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ReThink Reviews

Why Apple Killing the Headphone Jack Has Been a Non-Issue

How you use it > How you think about it

This September will mark the two-year anniversary of Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and probably all future iPhones. Rumored for months before it was announced, Apple’s abandonment of the venerable, unpatented 3.5mm jack was perhaps the most controversial, rage-inducing decision in the history of modern technology, with swimming pools of digital ink angrily spilled on the subject. A petition garnering over 300,000 signatures circulated demanding that Apple keep the jack so as not to create “mountains of electronic waste” when standard headphones became obsolete. Tech pundits saw the move as further proof that Apple was in decline and lost without Steve Jobs, and a loud contingent of iPhone users vowed that their next smartphone would be an Android with a 3.5mm jack. Nilay Patel of the Verge famously called the removal of the jack “user-hostile and stupid”, and when he reviewed the iPhone 7, he mentioned the missing jack an astonishing 31 times. In the pros and cons section of his review, three of the seven negatives for the iPhone 7 related to there being no headphone jack.

Now almost two years later, we know the truth: For the vast majority of iPhone users, removing the headphone jack has been a non-issue. And predictably, many phonemakers have followed suit in removing the jack from their phones, which now only earns a cursory mention (far fewer than 31) in most reviews.

So what happened? How did the most hated decision in all of tech fizzle so quickly into nothing?

If you read my article about AirPods, you’d rightly guess that I ascribe much of this to what I call the Three Stages of Apple Criticism, where the tech media and Apple critics greet decisions made by Apple first with anger and ridicule, then with criticizing Apple users for accepting these decisions, and finally by quietly acknowledging that maybe Apple’s decisions weren’t so horrible after all, especially after the rest of the industry follows along. Though considering the hyperbolic sound and fury surrounding the rumors of the disappearing jack, there was almost no way that the reality of a jackless iPhone could live up to the apocalyptic predictions. The fact that Apple includes what you need to make the transition away from the jack with every new iPhone undoubtedly softened the blow considerably, if not eliminated it completely. By including Lightning EarPods to replace your audio jack EarPods, and a 3.5mm-to-Lightning dongle so you can continue using whichever wired headphones you already own, most iPhone users probably barely noticed that a transition had occurred at all.

Then there’s the possibility Apple critics and audio jack devotees are loathe to admit: Apple was right that wired audio is on its way out. Just go to any gym, airport, or college campus and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Wireless headphone sales surpassed corded headphones back in 2016, and it’s no secret why. The ease, freedom, and convenience of not needing to be physically connected to an audio source is so compelling that it’s worth the compromises, like having another device to charge, dropped/flaky Bluetooth connections, and the hassle of pairing headsets to devices (though Apple has largely solved these last two with their custom W1 chip). When I think about going back to wired headphones, I think of this fanny pack I used to wear around the house and yard when I wanted to listen to something using headphones but didn’t have pockets.

This is not the future.

Degraded audio due to Bluetooth compression might be an issue if your ears are sensitive enough to detect it, but most people can’t, and even expensive audiophile-quality headphones are making the switch to wireless. It’s easy to imagine a very-near future when virtually all but the cheapest (or included) headphones will be wireless, especially as the price of Bluetooth headphones continues to drop as more no-name Chinese brands flood the market. Wireless headphones are the logical conclusion to personal audio, and it won’t be long until corded headphones are considered a retro novelty for luddites or the most serious audiophiles — much like vinyl records are today — and will be equally incomprehensible to younger generations. In that sense, if you had already gone wireless before the iPhone 7 or were considering making the switch, having a smartphone with an audio jack you probably won’t ever use isn’t a sacrifice at all.

All of this points to what I think is the biggest reason behind overblown tech kerfuffles that end up being nothing, such as Apple’s removal of the floppy disc and CD-ROM drives, the demise of the headphone jack and, more recently, the iPhone X screen “notch” — the tech punditry is often hopelessly out of touch with average consumers and how they use and think about consumer technology.

I used to mock people who used their iPads as cameras outside their homes. Why would someone be so dumb as to cart around something so big and awkward just to take pictures? But I stopped thinking that and became much more understanding when I considered that, for many of these people, their iPads were probably the best digital cameras they owned, and it was the easiest way for them to share their photos over email and social media, especially if they didn’t own a computer. Also, some people really like having a giant viewfinder, especially if their eyesight is bad.

Is Spike Lee “Do[ing] the Right Thing”?

Similarly, while I much prefer Apple’s iOS, I don’t consider Android users to be my enemy or see Android vs. iOS as some sort of holy war. While there is a small percentage of Android power users who love the customization Android offers, and others who prefer and need the hardware options and features of certain Android phones, the vast majority of Android users around the world choose Android phones based on price, which is a huge factor for people in developing countries and/or with limited budgets (in these ways, Android is very much like what Windows was during the rise and spread of PCs). Even the cheapest Android phones have cameras, email, phone, SMS, web browsers, and can run apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, WeChat, Angry Birds, Spotify, etc., providing users with much of the smartphone experience. I enjoy a spirited conversation about the pros and cons of operating systems as much as the next tech nerd, and I have strong reasons for preferring iOS, but if Android users are happy using Android phones and accept their compromises, why should I be angry with them?

When it comes to Apple’s removal of the headphone jack, the unmistakable message from tech pundits was, “All of us should be furious about this decision, and even more furious at Apple for making it.” Personally, I’m not 100% convinced that getting rid of the headphone jack is a good thing. In this BuzzFeed article, Apple says that eliminating the jack gave the iPhone 7 an extra two hours of battery use, a camera with optical image stabilization, better placement for the Taptic Engine, and made it possible to get IP67 waterproofing certification, which strike me as great tradeoffs for a jack I am doing fine without. But there are Android phones that have some of these features while retaining the jack. Did Apple need to remove the 3.5mm jack to achieve these improvements? We are left to wonder since Apple will never make that phone.

