Lightning headphones could allow Apple to make slimmer iPhones by ditching 3.5mm headphone jack

Posted:
in iPhone edited June 2014
A new program designed to allow third-party manufacturers to build headphones that would connect to an iOS device via the Lightning port, rather than the legacy 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, could mean that the latter's days in Apple's supply chain are numbered.

The headphone jack is the thickest component of the iPhone 5s. | Image courtesy iFixit
The headphone jack is the thickest component of the iPhone 5s. | Image courtesy iFixit


Apple executives have never been afraid to pull the trigger on controversial choices to break from legacy technologies. The original iMac kickstarted the adoption of USB at the expense of ADB and the floppy drive; the MacBook Air made it acceptable to drop optical drives and, later, spinning hard disks.

Each of those decisions was made under the rubric of simplicity and svelteness. Fewer, smaller, faster ports give Jony Ive and company more room to experiment with radical designs and users gain a more tightly-integrated ecosystem.

Following their announcement of a new headphone module for the all-digital Lightning connector at WWDC, Apple could now be on the verge of killing perhaps the most legacy of legacy technologies: the analog audio jack.


Slide from Apple's WWDC session on accessories.


Lightning already has blood on its contacts. When Apple ditched the old 30-pin dock connector -- itself made ubiquitous by the blockbuster success of the iPod and iPhone -- in favor of its digital successor, the company orphaned millions of dock connector-equipped accessories almost overnight.

An oil tanker's worth of virtual ink was spilled debating the wisdom of that move, and any encroachment on the 3.5-millimeter audio jack is sure to bring an even more massive backlash. Why, then, would Apple even consider it?

For one, it could make headphones smarter. A bidirectional digital link with Apple's uber-powerful handheld computers could make for better noise cancellation, improved audio quality, and even turn them into biometric sensors.

Headphones could also be lighter, drawing power from an iPhone instead of an internal battery. Or, if they do pack their own battery, they could be configured as auxiliary power units and eliminate the need for bulky battery cases.

The headphone jack, outlined in red, takes up significant internal volume. | Source: iFixit
The headphone jack, outlined in red, takes up significant internal volume. | Source: iFixit


The real victory, though, would come in hardware design. Because of the manner in which connectors are made, designers must account for a seating area around the jack, not just the jack itself.

In the case of the 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, Apple put this seating area at around 6 millimeters. Even the controversially minimalistic connector on Apple's own EarPods comes in at around 5 millimeters, a full millimeter thicker than the first-generation Lightning connector -- and the company promised yet smaller Lightning form factors at WWDC.

The entire iPhone 5s, in comparison, is just 7.1 millimeters thick.

The headphone jack also consumes significant internal volume. As devices grow larger, so too do their power requirements, which means companies must fit larger batteries to maintain runtime. Apple is already said to have run into trouble making batteries thin enough for its next-generation iPhone, and the precious cubic millimeters saved by removing the headphone jack could be put to use housing other components to make way for the battery.

A comparison of the relative thickness of the headphone and Lightning jacks | Source: iFixit
A comparison of the relative thickness of the headphone and Lightning jacks | Source: iFixit


"Best of all, for the engineering team to make a product like this, it's 80 percent smaller," Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller said when introducing the Lightning connector alongside the iPhone 5. "It's a huge difference in the world's thinnest smartphone."

With the exception of the iPhone 3G, Apple has traditionally unveiled an all-new iPhone design every two years. The handset is widely expected to receive its latest makeover -- with 3.5 millimeter jack in tow -- this fall, with the next refresh due in 2016 if the schedule holds. That would give developers and accessory makers as long as two full years to prepare for a transition.

If Apple does choose to lose the headphone jack in favor of the Lightning connector, it's likely to be the most contentious decision they've ever made. Competitors will surely excoriate Apple in the press, though Apple might be able to deflect some of the hostility in the marketplace by strategically deploying Lightning headphones through its new $3 billion Beats subsidiary.

In the end, it's still all about simplicity and svelteness.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 206
    adonissmuadonissmu Posts: 1,771member
    Uhhh ohh heads are going to explode.
  • Reply 2 of 206
    Oh god. Before long I'm going to have to repurpose a drawer specifically for Apple adapters.
  • Reply 3 of 206
    launfalllaunfall Posts: 38member
    Bad idea and not feasible. Lightening is still too expensive, many people have incompatible headphones they paid a lot of money for, Lightening has gained virtually no traction in the marketplace, the plugs fall out at the slightest jarring...I could go on and on. This is one of those "upgrades" Apple should not try to cram down our throats.
  • Reply 4 of 206
    philboogiephilboogie Posts: 7,397member

    <div align="center"><img src=http://photos.appleinsidercdn.com/gallery/9499-1259-headphonejack-internal-l.png alt="The headphone jack, outlined in orange, takes up significant internal volume. | Source: iFixit" />
    <span class="minor2 small gray">The headphone jack, outlined in orange, takes up significant internal volume. | Source: iFixit</span></div>.

