Intel defends the imminent death of the classic headphone jack


One of the most persistent rumours about the upcoming iPhone 7 is that Apple will be killing off the 3.5mm headphone jack once and for all. On one hand, this makes perfect sense, given the analogue audio input has been chugging along since the 1960s. Look hard at your phone and you’ll find very little else with that kind of vintage within it – maybe not even the person holding it.

On the other hand, there’s a reason for that: the 3.5mm headphone jack has become the universal standard, embraced by almost every audio device in the world. As the majority of headphones sold will be plugged into a smartphone or tablet at some point in their life, it stands to reason that both parties would embrace the ageing technology for maximum compatibility.

“You’ll find very little else with that kind of vintage within your phone – maybe not even the person holding it”

So it’s no wonder that people are against Apple’s rumoured intention to remove the 3.5mm jack, even if it does shave off a few millimetres. But the company has had some support from an unexpected source. Reporting from the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco on Tuesday, CNET writes that Intel’s Brad Saunders and Rahman Ismail offered some strong reasons why the time to wave goodbye to the 3.5mm jack may finally be here.

Unsurprisingly, though, it’s USB Type-C, not Apple’s own Lightning connector, that gets the endorsement from Intel.

“The right connector for audio”

It’s not just that leaving room for a 3.5mm port and the internal circuitry takes up space inside and outside the handset, the two explained. The analogue port can disrupt any handset’s other electronics, meaning designers have to go out of their way to ensure that doesn’t happen.

But it’s not simply that the 3.5mm standard is bad or outdated, they argue, but that the alternatives are better. The work that the company is doing, Saunders claims, “will really make USB Type-C the right connector for audio”.

USB Type-C audio, they argue, will offer the kind of features you see on expensive audio gear as the digital heavy lifting will be handled by the different connector and the handset, effectively making good earphones cheaper. Noise cancellation or audio effects: “all of those come into play if audio is in a digital domain,” explains Saunders.

There’s also video output. Improved USB video technology is currently under development that will output video, putting the “Universal” in “Universal Serial Bus”. The advantage over DisplayPort and HDMI is, once again, the ubiquitousness of the connection, meaning you could plug into any USB hub or port and output video. While it’s no substitute for the high-end performance of HDMI, Ismail concedes, “it’s good enough to do productivity work or watch movies”.

The elephant in the room, however, is the knock-on impact on battery life. USB controller chips use power, which could be a big deal to smartphones, where 24 hours of life is already a pipe dream in most cases. This is why the USB audio standard has power management as a big part of it, ensuring that features are switched off when not in use. Saunders claims that “the difference in battery life is negligible”.

Is that enough?

While all of these may be good points, and moving away from the 3.5mm jack would doubtless make phone designers very happy, it’s hard to see any of these points in isolation prying my headphones from out of my ears, and I suspect others will feel the same.

“They’ve been so effective at hiding the technology’s deficiencies that we consumers just can’t see the problem”

Out of necessity, hardware manufacturers have danced around the very real difficulties of the ageing analogue technology for years, and as a result – as a consumer – these benefits are a tough sell. Great, I can get cheaper headphones that sound better: but if I’m a real audiophile, I’ve already spent a fortune on great buds to do that anyway, at this point. I can output video? Again, if I care about that, I probably already have a solution in place, with an adapter of some kind. And as for the technical headaches that the 3.5mm jack creates, that feels very much like someone else’s problem.

Still, someone has to be the first manufacturer to kill off the 3.5mm jack, and if the benefits are as great as Intel promises, then maybe others will follow suit. At the moment, though, it seems like hardware manufacturers have been way too accommodating in working around the problems with the headphone jack. They’ve been so effective at hiding the technology’s deficiencies that we consumers just can’t see the problem, and will likely vote with our collective wallets when someone tries to make our accumulated expensive accessories redundant.

Image: Toshiyuki Imai used under Creative Commons

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