Audio / Features

Unplugged: The 3.5mm Headphone Jack (1963 – 2016)

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Long the standard bearer for delivering portable audio, the 3.5mm headphone jack had its plug pulled one final time, in Cupertino, on September 7, 2016, and reportedly met its fate with a steely courage you don’t often see outside of Apple designers. In its long and storied life, it survived countless audio formats, from vinyl to 8-tracks, cassette tapes, and CDs. In recent years, it had even coexisted peacefully with purely digital formats, and the advent of wireless streaming technologies, such as Bluetooth.

Originating in use with the military and with radio operators, the convenience of its format found favor with the explosion of the home audio market in the 1960s. To call the 3.5mm ubiquitous would be an understatement—it was truly universal.

Universality, however, is not to stand in the way of progress, and at their annual iPhone announcement event, Apple sent the 3.5mm headphone jack the way of the dinosaur, spinning optical drive, FireWire, and Ethernet ports, and immediately rendered all your existing non-Bluetooth headphones retro chic (you’re welcome). Progress may be hard, but it’s never cruel, so Apple will include a pair of Lighting-connector equipped EarPods, as well as a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter.

If using this now apparently dated format screams gauche to your futurist sensibility, you have no shortage of options, and that list will undoubtedly grow now that the digital-only cat is out of the bag. Bluetooth headphones are certainly not new to the market, but now will become an even more viable option for playback from your iPhone 7. If the appeal of a Lightning-connector enabled pair of cans speaks to you, but you want something with a little more fidelity than EarPods, you do have options already, from audiophile heavyweights Audeze, as well as Sony. Keep in mind that Apple itself now owns Beats, so Lightning–equipped models from that company are a safe bet.  

14 Comments

It will be interesting to see hou many are grabbed out of listeners eare by a fast footed thief. (Especeially here on the streets of Chicago)

As some other commenters have observed, the author is clearly unencumbered by education or facts. The PHONE jack referred to is a 1950's miniature version of the 19th century jack developed for the manual telephone switchboard. While adopted by the military and radio operators in the 20th century, it's origins are quite older, which any reputable researcher would have discovered.  However, far more egregious for a self proclaimed audio engineer, is overlooking the obvious fidelity issues between the analog connection and Bluetooth.  Audio bandwidth is defined for human hearing as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.  Admitedly, while few adults of modest experience (cronological age) can actually hear the highest frequencies, it nonetheless remains the standard and objective for high quality audio reproduction.  The actual achievement of this broad bandwidth is at the best unlikely when funneled thru the limits of Bluetooth in addition to the distortions created by the potential (virtual certainty) of multiple different encoding / sampling schemes.  In other words, what comes out is almost certainly NOT what went in, when compared to a simple wire!  But alas, why should facts obstruct a commercial opinion when fueled by compensation?  However, shouldn't that bias be identified?

I think your underestimating the "simple wire" description you bring forth as the best solution.  Remember that to get to that simple wire 3.5 jack at the bottom of an iPhone the signal must be converted internally by a D/A converter so that we can enjoy our tunes via a traditional analog jack.  All apple has done is made this converter external which is what professional audio engineers have been doing since the dawn of digital audio, (Modular recording and playback conversion setups).  Now commonly in the conveint form of audio interfaces.  By making this move it will force manufactures to design better D/A converters as well as give consumers a broader opportunity to increase there overall audio expereince. 

Bravo Apple. 

Agreed, wireless has not yet reached the point of wired fidelity.

Hey Bill, 

Thanks for reading. The quick history lesson was merely talking about the use of the jack at the consumer level, not the advent of the concept of signals running through wires. 

Bill, 

It should be noted, the vast majority of people using their iPhones as a playback device are already listening to some sort of compressed audio, nowadays typically from a streaming service, so saying that Bluetooth doesn't reproduce 20 Hz to 20 kHz is irrelevant, as the music being transmitted via Bluetooth doesn't present that bandwidth in the first place. 

I just read that ony 20% of Americans have iPhones...so how can that mean the total end of the 3.5?  Also...you didn't even show a photo of the actual jack with the article...

I cringe when companies have stupid design ideas. Especially ones that will result in more polution and waste energy unnecessarily.

But I cringe most when apple does something really stupid, because it usually means that other companies will follow suit.

The author of this is either ENTIRELY uninformed...or is a propeganda artist working for Apple.  The 3.5mm headphone jack is not only NOT dead, it's anything BUT dead.  The ONLY company to ahev ceased using it is Apple, and ONLY in their iPhone 7.  The iPhone 6 series is still being manufactured, which will continue to have the jack, as does ALL other Aple products with audio-out capabilities.  I'll be completely honest when I state I have absolutely no clue hoiw many products (and, by "products", I'm counting each individual model of anything as a single "product") currently being manufactured utilize the 3.5mm headphone jack, but I'd estimate that there are probably in excess of 500K products worldwide...heck, possibly in excess of 1 million.  So, according to Jaime Traba, just because one product has no 3.5mm headphone jack, an assumption...and a FALSE one, at that...is made that the 3.5mm headphone jack is dead.  I'm here to say that the 3.5mm headphone jack is not only NOT dead...but that, if this (so-called) journalist truly believes it's dead, then music is dead...and we All know that music is NOT dead.

I totally agree.  I guess, according to the author, I now have to stop using my 3.5mm jack on my iPad Air 2 or the phones I plug into it!

Hey Panther, 

The article was intended to be a very tongue in cheek announcement that moving forward, you're going to need a work around for using wired headphones with future iPhone models. Perphaps the sarcasm was lost on you :) 

Does the new Canon 5D MK IV do wireless audio?

Do any of the recent Macs have lightning jacks?

The Macs do not have lightning jacks. iPad and iPhones only. The new MacBook has a USB-C jack for both power and data and looks similar to lightning but it will not take a lightning cable as it is bigger.

While the most recent Macs do not share Lightning connectors, they all do have Bluetooth, which Apple now seems keen on as the future of audio for at least their iPhones. The company does have a history of shedding previously common components (FireWire, Ethernet, optical drives), often to the chagrin of some users, so while pure speculation, it wouldn't be shocking to see them move towards eliminating the heapdhone jack on their other products down the line. 

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