At CES this year, I saw the future of headphones, and it was messy. Where we once had the solid reliability of a 3.5mm analog connector working with any jack shaped to receive it, there’s now a divergence of digital alternatives — Lightning or USB-C, depending on your choice of jack-less phone — and a bunch of wireless codecs and standards to keep track of. Oh, and Sony’s working hard on promoting a new 4.4mm Pentaconn connector as the next wired standard for dedicated audio lovers.
It’s all with the intent of making things better, but before we get to the better place, we’re going to spend an uncomfortable few months (or longer) in a fragmented market where you’ll have to do diligent research to make sure your next pair of headphones works with all the devices you already own.
The self-imposed problem: finding a 3.5mm successor
My overwhelming impression from CES 2018 was that headphone companies have, without exception, bid a silent goodbye to the 3.5mm audio plug. We covered many dozens of new headphones, earphones, and truly wireless buds, and not one among them was a simple “plug this into the round hole on your phone or laptop” affair.
With Apple’s help, we did this to ourselves
The vast majority of new headphones were wireless. Audio-Technica’s latest models served as the perfect microcosm of the broader industry trend: the company launched a neckbud-style set of hi-fi earbuds with a plastic collar, two pairs of sporty earphones with hooks around the ear, and two over-ear models, one with built-in noise canceling and the other priced at €69. All wireless, all responding to consumer demand.
Talking to Audio-Technica representatives at CES, I was told that, “The speed that wireless headphones are growing is staggering, especially in terms of value when we consider wireless listening increased its share from approximately a quarter in 2016 to around 45% in 2017.” I heard the same message echoed by Beyerdynamic, 1More, Mee Audio, and every other audio company I spoke to. Many tout the improved convenience of wireless tech, to be sure — but whether or not a headphones maker is convinced there’s need for a shift is unimportant, all (even Grado!) are compelled to follow the prevailing winds of the wider tech industry. And phones play a huge role in driving this change:
“Since the iPhone and some other phones do not have a built-in 3.5mm jack, this trend has accelerated and there is no turning back.” — Val Kolton, V-Moda
“Mainstream headphones are becoming wireless first. This is the number 1 request from our customers.” — Sankar Thiagasamudram, Audeze
“Once device manufacturers began removing the 3.5mm headphone jack it put the consumer on notice that change was coming.” — Jonathan Levine, Master & Dynamic
“Clearly, Apple’s recent move to dispense with the 3.5mm socket has had an impact on the market.” — Alexander Van Der Heijden, Bowers & Wilkins
Wireless audio, however, is nowhere near as simple as it initially seems. You get a degree of universal compatibility from Bluetooth, but that quickly spirals into a codec mess if you want to pursue the best possible sound.
AptX HD, LDAC, or AAC? Android or iPhone?
Bluetooth audio has historically sacrificed sound quality for convenience relative to a wired connection. However, there are a couple of standards now that promise “better-than-CD” audio quality. One is Qualcomm’s AptX HD, which has graced the excellent Bowers & Wilkins PX and Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless from late last year. But the problem with AptX HD is that it’s only supported by a few Android flagships and a limited range of pricier headphones at the moment, and it’s not supported at all by Apple’s iPhone and iPad. The same is true of Sony’s LDAC technology, which similarly promises higher-quality wireless audio (mostly by pumping more data through the air), and is actually available in Android Oreo for phone manufacturers to use, but the number of devices supporting it can be counted on one hand. Apple’s chosen alternative is Bluetooth AAC encoding.
Wireless audio codecs are a deep and dark rabbit hole to go down, and the only sure advice anyone can give today is that you’ll want at least one out of AAC, AptX HD, or LDAC in your next pair of Bluetooth cans. How much of an advantage you enjoy from each will depend on whether all your equipment is compatible. The conundrum for headphone makers? I’ll let 1More explain:
“Apple wants all BT to use AAC — their codec — Android wants everyone on BT 5. In order to make sure wireless headphones have multi-platform capability manufacturers have to adopt technology that is most applicable to all devices. So rather than invest in the latest codecs we have been forced to maintain more standard BT 4.1 and AptX as we wait and see what cellphone companies decide to make standard in the coming year.”