    Outlined in orange? Darn, the jack is already so small we can't even see it¡

    Kidding aside, I think this is great news. The possibilities are vast, and Apple gets to keep on making the iPhone even thinner. And with the current Broadcom chip which has an FM radio on board they may just add an antenna to their headphones and 3rd party can follow that lead. Good news.
  • Reply 5 of 206
    jmgregory1jmgregory1 Posts: 449member

    Apple needs to focus some attention on eliminating headphone wires altogether, although the lightning headphone jack is a step in the right direction.

  • Reply 6 of 206
    philboogiephilboogie Posts: 7,397member
    launfall wrote: »
    ?..the plugs fall out at the slightest jarring...

    Wait, what?
  • Reply 6 of 206
    I hope the charging cable will provide a passthrough because many times I like to charge the phone while listening to music at my desk.
  • Reply 8 of 206
    No this is cool, hate the plug. But how will they differentiate the ports? Or does this mean no simultaneous charging and headphone use? I would prefer a mini MagSafe type port.
  • Reply 9 of 206
    snailersnailer Posts: 49member
    bluetooth?
  • Reply 10 of 206
    mpantonempantone Posts: 1,342member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by jmgregory1 View Post

     

    Apple needs to focus some attention on eliminating headphone wires altogether, although the lightning headphone jack is a step in the right direction.


    Bluetooth works, yes?

  • Reply 11 of 206
    retrogustoretrogusto Posts: 654member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post





    If Apple does choose to lose the headphone jack in favor of the Lightning connector, it's likely to be the most contentious decision ever made by the company. 

    Hmm, I dunno about that. I think ousting Jobs in 1985 might be a contender for that title.

  • Reply 12 of 206

    Oh, I just have to reply....  Get rid of it, but two things to consider before doing so.

     

    1. I almost always have my phone plugged in with headphones on.  If I have wireless charging, then I support this.  If I have headphones that aren't bulky and sounds great, again I support this.

    2. I'm certain there would be an adapter that would be offered for legacy headphones.

     

    I say go for it.

  • Reply 13 of 206
    gqbgqb Posts: 1,934member

    Every time I see 'slimmer' for the iPhone, I also think "more difficult to put great optics into the camera'. 

  • Reply 14 of 206
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 30,871member
    launfall wrote: »
    Bad idea and not feasible. Lightening is still too expensive, many people have incompatible headphones they paid a lot of money for, Lightening has gained virtually no traction in the marketplace, the plugs fall out at the slightest jarring...I could go on and on. This is one of those "upgrades" Apple should not try to cram down our throats.

    I only agree with you because of the headphones we already have. I Grado phones which cost several hundred bucks, and wouldn't want to have to stop using them. But I would like to see this as an addition. And, by the way, Lightning plugs don't fall out all that easily. Often, a pull that will remove it, will break the small headphone plug in the socket.
  • Reply 15 of 206
    jfc1138jfc1138 Posts: 3,090member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by jmgregory1 View Post

     

    Apple needs to focus some attention on eliminating headphone wires altogether, although the lightning headphone jack is a step in the right direction.


    Aren't there Bluetooth headphones presently?

     

    The problem I see with anything wireless is the potential for further deminishing of the fidelity of the sound.... though it would be tempting to get rid of that tether.

  • Reply 16 of 206
    adhiradhir Posts: 50member
    @jmgregory1: bluetooth headphones?
  • Reply 17 of 206

    Could this be part of the reason why Apple purchased Beats? And could this already be in the works for iPhone 6? hmmmm

  • Reply 18 of 206
    gqbgqb Posts: 1,934member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by g4towerman View Post



    No this is cool, hate the plug. But how will they differentiate the ports? Or does this mean no simultaneous charging and headphone use? I would prefer a mini MagSafe type port.

    It would use the same port, requiring pass-through adapters if you want to listen a charge at the same time. There would be no 2nd Lightning port.

  • Reply 19 of 206
    ttollertonttollerton Posts: 152member
    The acquisition of beats headphones is beginning to make perfect sense. If they're moving to the lightning connector exclusively, then they'll need a line of headphones that's immediately compatible with the lightning connector.
  • Reply 20 of 206
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    launfall wrote: »
    Bad idea and not feasible. Lightening is still too expensive, many people have incompatible headphones they paid a lot of money for, Lightening has gained virtually no traction in the marketplace, the plugs fall out at the slightest jarring...I could go on and on. This is one of those "upgrades" Apple should not try to cram down our throats.

    1) There is nothing preventing a simple adapter being used for 3.5mm headphones to work.

    2) In what way is the Lightning connector expensive? In what way has it not gained traction in the marketplace? It sounds like you're confusing Thunderbolt with Lightning.
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