When it launched the iPhone 7 a year ago, Apple confidently declared the headphone jack obsolete technology that we could learn to live without. I disagreed with the necessity of its removal then, and I disagree with it now, but with Google joining the ranks of jack-less phone makers, I think it’s time to accept the inevitability of the 3.5mm port’s demise. According to the two towering US giants of mobile tech, the future is wireless (or, in emergencies, dongle-shaped) and even though that will make our lives less convenient and our tech less compatible, we should all just come along for the ride.
I’m not okay with this, but it isn’t my choice to make.
Perhaps this is the resignation stage of grief that I’m going through. I just can’t summon the passion to be enraged by Google omitting what I consider to be one of my favorite things in the world. Plugging in a new pair of headphones is, to me, part of the ceremony of discovering great new sound. It’s a tactile and auditory preamble to the enjoyment of music. But the truth of headphone jacks on phones is that not all of them were made equal. A lot of them have actually served as portals to hellishly bland, flat music reproduction that let the user down. The original Pixel was among the number of phones with really underwhelming headphone audio.
Google Pixel sound output is so bad that removing the headphone jack would be an act of mercy. Go wireless or just don't listen to anything.— Vlad Savov (@vladsavov) April 24, 2017
Apple’s bet in removing the headphone jack was that we could stomach some short-term inconvenience for the longer-term benefits of freeing up valuable real estate inside the phone. It was a calculated risk, intended in part to also force the development of better wireless and digital gear by headphone makers. Audeze, Bowers & Wilkins, and Shure have all responded by developing their own Lightning cables, which ensure their headphones sound their best when playing stuff from an iPhone. Everyone else in the consumer audio space now considers wireless as the default area of focus, and Apple’s influence in this respect should not be underestimated.
Looking at how other mobile makers like HTC, Motorola, Xiaomi, and Google — and soon probably Huawei too, given that CEO Richard Yu told me in January that the company was planning a 2017 flagship phone without a 3.5mm jack, which is shaping up to be the upcoming Mate 10 Pro — are following suit, things are panning out exactly as Apple anticipated. A whole bunch of people are carrying stupid, annoying, easy-to-misplace dongles for their “legacy” wired headphones, nobody is especially overjoyed about the change, but we’re all adapting.
The end of the headphone jack has not been the end of the world for iPhone users.
Google initially mocked Apple’s decision, poking fun at it with marketing materials that described the 2016 Pixel’s headphone jack as “satisfyingly not new.” But companies take cheap shots at one another all the time, and that was then, this is now, and now Google thinks it has higher priorities than audio. The Mountain View company’s own justification for why it’s removing the analog port was given to TechCrunch after the Pixel 2 launch event:
“The primary reason [for dropping the jack] is establishing a mechanical design path for the future,” Google product chief Mario Queiroz told TechCrunch after the event. “We want the display to go closer and closer to the edge. Our team said, ‘if we’re going to make the shift, let’s make it sooner, rather than later.’ Last year may have been too early. Now there are more phones on the market.”
At first blush, this seems like a flimsy excuse when you look at the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG V30, both gorgeous, almost bezel-less phones with headphone jacks present. But extend the timeline beyond this year or the next, think about it in the context of a world where even more internal phone components are integrated or obviated. As phones have been shrinking, the proportion of internal space that the headphone jack commands inside them (and not just the jack itself, there’s also the audio amplifier and digital-to-analog converter circuitry to consider) has been growing. If we’re just talking about the near term, I’m unconvinced by Apple and Google’s arguments that the jack had to go to make room for better, more integrated design. However, over the long run, these companies are probably right.
If Google were removing truly awesome sound, such as you’d get from the quad-DAC LG G6 or LG V30, I might have been more upset. If Google were one of the top two smartphone makers in the world, as Apple is, I might also feel like it’s rushing in too quickly with a change it could probably make and justify better in future models. But the fact is that LG will still be out there offering high-end integrated audio in its phones for audiophiles like me, and Google’s Pixel ventures remain on an almost experimental scale relative to the broader phone market. That being said, we shouldn’t mistake the small beginnings of Google’s time as a hardware maker and its comparatively puny Pixel phone sales for a lack of influence.
In the wake of the Pixel 2 event, I got word from Libratone and AIAIAI, a couple of Danish consumer audio brands, both annoucing that they’ve developed “Made for Google” models of their headphones and cables. These are tailored to work well with Google’s Pixel lineup of phones and Chromebook and include new “fast pairing” functions. Libratone and AIAIAI are just two of 25 partners that Google has already signed up as it seeks to emulate Apple and its famous “Made for iPhone” label.
The difference between Google’s currently small-scale efforts and those of previous mobile contenders like BlackBerry and Microsoft is the direction of travel. Others have had control over their operating system and hardware before, but they weren’t in the position to capitalize on that in the same way that Google, purveyor of the world’s most popular mobile OS, is. Google has openly declared that its hardware business is no longer a hobby, and its future is only going to be more influential and impactful. Accessory companies are falling in line and cooperating early with a company they’d be foolish to doubt.
Before the Pixel, Google’s Nexus line served as the prototypical best Android device that Google could envision. It was supposed to guide Android hardware partners in the development of their devices to best match Google’s intended direction for the software. That Nexus streak still remains in the Pixel smartphones of today, and what they signal is that Android is headed down the same path as iOS, leaving the headphone jack behind.