Bluetooth 5 could improve things, but not as much as you might think
That’s right, Bluetooth 5 isn’t even a thing yet for many of these companies, but they’ve already got a headache when choosing exactly what transmission method to support. As to Bluetooth 5 headphones, only a couple of companies introduced BT5 models at CES — Anker’s Zolo sub-brand being one of them — and most companies told me that they’re still studying how best to exploit the new capabilities of the latest version of Bluetooth. Audio-Technica, Bowers & Wilkins, and Master & Dynamic all promised they had such models on their road map, though B&W’s Alexander Van Der Heijden cautioned that “BT5 is designed mainly for Low Energy (Small data burst and low latency) for IoT, and therefore running audio over BT5 does not give us any immediate advantages over BT3 as streaming audio requires sustained data transfer.”
Fast pairing, built-in assistants, and charging cables
Another way in which the wireless headphones world is more unequal than the wired one is in the way some devices pair together. Apple’s W1-enabled iPhones and compatible AirPods and Beats headphones are a futuristic dream of instant Bluetooth pairing. Google has added a similar Fast Pair function in Android, but — once again — the devices supporting it are very limited in number. For the vast majority of people who don’t have the latest phone and headphone combo, Bluetooth pairing remains an aggravating and repeated struggle. The problem here, as with the codec issue above, is that wireless tech is indeed advancing in meaningful ways, but the distribution of those advances is both uneven and unpredictable.
Then there’s the matter of integrated smart assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. You might not think your headphones need to have either of the two built in, but it’s the nature of these voice assistants that once you find a particular use for them, you want them everywhere. They add another spec you’ll probably care to know before making a final determination on your next pair of headphones.
As if that’s not enough fragmentation, we’re now also in the midst of seeing headphone companies switch from the old Micro USB charging cable standard to the newer and better USB-C. B&O Play, for instance, sells the $300 Beoplay E8 truly wireless buds with Micro USB — which the company tells me was a courtesy to its users, most of whom will still have more Micro USB accessories and chargers — but also just announced the USB-C-powered Beoplay H8i and H9i. Apple’s headphones charge via a mix of Lightning and Micro USB, depending on the model, and the dream of having a single USB-C charger to power all of our mobile gear still seems a distant one.
Lightning and USB-C as the pricey cable replacement
If you’re unwilling to deal with the imperfections of Bluetooth or the need to charge yet another thing in your life, there are still wired options for you. The problem with them, however, is that they lock you into your phone’s particular ecosystem and they are nowhere near as cheap as the classic 3.5mm plug alternatives.
Shure used this year’s CES to launch a $99 USB-C cable — not a pair of earphones, just the cable for them — which joins its lineup of $99 replacement cables, one of them being a Bluetooth version and the other a Lightning option. Libratone sells the very good Q-Adapt earphones with either a Lightning or USB-C termination, but those cost $149 each. For the foreseeable future, you’ll find nothing better or cheaper on the USB-C front. I’ve been discussing this issue with audio companies for months now, and at CES they confirmed that USB-C remains a nightmare to navigate since its implementations vary across hardware manufacturers, and it’s difficult for a headphone company to ensure its earphones work with everything. That task is easier on the Lightning front, but prices remain high (thanks in part to Apple’s licensing fees and Made for iPhone certification requirements).
A perfect storm for the 3.5mm plug’s extinction
Even the audiophile, decidedly wired offerings at CES like Sennheiser’s new HD 820 were opting for that fancy new Pentaconn connector, or using the more established, heavy-duty XLR and 6.35mm plugs. Sony’s MDR-1AM2 was the closest thing to a regular pair of cans with a 3.5mm connector, but it, too, comes with the addition of a 4.4mm cable in the box. It’s a perfect storm for the 3.5mm plug’s extinction: for portable wired audio, everyone’s gradually moving toward Lightning and USB-C, and for high-end audiophile purposes, there are bigger and better jacks to plug into. The old 3.5mm connector is still going to be around for a long time — it provides the fallback to most wireless over-ear headphones today — but its importance has diminished dramatically in just the past year, and it’s accelerating down that path.
All of this is without even factoring in the proliferation of sound-customizing apps with many of the latest wireless cans and a wave of other digital enhancements that are yet to become public. Behind closed doors at CES, I got to try an early version of an impressive new digital signal processing system that provides more immersive 3D positional audio with the help of integrated gyroscopes. Codecs, apps, customization, Lightning plugs — headphones are becoming more digital than ever before. And as they transition toward their new form, it’ll be on us to become savvier shoppers and figure out the proper ways to put these shiny new pieces together.