Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know
(Image credit: RHA)

When Apple removed the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, it divided opinion. What was the point of removing the audio jack? And what's so good about the Lightning connection?

Over two years on and some people still haven't forgiven them. 

The lack of a 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, iPhone X, iPhone XS, iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max models has confirmed once and for all that Apple has cut ties with the once-ubiquitous audio connection.

Where Apple goes, the rest tend to follow. Even if you're not an Apple fan, the change has clearly had a knock-on effect on the rest of the consumer electronics landscape.

So why did Apple remove the iPhone headphone jack, and what does that mean for the new iPhones, for iPhone headphones and for the rest of the headphone market? Allow us to explain.

When did Apple introduce the Lightning port?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

The Lightning port was first introduced with the iPhone 5 back in September 2012, replacing the 30-pin connector that had been used for charging on every previous iPhone and iPod – but its inclusion didn't do away with the 3.5mm jack for your headphones entirely. 

The Lightning port's introduction meant the industry had to adapt overnight, most notably by releasing new speaker docks and accessories to accommodate the smaller connection. Apple released an adapter that allowed you still to use your 30-pin device, but only with a Lightning dock or speaker.

When Apple quietly killed off the iPod Classic in September 2014, it took with it the last Apple device using the company’s 30-pin connector.

Though it was a big story at the time, slowly but surely, everyone adjusted to the change.

Apple no doubt hoped the same adjustment would follow when the 3.5mm jack left the iPhone altogether with the iPhone 7 in September 2016. To help ease the pain for consumers with wired headphones, Apple provided a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter in the box.

But more recent versions of the iPhone (including the XS, XS Max and XR), have actually ditched the adapter, meaning you'll either have to buy one (for £9), use wireless headphones – or bite the bullet and go for a pair of Lightning headphones.

MORE: Apple iPod Classic review

Why did Apple remove the 3.5mm headphone jack?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Sony)

The 3.5mm headphone connector has been on portable devices since 1964 when it launched on the Sony EFM-117J radio. It subsequently became popular in 1979 with the release of the Sony Walkman. 

It's worth noting that although the removal of the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone caused quite the furore, the original iPhone didn't have a headphone jack that worked for everyone, either.

Apple's inaugural 2007 iPhone did have a headphone jack (still a rarity for mobile phones at that time) but it was deep-set, meaning that not every pair of headphones was actually compatible. The audio port in the first generation iPhone was embedded a few millimeters into the top of the iPhone, with a round recess that was narrower than many existing headphone plugs. This presented three options: use the earbuds Apple included with your iPhone purchase (which did fit), try to whittle down the rubber on your existing headphone jack, or use a dongle.

Moving through the generations, one key benefit it was claimed could be achieved by removing the 3.5mm port altogether in 2016 was the chance to make the iPhone 7 thinner. But in fact, it was no thinner than the previous model – both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 6S measured 7.1mm.

MORE: Apple iPhone XS Max review

One rumour that did prove true was that the space taken up by the headphone socket would make room for a second speaker. The iPhone 7 (and iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X, XR and XS) had stereo speakers, which Apple claimed deliver much better sound when not using headphones.

Ultimately, Apple simply thought the 3.5mm headphone jack wasn't doing enough for the iPhone to justify its space – and, of course, it's a good excuse to get everyone to move towards Lightning or wireless headphones.

Does using the Lightning connection mean better sound quality?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Sony)

The Apple Lightning connection already allows you to play hi-res music on your iPhone – but the iPhone can't currently play the source code at full native resolution via the headphone jack.

Apple’s internal DAC is a custom-built Cirrus Logic DAC that handles 24-bit/96kHz, and while the company won’t confirm the specifics, Apple’s software limits music coming out of the 3.5mm headphone socket to 24-bit/48kHz. However, if you access the digital output via the Lightning socket, you can receive hi-res audio.

Apple's removal of the headphone jack means more people using the Lightning connection to listen to music, which could lead to more people exploring higher-resolution audio.

MORE: How to play hi-res music on your iPhone

Despite rumours suggesting Apple Music would support 24-bit/96kHz hi-res audio in 2016, the iPhone 7 did not support the format natively.

Apple's website claims that the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X models supposedly support FLAC, but whether these iPhones will natively play hi-res FLAC files is still something we're not convinced by – unless there's an Apple Music update in the future. In our review of the iPhone 8 Plus, we couldn't play any FLAC files natively.

The iPhones have so far sounded incrementally better with each new iteration, although a large part of that is down to the quality of the headphones you use with them.

Wireless earphones, such as the Apple AirPods, tend to sound worse than similarly priced wired models. But Lightning headphones, which take digital rather than analogue audio from your device, have the potential to sound better than their analogue counterparts.

