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Headphone makers quietly prepare for the iPhone 7

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No one at CES seems alarmed by the death of the headphone jack

Apple is the perennial absentee newsmaker at CES. The Cupertino company never attends the Consumer Electronics Show, but it always manages to stir up some hype and excitement around its products during the show. Call it a happy accident. The latest rumors swirling around the iPhone maker are that it will remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from its upcoming iPhone 7, leaving people with the option to either use wireless or Lightning-compatible headsets. This has caused an understandable amount of consternation among users, many of whom will already have a collection of headphones that use the long-established 3.5mm standard.

The people who don't seem to be particularly perturbed by this potential development are headphone makers themselves. I've spoken with many of them during this year's CES and none feel threatened by or unprepared for Apple's rumored removal of the headphone jack. There are two reasons for this: one is that almost every headphone manufacturer, major or minor, has some sort of wireless product to offer prospective iPhone 7 owners. Only the truly premium, audiophile-class vendors — whose products aren't intended to be used with mobile devices anyway — don't have a Bluetooth variant to offer. The big names like Sennheiser and Audio-Technica are already working on entire portfolios of high-end wireless headphones, and others like Bose have been developing the technology for years. Nothing new on this front.

None feel threatened by or unprepared for the removal of the headphone jack

As to the switch to the Lightning connector, I'd actually expected to see more companies introducing headphones with it at CES this year (Audeze's Sine on-ear planar magnetics have been the only highlight). Still, despite the absence of actual products on show, most companies I spoke to said that they're already working on or considering Lightning-connected headphones. The ones that aren't yet committing to it are those who don't have a direct sales channel tied to Apple — because Lightning requires development and engineering time committed exclusively for Apple products. An easy way to predict who will be first out with Lightning headphones in the coming year will be to look at the brands already being sold in Apple's online and retail locations. Master & Dynamic, Bang & Olufsen, and Bowers & Wilkins all sit alongside Audeze on Apple's shelves, and each has plenty of motivation to hitch a ride on the Lightning bandwagon.

It vacates more space inside the device

Headphone manufacturers haven't had to deal with much in the way of connector upheaval. Some of them throw a 3.5mm to 6.25mm adapter in the box and move on to more important matters. Apple's dispatch of the headphone jack makes things interesting for these companies, but only in the sense that it could spur more sales. Most have told me that integrating an amp and digital-to-analog converter into their headphones — which would be required when hooking up via Lightning — would be relatively straightforward. Others are just really keen to sell more Bluetooth headphones.

As to Apple's motivation, removing an opening on the iPhone would make it simpler to waterproof the device, but more importantly, it vacates more space inside the device itself. The headphone jack isn't significantly thicker than the Lightning port, but the headphone connector does go much deeper inside the phone. That tiny bit of extra real estate could always be put to better use if there's some alternative way to connect a pair of headphones. And since Apple seems to believe there are adequate alternatives available now, the future iPhone might be that extra bit more space-efficient, whether we like the change or not.