When Apple removed the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, opinion was divided. What was the point of removing the audio jack? And what's so good about the Lightning connection?
Where Apple goes, the rest often tend to follow. So, even if you're not an Apple fan, the change is sure to have 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 Apple headphones and for the rest of the headphone market? Allow us to explain.
When did Apple introduce the Lightning port?
The Lightning port was first introduced with the iPhone 5, replacing the 30-pin connector that had been used on every previous iPhone and iPod. It meant the industry had to instantly adapt, 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 will no doubt be hoping for the same now the 3.5mm jack has gone from the iPhone 8.
Why did Apple remove the 3.5mm headphone jack?
The 3.5mm headphone connector had 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.
The loss of the 3.5mm port means you will have to either use an adapter to connect standard headphones, or use headphones that connect via the Apple Lightning port or wirelessly.
One key benefit of removing the port was that it allowed Apple 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: iPhone 7 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 new iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X) had stereo speakers, which Apple claims 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.
Will using the Lightning connection mean better sound quality?
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.
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 now 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/iTunes update in the future. In our recent 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 new Apple AirPods, are always likely 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.
What Apple Lightning headphones are on the market?
Since the rumours that Apple would remove the 3.5mm headphone jack first surfaced, headphone manufacturers have competed to release new Lightning and Bluetooth models.
Philips was well ahead of the crowd when it released the great-sounding M2L headphones in 2014. Since then, high-end headphone brand Audeze has released the on-ear Sine and over-ear EL-8 Titanium pairs, and there's also the iSine 10 and 20 - in-ears that come with a Lightning cable.
Of course, all the new iPhones (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.
What about wireless headphones for the iPhone 7, 8 and X?
Of course, it's not just Lightning headphones that work with the iPhone 7, 8 and X, but wireless Bluetooth ones as well.
There are plenty of excellent pairs already on the market, such as the AKG 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.
The AirPods have neat connectivity features and come with a handy carry case. We're not entirely enamoured by their looks or sound, they have initiated a boom in truly wireless models such as the Sony WF-1000X, B&O BeoPlay 8 and the upcoming Google rivals.
What are the disadvantages of Apple Lightning headphones?
The most obvious problem with ditching the 3.5mm headphone connection is that your existing headphones won't plug straight into the iPhone 7, 8 or X. Nor will you be able to plug these iPhones straight into your system with a simple aux cord. This affects plenty of other accessories, too.
Apple provides a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter free (or £9 if sold separately) with every new iPhone, but it doesn't look particularly neat.
Listening to music via the headphone jack while charging via the Lightning cable was no longer possible with the iPhone 7, but Apple has addressed this issue for the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X by offering Qi-standard wireless charging.
There are already plenty of Qi-certified charging pads available on the market, so you don't have to wait for Apple's dedicated AirPower option, either.
Any active noise-cancelling headphones that draw power from the iPhone (such as the Libratone Q Adapt In Ears) could cause problems, too. While the iPhone does have a relatively good battery life, it’s not class-leading.
Do the iPhone 7, 8 and X come with wireless headphones?
The iPhone 7, 8 and X 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 is likely to be a serious boost for wireless headphone manufacturers.
There are plenty of good Bluetooth-enabled wireless headphones on the market already – and that sector is only growing. They are definitely more widespread and popular than Lightning headphones.
Will I be able to use my existing headphones with the iPhone 7?
But what if you’ve invested a lot of money in a high-end pair of headphones? You will no longer be able to 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. So, could a surge in dedicated players persuade Apple to release a new dedicated player? Not that we're still mourning the passing of the iPod or anything...
MORE: Apple Music review
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 may have marked the beginning of the end for the 3.5mm headphone jack. The HTC U11 followed suit by removing the 3.5mm headphone jack in favour of a USB-C port (which it also uses for charging), and while Samsung and LG's flagship smartphones have so far stuck with the 3.5mm jack, we wouldn't be surprised to see it dropped from future handsets.
We shall see...
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