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Why Android L wants to make your headphones obsolete

Andrew Williams by

Why Android L wants to make your headphones obsolete

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By making current headphones effectively out of date, these companies can stimulate massive growth in the headphone market.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

Go to comments


June 25, 2014, 10:14 pm

Pretty much I avoid all things Apple, but their latest connector is absolute genius. Small, robust, symmetrical, easy to manipulate, all things that micro USB is not. USB 3.1 needs to be at least as good. That is more important than clinging to backwards compatibility.

Martin Turner

June 25, 2014, 11:56 pm

I'm not sure if I'm missing the point, or the author of the article is. You have to have a Digital to Analog converter somewhere in the chain. The USB option certainly adds flexibility, and will mean that owners of bargain-basement phones can choose headphones with a better D to A than would have been in a cheap phone, but that is as far as this gets us.

A poor D to A converter certainly isn't helping anyone, but it's the acoustic design of the headphones themselves which has the second biggest impact on audio quality. The first biggest impact is the fact that you are listening through headphones, which intrinsically cannot deliver the sound that good loudspeakers do.

As for 24 bit headphones — playing a 16bit MP3 file through 24 bit will not sound any different from playing it through 16bit. In any case, the actual dynamic range of almost everything except classical music is more like 6bit.

I applaud Google for offering a digital audio out, but anyone buying USB headphones in the belief that they will give a better listening experience than similarly priced analogue headphones is going to be disappointed.


June 26, 2014, 2:26 am

What if you want to keep your device charged while you watch a film with headphones on?
If we have to start buying double gang extention sockets (like electrical cables) we are becoming even more cluttered and then there is the possibility of some sort of signal degradation.
I know that some Galaxys come with two differing USB sockets but I doubt you can connect both and can mobiles handle USB input & output simultaneously?


June 26, 2014, 7:53 am

Absolutely correct Martin. But just think of how much money stands to be made by selling "digital" headphones (if Beats can make a fortune selling headphones which fail any test of acoustic fidelity). I mean, "digital" headphones, just wow, they have to be better than the old analogue ones, right? Take my money. And what's that you say, this year's model has more bits? Take my money again.


June 26, 2014, 7:56 am

wireless charging? Or (presumably) bluetooth headphones?
How does bluetooth play with digital audio out? I don't see why it shouldn't work, but I've long since given up understanding all the bluetooth profiles.


June 26, 2014, 9:11 am

Hi Martin,

I'm very much a believer that people should buy good headphones before they buy a DAC or headphone amp. However, once you get to a certain level (when you're spending at least £100-plus), the DAC can be the weak link in certain cases.

Once worry is that, as you say, this whole thing is ripe for misinformation on the part of headphone marketeers. We'll have to see how bad this one gets... but you can always come and find our headphone reviews to see whether they're really any good ;)

Person chap

June 27, 2014, 3:41 am

Right. It's all a constant effort by manufacturers for people to spend more money on more s*** they don't need to enhance their life. People lived for decades without high quality audo. How did everyone manage for the last 50 years? Suddenly we need a new format for better audio quality?! Every time I got on a long haul plane I was given $1 chinese made headphones. Which 70% of passengers just use! If 70% are too lazy to bring real headphones, then what hope is there for USB audio? What's more important, high quality audio or a phone that has a battery that lasts all day!? You can't do much with flat phone battery, no matter how good your bloody headphones!

Person chap

June 27, 2014, 3:44 am

I disagree. I think there is huge value in the fact that we finally have one common format, so people who like to travel outside of their house can know there's a good chance someone else will be able to lend them a charger.


June 27, 2014, 6:39 am

I agree with what you say, and the bad old days of myriad connectors, voltages and polarities seems like a nightmare now. But neither can we remain stuck in time. So if at least we all march in step then we hopefully get the best of both - a common format, but one that evolves for the better (the fly in the ointment is that without the variety of competing solutions, how does evolution take place...)
In any case, the charger format can remain in common, it is only the phone connection at issue. Just as now, both Apple and others all use a common charger, you only need to pack your own cable.
In any case I guess wireless charging will take over, and hopefully a decent common format will evolve.


June 27, 2014, 4:38 pm

I agree. I mocked Apple when they made such a fuss about the Lightning connector at the iPhone 5 launch but it really makes a huge difference to robustness and it's easier to use. I've had at least three products (a tablet and two phones) which I've had to chuck because of broken or flaky microusb ports.

