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The headphone jack ain’t dead yet

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Huawei P10, LG G6, and Sony Xperia XZ Premium at MWC 2017
Huawei P10, LG G6, and Sony Xperia XZ Premium at MWC 2017.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

This article was originally posted during Mobile World Congress earlier this month. The trend it addresses, of smartphone manufacturers sticking with the traditional audio jack, is even more prominent today in the wake of Samsung’s Galaxy S8 launch.

In 2016 Apple removed the headphone jack from its iPhone, and in 2017 it seemed the rest of the mobile industry would follow suit, leaving us with only a choice between a Lightning or USB-C dongle. But a cool thing is happening at Mobile World Congress this year: Android phone manufacturers are shrugging off the jack-less fad and are forging ahead with the traditional 3.5mm headphone output intact.

Rob Pegoraro of Yahoo noticed the common thread among the big announcements at this show — they all run Android and they all have a headphone jack — and opined that "the headphone jack isn’t going anywhere." I agree with his assessment, but have to append the word "yet" to that statement. The threat of a jack-less future still lingers on our horizon, though it might be a little more distant than initially thought.

blackberry keyone
BlackBerry KeyOne.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

At MWC 2017, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, the LG G6, and the Huawei P10 — which can be counted as the three major premium-class flagship launches of the show — all have headphone jacks. If you want to be inclusive and throw BlackBerry in among that bunch, it also opted for Android and a 3.5mm jack on the BlackBerry KeyOne. And the Nokia 3, 5, and 6 Android devices, plus the adorably cute 3310 phone, all have the standard, beloved, universal audio connector. Not only that, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 that’s launching at the end of this month is also almost certain to feature a headphone jack.

But this divisive issue isn’t going away anytime soon. HTC’s Ultra phones dumped the headphone jack at CES, which I thought was an awful idea at the time and think it’s even worse now that we know all of its direct competitors will have the feature. Huawei CEO Richard Yu also told a small group of reporters during CES that there will be a Huawei flagship phone this year that omits the headphone jack. So at least two global smartphone brands are pushing the wireless and USB-C agenda to the detriment of the traditional audio connector.

HTC U Ultra
HTC U Ultra.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

At this point, there’s no telling exactly how this will all shake out. Apple broke its iPhone sales record in the last quarter of 2016, even with its constrained iPhone, so it didn’t hurt its sales as much as some of us might have expected. Moto also ditched the headphone jack in its 2016 flagship Moto Z, and yet it’s reported encouraging user adoption numbers for its Moto Mods accessories. So, in both cases, the lack of a headphone jack hasn’t been lethal to the device’s chances of success.

Looking around the MWC halls, I’ve seen only one Apple Lightning audio adapter — almost everyone is either plugging into a different device or using wireless alternatives. But the wireless world is uneven now that Apple has its excellent W1 Bluetooth chip and every other manufacturer is making do with only so-so connectivity. Will everyone be as receptive to living a totally wireless audio life?

For now, the headphone jack is still the safest route for most mobile manufacturers to take. It serves their users’ needs and doesn’t really get in the way of doing cool things like waterproof designs, wireless charging, and dual-camera systems. For now.