Will Apple Allow Headphones to Use Lightning Ports? What’s the Point?

06/05/2014

Apple has reportedly introduced specifications for headphones that use a lightning connector; that’s the one you plug into your iOS device to sync and charge it. According to 9to5Mac:

Apple will allow two configurations for the headphones. Standard Lightning Headphones are described by Apple as using minimum components when paired with a digital-to-analog converter supported by the Lightning Headphone Module. It also has an Advanced Lightning Headphones specification that allows digital audio processing features like active noise cancellation and uses a digital signal processor and digital/analog converter.

This makes no sense. The 3.5mm headphone jack is a standard around the world; you know that any headphones you buy will work with that jack, unless they have a larger plug, 6.5mm, which only works on amplifiers. (In that case, you generally get an adapter.)

Would you buy headphones that you can only use on Apple devices? I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy such headphones. Why spend money on good headphones – because these specs aren’t talking about earbuds – and not be able to use them on other devices? Also, you wouldn’t be able to use the headphones when charging a device. I sometimes do this to talk on my iPhone while it’s charging.

Financially, this would make sense for Apple, since they own the lightning specification, and charge licensing fees for its use. But for users? Ridiculous.

This sort of specification makes sense for other devices: DACs, headphone amplifiers, docks, and DJ tools. But for headphones, it requires that the devices have batteries; it’s sending a digital stream, and it’s not clear if it can also send an analog stream. There are times when you want powered headphones, for things such as noise cancellation. But powered headphones don’t sound as good as passive analog headphones, which don’t alter sound in any way.

The future for powered headphones is wireless, using Bluetooth technology. If you’re going to have powered headphones, the idea of connecting them with a wire is foolish. There are better Bluetooth codecs, such as aptX, whose lossless version can even handle 24-bit 96 kHz audio. It would make a lot more sense to work in this direction, and eschew the cord.

Some comments I saw suggest that removing the headphone jack from an iPhone will allow it to be thinner. I think people making such comments have never seen an iPod touch, which has a headphone jack, and is substantially thinner than an iPhone. When you look at it, you can see that the lightning connector and the headphone jack are about the same thickness.

If this rumor is true – and it’s healthy to be skeptical, given some rumors that have run rampant recently – I don’t see this as being for headphones, but rather for other audio devices.

Update: Turns out that this is true. However, nothing suggests that this would replace the standard headphone jack. I’d still not buy headphones that can only plug into that connector.