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Intel wants USB-C to replace the headphone jack

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Joining the fight against the innocent 3.5mm connector

The 3.5mm headphone jack is one of the elder statesmen of the personal tech world, having become ubiquitous with the rise of mp3 players, smartphones, and other mobile devices, but now it's those very same devices that threaten its future. Intel has joined LeEco in trumpeting the advantages of the new USB-C connector as a replacement for the traditional headphone jack. The Chinese company recently introduced a trifecta of smartphones without a 3.5mm port, relying on the charging and data slot to output audio as well. At its Shenzhen developer forum this month, Intel has detailed a proposal to "remove the 3.5mm audio jack from audio sources."

What's their big problem with the established headphone connector? Well, it's an analog, single-purpose port on digital devices that are now defined by their multipurpose efficiency. In terms of real estate on a smartphone's circuit board, the audio jack has fallen far behind other components like the USB-C connector, which can handle high-throughput data transfers as well as charge larger machines like laptops. With the digital connection available via USB-C, headphone designers can integrate the digital-to-analog converter and amplifier right into their headphones, ensuring consistent quality across devices. Moreover, as AnandTech points out, with the extra power and programmability on offer, in-ear headphones could also be used to track health data like temperature, which can in turn feed into the growing array of fitness-tracking databases.

Read more: Headphone makers quietly prepare for iPhone 7

When rumors of the iPhone 7 going without a headphone jack started last year, it seemed like just Apple being its usual contrarian self and trying to nudge people toward buying more Lightning-connector accessories. But now that LeEco has smartphones with USB-C-only audio, and JBL has a set of noise-cancelling USB-C headphones, and Intel is developing new specifications for USB-C audio, the move to digital seems like it will be much more widespread. This won't be a painless process, to be sure, as all the great headphones of the past three or more decades have either 3.5mm or 6.35mm connectors. But the tech industry seems convinced that obliterating the last remnants of analog technology is in our best long-term interests. Well, it will certainly be interesting.


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