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LG’s spirited defense of the headphone jack is futile

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Best audio in a phone ever — and it just doesn’t matter

LG V30
LG V30
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

I wrote this in my LG V30 review, but it bears repeating and expanding upon: LG has crafted the best-sounding headphone audio in any smartphone yet. The V30’s quad-DAC audio system is a legitimate technological advancement that delivers real joy and a tangible upgrade over every other phone out there. And it doesn’t matter.

It pains me to type these searing words of dismissal, but we all have to face the facts. At no point in smartphone history has audio been a meaningful differentiator. HTC tried it with a long series of flagship phones, including the Beats-branded One X, the BoomSound-carrying One M7 and M8, and the One A9 with its extra powerful headphone amplifier. LG’s V30 predecessors, the V10 and V20, both had upgraded DACs (digital-to-analog converters) that honestly embarrassed the stuff in other smartphones. Did they break sales records for the company? Hell, did they even help LG avoid losing money from its mobile division? Not really.

As we gaze across the mobile landscape today, the best sellers are Apple’s omnipresent iPhone, Samsung’s range of Galaxy devices, and then a mass of Chinese Android phones. Apple and Samsung try to give people a complete package, but in China the things that sell are more starkly obvious: it’s phones with sophisticated selfie cameras, phones with a second camera on the back, phones with portrait mode, phones with big batteries, and phones that look like iPhones. It’s not that Chinese companies haven’t tried putting better audio chips inside their devices — they have tried repeatedly. Last year’s Nubia Z11 had a hi-res AKM AK4376 DAC and Dolby Atmos built in, and nobody cared. It’s hard to even find a review of that phone that lists the particular spec.

You know where I’m going with this. The future of mobile audio is wireless, just like Apple, Google, Motorola, and now Huawei have decided. Today’s flagship launch from the latter company includes a basic Mate 10 with a headphone jack and a Mate 10 Pro that upgrades a bunch of specs, shaves down the bezels, and dumps the jack. Before the year is through, we’ll see more flagship devices from more Android manufacturers making their debut sans audio port. In 2018, phones with analog audio output will be the exception rather than the rule (which they had been for over a decade).

I can’t give you a good reason why (almost) everyone’s jumping aboard this bandwagon of abandoning the standard 3.5mm jack. Samsung and LG have both demonstrated this year that they can build phones with that connector on board and wireless charging, water resistance, and ultra-slim display bezels. But, hey, it’s obviously easier if you omit that extra bit of technology — which at least one Android manufacturer believes is obsolete tech that’s not worth supporting anymore, given the broader industry trend.

The headphone jack doesn’t deserve to die. But it is dying.

I’ve never seen stellar audio make a real difference to smartphone sales, and I’ve no reason to expect that even better audio in the LG V30 will change that fact. It’s never been about the quality of the sound, it’s always been about other factors that are more important to consumers. LG is scaling new heights of audio clarity and precision, but it’s doing so in the most quixotic of ways — evoking memories of Nokia finessing the perfect industrial design for a Symbian phone. What ails LG sales is the company’s software, a chronic issue, and the V30’s unforgivably bad OLED display, in this specific case.

Eventually, I think the headphone jack will follow the same path as matte computer displays. I will always argue that matte screens are better, because they are less affected by glare and distracting reflections and, therefore, can remain usable even in sunlit environments. But glossy displays make colors pop and seem more vibrant, and Apple popularized them with its MacBook Pro line, so now more than 90 percent of the laptops you can purchase come with a glossy display. Only stubborn stalwarts like Lenovo persist with matte displays, and I love them for it. Apple has now made phones without headphone jacks a mainstream thing, and the likeliest scenario is that LG will play the Lenovo role of continuing to offer superlative analog audio when everyone else has moved on to doing other things.

With Bluetooth headphones improving every year and consumer preferences leaning toward wireless convenience, LG’s perseverance as the purveyor of excellent sound from phones is unlikely to pay off commercially. The company will get plaudits from people like me — people who like matte displays, hate RGB LED lights on their PCs, and don’t mind wearing bulky wired headphones in public — but those won’t cover the cost of running a global mobile business. A headphone jack is still a nice feature to have, and LG has truly perfected the audio coming out of it this year, but it isn’t an essential one. Nobody will be going out to buy an $800 phone just on the strength of its audio, whereas many people might spend similar money for a phone with an equally impressive display or camera.

I hope I’m wrong, but as things stand, LG’s heroic efforts to keep the headphone jack alive are merely delaying the inevitable and contributing little to the company’s bottom line.