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Why USB-C headphones aren’t, and likely never will be, mainstream

Why USB-C headphones aren’t, and likely never will be, mainstream

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Photo by Helen Havlak / The Verge

One of the sharpest-felt pains of the current obliteration of headphone jacks from the smartphone market is the absence of a good wired alternative. Sure, every company that ditches the analog jack tells you to go wireless, but what if you don’t want another gadget that needs regular charging, or you switch devices often and don’t enjoy diagnosing Bluetooth pairing problems every day? USB-C headphones are the perfect, most logical cure for our self-inflicted audio connection headaches, filling the void left by the humble 3.5mm connector’s absence by letting users of Android phones and a majority of new laptops plug into the digital port for their sound instead. And yet, such headphones and earphones remain scarce and expensive, a status that seems unlikely to ever change.

Here are the main reasons why USB-C headphones are destined to only ever be a niche category:

Apple and Samsung aren’t interested

The most obvious factor working against USB-C headphones is that the two biggest smartphone makers don’t need them. Apple’s iPhones might lack a headphone jack but they also don’t have a USB-C port, while Samsung retains the 3.5mm port, so neither the iPhone X nor the latest Galaxy S9 family are in need of USB-C earphones. Things could change if Samsung were to drop the analog connection, too, but for now at least, the market for USB-C headphones is dramatically constrained by the absence of demand from the two most popular phone brands. In any case, for tech companies that want to produce headphones that work with both Apple and Samsung gear, the obvious universal standard today is to go wireless via Bluetooth.

USB-C isn’t free

Talking with Jabra at CES in January about the wireless Elite 65t that the company had just announced, I asked why the new buds charged via the old (and busted) Micro USB. The answer was cost. Jabra could have used a USB-C charger — and, in the process, streamlined life for people like me with a USB-C-charging laptop and phone, allowing us to carry only one charger and cable around with us — but that would have pushed the Elite 65t up into a higher price bracket. I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed over and over again, even from the typically less cost-conscious Bang & Olufsen, which defended its use of Micro USB charging for the Beoplay E8 wireless buds on the basis of cost.

During Computex earlier this month, Synaptics was showing off a PQI My Lockey USB-A dongle that provides ultra secure fingerprint authentication for Windows 10 machines, targeting business customers especially. When I asked why not a USB-C version as well, Synaptics VP Godfrey Cheng told me that a USB-C version could be as much as 25 percent more expensive, taking a $100 product up to $125. That might be a price worth paying if the entire world is using USB-C devices, but as of today, it’s a prohibitive additional cost. Cheng went on to note that there’s also a non-trivial difference in cost between doing a charging-only USB-C cable and one with data throughput as well.

USB-C isn’t universal

If there’s one thing we think we know about technology, it’s that when a cable fits into a port, it’s as good as any other compatible cable. But that’s categorically not true about USB-C: some USB-C ports have the high-bandwidth Thunderbolt 3, but most don’t; some USB-C ports can also charge the device they’re on or other devices, but that’s not true for all; and then you’ve also got USB-C cables adhering to different standards and specs, and some of them don’t support data transfer of any kind, serving only as power conduits for charging. So, even though it says “universal” in the very name of USB-C, you definitely can’t rely on having a universal experience with peripherals and devices supporting it.

When I reviewed Libratone’s $149 Q Adapt USB-C earphones, I found that they worked well with phones that lacked headphone jacks but were completely ignored by Android devices that still had a 3.5mm port. Additionally, plugging them into the USB-C port on my MacBook Pro left me with no hardware volume control, I could only adjust the volume in software such as via the iTunes or Spotify app. That’s three different experiences, even though, in all cases, I was plugging a pair of USB-C buds into supposedly universal USB-C ports.

Probably the most unexpected critique of USB-C that I heard came from Audio-Technica, which I spoke with this week. The Japanese audio company says that, aside from wrestling with the challenge of ensuring compatibility across a wide range and variety of devices, even the basic USB-C cables are not consistent or good enough. That agrees with my colleague Dieter Bohn’s woes with variable USB-C charging cables. And though Audio-Technica can obviously build its own USB-C cables, its reservations are about people trying to use other, less scrupulously manufactured ones.

Wireless is the true universal standard

The single biggest challenge for USB-C to become a good replacement for the classic 3.5mm analog connector is that Bluetooth audio exists. Bluetooth has its own issues, including quality degradation and lag, but those are actively being worked on. Because of the vast difference in addressable markets between Bluetooth and USB-C audio, almost no one is spending time fixing the shortcomings of USB-C while everyone is focused on improving the quality of wireless sound.

Audio-Technica has committed to expanding its wireless range, Beyerdynamic now does wireless versions of practically all of its consumer headphones, Sennheiser is transitioning the majority of its earphones to wireless, and even gaming headphones are going wireless in a big way this year. The future of mainstream audio consumption is certain to be wireless. It would have been nice to have USB-C headphones as the bridge technology between the wired sound of the past and the wireless one of the future, but that’s just not happening. And the other problem for USB-C audio enthusiasts is that die-hard audiophiles already have their 3.5mm, 6.35mm, and XLR cables. They prefer analog interconnects that capitalize on their specialized amplifiers and DACs, so they have little interest in adding another, digital interconnect.

The silver lining to this story is that, eventually, I expect most wireless headphones will adhere to USB-C in their charging. There’s a certain inevitability about USB-C charging — which is already embraced by Apple with the MacBook line, Google with its Chromebooks, Lenovo with ThinkPads, and pretty much all Android phone vendors — that is not present with USB-C audio. It will take a while, but we will ultimately have our USB-C single-charger utopia scenario. When that moment comes, perhaps USB-C peripherals and cables will have fallen in price and complexity to the point where each wireless pair of headphones will have USB-C as its fallback connection. We can always dream.