Darshit Mulani

June 27, 2014, 7:13 pm

I am purchasing g Gamecom 780 so it is a good news for me :D

Prem Desai

July 1, 2014, 11:47 am

Sorry mate - disagree with you.

The lightning connect may be genius but it's pointless and just a money spinner for Apple and a way for them to take control.

By implementing a chip inside each connector, each cable manufacturer has to license their product with Apple. Same for speaker docks, etc.

At the end of the day, the lightning connector is not much more than a USB connector - it has a USB at one end after all.

What Apple should have done is to implement the chip in every lightning connector inside the device itself - saving consumers a load of money and hassle.

By implementing a newer connector and much more expensive, people now have to take their charging cable with them wherever they go. Hardly an ideal solution.

I'm not in love with USB but it more than does the job and is cheaper than chips - literally.

Prem Desai

July 1, 2014, 11:49 am

What we need is not the USB and lightning formats of present - the next generation of connector should be the magnetic latches (like on some laptops).

The sticky out part of headphones, USB and lightning is just too fragile.


July 1, 2014, 1:07 pm

Prem, I never meant to imply use the actual Apple design. I only meant look at what is good about it and learn - make something "at least as good". Chips, and royalties to Apple, no way!

Prem Desai

July 1, 2014, 3:43 pm

Fair enough - credit where it's due. Apple or otherwise.

Anonymous 00007

September 26, 2014, 1:51 am

The author of this article is a little bit misguided. Audio that reaches our ears are analog in nature, our ears have no built-in DAC. There certainly is little reward in replacing the 3.5mm connector with a micro-USB connector. Somewhere along the line, you need a DAC to convert that digital signal to "usable" audio. Replace the crappy built-in DAC in today's smartphones. That's the use of USB DACs - plug-in the USB DAC through the phone's micro-USB port (assuming that the phone supports USB Audio Class) and plug your good old 3.5mm headphone at the other end. That's it. Using a micro-USB connector for headphones would mean that the DAC have to be placed inside your headphone, or somewhere along the line.

Michael Kuzmin

November 1, 2014, 5:29 pm

the guy who wrote this is definitely missing the point. I just bought a DAC and I'm trying to figure out how to get it to work with Android. So far no luck. So if or when this new version of android rolls out, this issue likely will be fixed for me. But I don't see how this will mean I will have to get new headphones. Like someone said below, you have to have DAC somewhere. And I doubt that DACs will migrate form phone to headphones. It doesn't really make sense. All it will do is it will let you use some sort of external sound card, be it a separate device or inside the headphones. But I doubt headphones with DAC will become popular. I don't see why they would.


November 6, 2014, 10:47 pm


Try this. Works well with my fiio.

Philip Warrillow

May 9, 2015, 4:42 pm

I agree this so called reviewer has either a hidden agenda (promoting i products by criticizing android ones) or he is unfit to do do this job because he is unable to be objective. You notice how many of his comments are negative and misleading? Apple has had USB audio for a long time so how can it be that Android doing the exact same thing (plus adding some more features to the OS) possibly be a bad thing??

A quality DAC means improving the sound quality to your headphones and providing greater output to power your HIFI headphones when at home.This product will mean I use my headphones more than ever, not throw them away.....Why Android L wants to make your headphones obsolete.....What a ridiculous comment to make!

By Philip Warrillow BSC Hons Music Technology.

william harrison

June 30, 2015, 11:09 am

Hope people realizes that analogue headphones will still be good for a while because there will be adapters.

Jonathan Nelson

July 18, 2015, 4:23 am

This author is very misinformed. First of all no nerd pays $150 for an HDMI cable. We all know that the cheap cables work just as well as the expensive ones over short distances. Second USB 3.1 is a signal standard, but he seems to be using the term to mean the USB Type-C connector. Sure USB 3.1 can run over a USB Type-C connector but it also works with USB 3 Type-A connectors as well. Lastly audio over USB has been in Android since 4.1. They may be adding some features, making it easier to develop for, but this is not anything new.

I don't expect most people to understand these things. My brother for example wouldn't know the difference between USB 3.1 and Type-C and used to buy the expensive HDMI cables until I set him straight. However if you are going to be a tech journalist you had better get your information straight.

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