MORE: Apple iPhone XS review

What Apple Lightning headphones are on the market?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: RHA)

Since rumours of Apple's complete removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack started circulating, headphone manufacturers competed to release new Lightning and Bluetooth models.

Philips was ahead of the crowd when it released the great-sounding M2L headphones back in 2014, but since then, high-end headphone brand Audeze has released the on-ear Sine and over-ear EL-8 Titanium pairs. There's also the iSine 10 and 20 in-ears that come with a Lightning cable and the RHA MA650i – the company's first dedicated Lightning earphones.

Of course, all recent iPhone models (iPhone 7 and above, including the flagship iPhone X) come bundled with Apple's EarPods with Lightning connector (£30 if you buy them separately).

But there are plenty more (and better) pairs of headphones that use the Lightning connection, such as Libratone's Q Adapt range of headphones (which also feature noise-cancelling), the JBL Reflect Aware, and the Pioneer Rayz headphones

B&W's flagship Signature P9 wireless headphones also include a Lightning adapter in the box, while Beats (an Apple subsidiary since 2014) has a dedicated urBeats3 model with Lightning connector.

MORE: 8 alternatives to Apple's Lightning headphones

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What about wireless headphones for the iPhone XS?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

Of course, it's not just Lightning headphones that work with the very latest iPhones, but wireless Bluetooth ones as well.

There are plenty of excellent pairs already on the market, such as the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1, Sony WF-1000XM3, Y50BT, B&W P5 Wireless and Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless. Apple announced its first wireless in-ears, the Apple AirPods (£160), alongside the iPhone 7 launch.

We weren't entirely enamoured by the looks or sound of the originals, but the 2019 second-generation AirPods improved on the model's sonic performance by leaps and bounds. The Airpods initiated a boom in truly wireless models such as the Bose SoundSport Wireless, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, Sony WF-1000X and B&O BeoPlay 8.

Beats also has a host of wireless headphones, including the Beats Powerbeats Pro, Beats X, Beats Solo 3 Wireless and Powerbeats 3 Wireless.

MORE: 13 truly wireless alternatives to the Apple AirPods

What are the disadvantages of Apple Lightning headphones?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

The most obvious problem we faced when ditching the 3.5mm headphone connection was that our existing headphones would no longer plug straight into our iPhones. Nor could we plug said iPhones straight into our system with a simple aux cord. This affected plenty of other accessories, too.

Apple provides a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter for £9 (it no longer comes in the box with the purchase of an iPhone) but it doesn't look particularly neat – and is easily lost if disconnected and bundled in with your headphones on a road trip. 

Listening to music while charging via the Lightning cable was no longer possible with the iPhone 7, but Apple addressed this issue for the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X series by offering Qi-standard wireless charging.

There are plenty of Qi-certified charging pads available on the market, so you don't have to hope for the ball to start rolling on Apple's problematic – and currently stalled – AirPower charging system again, either.

Any active noise-cancelling headphones that draw power from the iPhone (such as the Libratone Q Adapt In Ears) could reduce battery life which hasn't been the strong point of some of Apple's most recent handsets.

Do the iPhone X, XR and XS come with wireless headphones?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Sony)

The iPhone X, XR and XS Max don't come bundled with wireless headphones. But much like the change from 30-pin to Lightning paved the way for wireless speakers, a change to the headphone connection has seen a serious boost in the manufacture of wireless headphones.

There are a plethora of good Bluetooth headphones on the market and the sector is growing. They are more widespread and popular than Lightning headphones, so we'd definitely consider going down this route.

MORE: Best wireless Bluetooth headphones 2019: in-ear, over-ear, noise-cancelling

Can I use my existing headphones with the iPhone X, XR and XS Max?

Lightning headphones: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Future)

But what if you’ve invested a lot of money in a pair of headphones? You can't use them with your iPhone via its Lightning connection, unless you use the adapter or connect them via a DAC such as the Chord Mojo.

Of course, you could get a dedicated hi-res audio player from the likes of Astell & Kern, Pioneer or Sony instead of using your smartphone as a music player. And don't forget, the Apple iPod Touch (2019) still sports a headphone jack and still delivers class-leading sound at its price point...

MORE: Best DACs 2019: USB, portable and desktop DACs

Love it or hate it, there’s no ignoring the fact that Apple has a huge influence over the smartphone and portable audio market.

The iPhone 7 might have encouraged some manufacturers to ditch the headphone jack, but it hasn't disappeared altogether. You'll find in many instances, it still varies brand to brand and model to model. Some HTC phones include one, some don't. It's a similar case with Google and its Pixel line. Samsung handsets still feature one, although this could change with the upcoming Note 10, if rumours are to be believed.

We shall see...

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