Lightning: Exciting or scary?
Rumours that Apple is to get rid of the iPhone's headphone jack have circulated for ages. It all came to a head when Apple bought Beats way back in 2014.
Everyone assumed within months we’d see Beats headphones using Lightning cables rather than 3.5mm jacks, and that the next iPhone would have a single Lightning socket, no headphone jack. Guess what: it didn’t happen.
But it will, probably. The iPhone 7 may go Lightning-only. For most of you this transition isn’t going to be particularly fun.
We’re going to look at exactly why later. Let’s start with why a Lightning audio connection might be good, though.
It outsources audio quality
To understand what getting rid of the iPhone headphone jack really means, we need to see how our phones currently deal with audio. All music on your phone is digital, but in order to turn it into something that can be pumped into a pair of headphones, we need to make it an analogue signal.
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This happens with a DAC, the part a 3.5mm jack-less iPhone 7 would skip (it would still use one of the internal speaker, mind).
A DAC turns digital data into waveforms, the stuff sound is made of. By getting rid of the 3.5mm analogue socket, Apple is putting the job of that digital-to-analogue conversion outside the phone.
You see, as advanced as the Lightning socket is, it can’t transmit analogue audio.
The most obvious solution is that headphones will start incorporating DACs. Lots already do, in fact. All Bluetooth wireless headphones use DACs, and Philips seemed as convinced of the Lightning headphone revolution as we were: its M2L headphones use a Lightning port rather than a 3.5mm one, and were released in early 2015.
While the quality of a DAC is much closer to a case of good/bad, where amplifiers and headphones have an audio 'personality' that is quite subjective, this will let headphone-makers take even more responsibility for sound quality. And since any amplification happens after the DAC conversion, the only part not left to them is what you put in, the quality of your files.
With enough budget and the right ears making the decisions, you can expect some digital headphones to sound fantastic.
For high-end audio fans this means we’ll see setups that pack the sort of DAC and headphone amp combo you normally have to buy a separate box for. Will they be cheap or light? Probably not, but Apple’s sideways embracing of this sort of thing should see lots more accessible hardware appear.
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Even the slick Oppo HA-2 headphone amp is basically another phone's worth of hardware
This makes way for Apple Hi Res music
A move to digital output audio for the iPhone and the introduction of iTunes Hi Res support would also work beautifully hand-in-hand. However, this is more a question of marketing than capability.
We’d be surprised if current iPhone hardware wasn’t already capable of decoding 24-bit 96KHz digital files, but it is not allowed to.
However, that it can't right now can be used to Apple's advantage. It can then sell the Lightning connection for audio as a wholesale audio upgrade, the first way to get Hi Res audio from an iPhone.
What this would mean in reality is upgrading the iTunes library’s wares from 16-bit to 24-bit, most likely at 96KHz sampling rate. iPhones can currently handle lossless audio, but not 24-bit stuff.
This move was rumoured for years before anyone was even talking about iPhones switching to using Lightning connectors. Does it rely on a headphone jack-less iPhone? No, but Apple's willingness to really push for a Hi Res iTunes library might.
Unfortunately, that’s about all we as the average consumers have to benefit from. Here are the bad bits.
Lightning headphones will be incompatible with other hardware
The big issue is that Lightning headphones that buy into the idea entirely won’t work with other hardware. There are a few issues involved. First, many Lightning headphones may not have a 3.5mm input at all. It goes against the whole idea of keeping things slick and simple. So how are you going to plug them into anything else?
Then there’s power. These headphones have a DAC and potentially a separate headphone amplifier, both of which need a power source. When attached to an iOS device it’ll leech the necessary power through the cable. But what if we don't want to use an iPhone or iPad?
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Even if the headphones have a 3.5mm input for other sources, they’ll need either their own power source (a battery) or a switch to bypass both the DAC and amplifier, turning them into the regular sort of headphones most of us own today.
To use your favourite headphones you’ll need an idiot box
Then we need to consider things from the other way around. How are you meant to plug your normal headphones into your iPhone 7?
