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Why Android L wants to make your headphones obsolete

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Is Android going to eat your headphones?

Google has announced Android L, version “5.0” of the mobile phone operating system Apple owners love to hate. It has a ridiculous number of new features, which you can find out about in our Android L features list.

But one of the most interesting, and possibly most influential, features is one that Google didn't even mention directly – USB audio. Read on to find out why it might mean you have to dump your current headphones in a year or two.

What is USB audio?

USB audio as a feature in phones is something sound fans have wanted for a long time. It means a phone can pass its audio signal directly through its microUSB port, in pristine digital form, rather than the headphone jack.

Why would you want this? It means you bypass the phone's DAC, its digital-to-analogue converter. If your phone, laptop or PC makes your headphones sound rubbish, it's almost certainly because it has a cruddy DAC.

So far, this sounds like a real nerd's feature, right? The kind of thing only people who spend £100 on an HDMI cable would care about? Well, it's not.

The revolution is coming

There is already a precedent for this move to USB audio – Apple. It is reportedly working on a pair of headphones that uses a Lightning dock connector cable, not the 3.5mm jack cable we've all been using for decades.

Apple's purchase of Beats didn't happen because Tim Cook loves Dr. Dre's The Chronic album, you know.

Google's inclusion of native USB audio in Android L is a clear sign that USB headphones are the future. I would be surprised if there wasn't already an array of pairs in Google's Labs – especially as the Nexus 5 already supports USB audio output.

Soon your headphones will look musty, even if you just spent £300 on them.

Outrage or joy?

So, should you be angry about this? There are reasons to be.

By making current headphones effectively out of date, these companies can stimulate massive growth in the headphone market. It has been one of the few hugely growing areas in consumer electronics in the last few years, but even its growth has slowed of late.

USB headphones could hit the reset button. It would be worth hundreds of millions, especially if some top-end phones start to leave out the traditional headphone jack, forcing the issue.

At present it only seems like Apple would benefit from this – Google doesn't own a major headphone brand. But who says it won't in 12, 18 months?

And the extra DAC element of a USB headphone would let manufacturers charge even more for high-end headphones. We can imagine the “24-bit headphone” marketing already.

Still, there are reasons to be excited too. Letting you choose how much to spend on the DAC part of your system, not just the speakers – which is what headphones really are – will not just force development in this area, it will also rapidly erode prices. At present dedicated DACs are largely for hi-fi connoisseurs. They won't be in a year or two.

USB connection also frees-up headphone makers. Your phone could be used to power noise cancellation, integrated headphone amps – all sorts of things. We've often said that headphones don't age, but we're finally seeing something new. And that's pretty exciting.

When will this happen?

However, Google is one very important step behind Apple in this race, thanks to one thing – the USB plug. You can bet that we won't see many USB headphones until the USB 3.1 standard is introduced.

It makes the current USB 2.0 microUSB socket we all (well, most of us) use at present look flimsy, ugly and awkward. And it is. The USB 3.1, unsurprisingly, looks much more like a Lightning plug, and – unlike Lightning – is backwards compatible.  

When will it come? The design is reportedly to be finalised next month, so USB headphones may be on shelves sooner than you think.

Next, read our best headphones round-up

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