Also, I’m not saying that nixing the headphone jack hasn’t caused any inconveniences for anyone. For the hearing impaired, losing the jack means that a lot of hearing aid equipment becomes unusable without a dongle. Once or twice, I’ve wanted to use wired headphones while charging my iPhone 7, and I would be annoyed if I couldn’t simultaneously charge my iPhone and listen to music through my car stereo’s AUX jack (if mine had one) without buying a dongle. There are tons of other useful accessories (like microphones) that use the audio jack. Dongles cost money (unless it’s the free one Apple includes with iPhones) and they can get lost or broken, both of which are hassles that didn’t exist before. If you use several different headphones, the price of dongles could add up.

But all that said, losing the headphone jack has had basically zero impact on my day-to-day life. Maybe sharing my headphone world with you and explaining how I use them will show why.

My headphone world

1. AirPods — I use these for at least 3 hours every damn day while walking my dog, doing chores, calling friends/family, and watching TV after my wife has gone to sleep.

2. EarPods (Lightning) — I keep these at my desk (where I spend much of my day) in case I make/receive a call and don’t want to have to pair my AirPods. This maybe happens 2–3 times a week.

3. Beats Solo3 — I’m not a big Beats fan, but I got these for free when I bought my iMac. I sometimes use them for TV, and my wife uses them when watching TV while I’m in the room doing something else. Aside from that, I use them corded (with a Lightning dongle) when I’m making music on my iPhone (rare) or when I’m on a plane for music or movies (rare).

4. EarPods (3.5mm jack with Lightning dongle) — I keep these in the car in case I need to make a call while driving. I don’t drive much, so this is extremely rare.

So for all of my use cases, I need two dongles I very rarely use, and could most likely get away with just the one that came with my iPhone 7 if I didn’t mind moving it around. But since I leave the dongles plugged into the cords of the headphones I (rarely) use them with, removing the jack has caused virtually no change in how I use my iPhone for audio.

Are there more occasions where losing the headphone jack could potentially be annoying? Sure, and if I think about these hypothetical situations, I do get somewhat annoyed. What if I only have my Lightning EarPods with me and want to plug them into my laptop? What if I want to play music from my phone on a speaker or stereo system that doesn’t have Bluetooth? Back in the iPod days, I used to carry a host of cords and adapters (before they were called dongles) with me whenever I visited friends or traveled so I could play music from my iPod through any sound system I came across. That included a headphone jack splitter, a 3.5mm to RCA adapter, a 3.5mm six-foot extension cord, a female-to-female 3.5mm adapter to connect cords and adapters together, and even my trusty 3.5mm to cassette adapter for car tape decks and stereos with neither AUX or RCA inputs. And you thought carrying a two-inch dongle was inconvenient!

The thing is, these hypothetical inconveniences caused by killing the headphone jack are only annoying for me when I think about them, since I am almost never confronted with them in my everyday life. If I based my feelings about Apple dropping the audio jack on my thoughts and speculation about the hassles it could potentially cause, I might be upset. But if I base my feelings on my lived experience having a smartphone with no headphone jack, losing the jack doesn’t matter at all.

This is where tech writers get in trouble. When writing about a rumored feature in a product that doesn’t yet exist, all writers can do is think about them — and, in the case of losing the audio jack, get more and more worked up about it until it gets blown vastly out of proportion in their heads. By publishing these overheated projections before they have a chance to use the feature, these writers can do a real disservice to their readers by convincing them that a minor change is way more important than it will be in actual use. After reading a post like Patel’s about how losing the audio jack is nothing but an act of sheer villainy, a reader who trusts Patel might conclude that not only will they not buy an iPhone 7, but that they will never buy another Apple product again so as not to support a company that would inflict such an absolute evil upon the world, when the truth is that it would most likely have little to no impact on the reader at all. Journalists should be trying to help their readers by giving them truthful information and thoughtful commentary, not abuse readers’ trust with breathless, hyperbolic predictions and “hot takes” based on incomplete or incorrect information.

When I used to carry around all those cords and adapters for my iPod, it was because I wanted to be able to share my music with others or play it louder for myself through larger speakers. That gear and the audio jack that made it possible were a means to those ends, and while I had my favorites and loved that they allowed me to accomplish those ends, it doesn’t mean I loved that stuff and the hassle of carrying it around in and of itself. If you told me back then that there was a way I could achieve those same ends wirelessly without cords or adapters, I would have happily dumped all that gear in a box to hopefully never be seen again, which is exactly what has happened now that wireless audio is a reality.

The audio jack and wired headphones were a needed thing because there were no other options to send audio. But now there is, and the alternative is already so much better in most ways despite there being so much room for improvement. We should all be respectful and appreciative of the audio jack, and its longevity is a testament to what great technology it is. But defending it and romanticizing it when the vast majority of people can be delighted and better served by superior modern alternatives seems like the result of wrong-headed nostalgia and obsessing over hypothetical scenarios, not a desire to help readers make the best decisions for themselves. Because in 2018, complaining about smartphones losing the 3.5mm jack is actually advocating for more wires — which get tangled, snagged, frayed, require you to be attached to a device, and can lead to devices getting damaged when they accidentally get yanked to the floor or off your head. And for audio, we simply don’t need wires and the problems that go with them anymore.

You know what would be a real issue worth getting outraged about in 2018 and beyond? If Apple put the headphone jack back in iPhones but decreased their battery life. Because the battery is something you actually use every day.

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Jonathan Kim

Used to be a film critic, now writes about tech (mostly Apple), and sometimes woodworking