Difference between AUX, Type-C, and Lightning?
The short answer is sometimes. This switch means that instead of having conversion take place in the smartphone, digital data will be transmitted over a wire to the headphones which will have their own DAC-ADC codec. No more sending analog signals, resulting in possibly better sound. There are other benefits as well. First, USB opens the door to a range of signal transfer to headphones, no longer being limited to audio. Imagine having EQ, shuffle, and navigation buttons built right into your headset. Smartphones themselves may be able to be controlled via your headphones as well. Second, having conversion take place along the cable and in the headphones may lead to improved noise cancellation, thanks to a more stable power supply and greater capacity to integrate additional hardware and software into headphones.
The downside of the switch is that there will be a significant, and perhaps somewhat painful transition period. Those of us with professional grade audio hardware that run on the 3.5mm jack will find themselves in need of buying adaptors or replacement products. Having a single port in smartphones, in particular, brings up all sorts of questions about charging the device while doing other activities, like listening to music. Simply, there will definitely be growing pains.
The short summary for all of the above is that there are advantages and disadvantages to all audio playback hardware and approaches. Indeed, it may not actually matter all that much where your codec converter is located. The difference in audio quality is likely imperceptible to the average consumer. But, given what seems like the inevitability of the switch, it is important that we are all armed with the knowledge needed to make smart purchases. Perhaps it’s instead time to give up on wires together and move over to Bluetooth audio systems, which we’ve previously discussed in comparison to their connected colleagues. Take the time to learn about each format. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no rush.
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What type of headphone format do you use? What do you love or hate about the 3.5mm jack? Tell us in the comments below!