This will mean Apple will likely release a little adapter cable that includes a DAC. This will act as a middle-man between your iPhone 7 and your standard headphones, performing the digital-to-analogue conversion we mentioned earlier.
The good news is that needn’t be too expensive. Apple’s own Lightning port to 30-pin adapter, released when the Lightning connector appeared in 2012, features a Wolfson WM8533 DAC and costs £25. It’s not ideal, but isn’t necessarily a killer sort of cost when you’re desperate to own the next iPhone. Likely cost: around £500.
Still, it'd also be a pain to use. No-one wants a little box dangling off their phone, do they?
The iPhone 6S already has a great DAC
We’re in real danger of ending up with hardware that’s actually worse than what we have right now too. The iPhone 6S has three separate Cirrus Audio chips that deal with sound. Apple never goes as far as to say what these chips actually do, but a few different people who have torn the phone apart know they’re there. You get a 338S00105 and two 338S1285s. Catchy, right?
Independent testing into the accuracy, dynamic range and signal to noise ratio of the iPhone 6S show that Apple has made big improvements since earlier generations. Its DAC is actually comparable in quality to some standalone portable DACs when you look at the numbers.
There won’t be good ultra-cheap earphones
Maybe for the people reading this willing to spend a few hundred pounds on earphones, this isn’t a big issue. Those sets will use good DACs. However, for the many who still think spending that much is a crazy idea, it is problematic.
Lots of people buy headphones costing £10-20. Without using very poor-quality components, we're not sure that would be possible with a Lightning set. First, there's the cost of the DAC chip, a good quality example will cost significantly more than the component cost of the drivers in these kinds of headphones.
Then there's Apple certification, MFi or Made for iPod (/iPhone). Where a 3.5mm jack is a generic standard, the Lightning connector is a proprietary one secured with a chip designed to make unlicensed use impossible (or at least very difficult). In 2014 Apple changed the licensing cost from a percentage (1.8 to 8 depending on use) to a flat $4, or $8 for a pass-through cable. A $4 licensing fee in a £15 product previously not subject to one is tough for any manufacturer to swallow.
Expect cheap headphones to get more expensive, and for ultra-budget earphones sound worse than they do right now. Not only will they have to use crappy drivers, but crappy DACs too. Manufacturers may also increase the price of non-Lightning headphones to both 'subsidise' the Apple set, and keep pricing structures clear. Even Apple haters may feel a hit.
Of course, if the iPhone 7 goes jack-free, you can bet Apple will include a pair of revised EarPod earphones that use a Lightning connector as standard. Spending extra is not mandatory. However, there are several things to dislike about EarPods, particularly in their current form.
First, they leak sound and barely isolate at all. This makes them totally impractical for the kind of use most of us need. Perhaps people just don’t use public transport in Cupertino.
Apple is going to need to totally redesign them anyway, most likely fitting a custom DAC chip into, perhaps, the remote housing. There’s no such practical issue with on-ear and full-size headphones, of course. You can just bung all the electronics into the cup, as makers of Bluetooth headphones tend to do.
Even if Apple's making these EarPods, are we going to get the same level of electronics as a £600 phone in a £20 pair of earphones? Doubt it.
Apple is always the winner
This move could be a big money-maker for Apple, letting it rake-in licensing fees for a big chunk of a headphone market. Not to mention being able to remove several chips from the iPhone 7, and charging more for accessories that incorporate similar, or perhaps lower-quality hardware.
If Apple manages its messaging well enough, it may well end up keeping most fans happy. After all, is there an area of tech accused more regularly of imagined 'snake oil' benefits than audio?
We've not even touched on the potentially most annoying side effect of Lightning headphones: not being able to charge your phone while listening to music.
Still, if this actually means Apple has been ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into wireless charging plates that'll recharge your iPhone 7 wirelessly in 15 minutes, forget everything we've said. We're in.
Do you think this could be the direction that all smartphones are going in? Let us know in the comments section below