A little over a year ago I wrote about the killing of the 3.5mm headphone jack. At the time, the Moto Z was newly announced, making it the first mainstream and major manufacturer to forgo the decades old and widely adopted technology.
Fast forward to today and we are now looking at the very real possibility that a sizable number of the year’s best phones will forgo the port for a myriad of reasons. Last year I peered into how OEMs were grabbing something simple and making it needlessly complicated; so does that still stand? Is the 3.5mm port as important as some of us think it is and does the lack of that port pose a real a problem in day to day life? You read the title, so you know my answer.
Last year phones like the Moto Z and iPhone 7 caused waves that rippled throughout the industry when both companies decided to remove the 3.5mm port from their flagships. The media came out full force with the general consensus being a negative response towards its ‘courageous’ removal. Apple, as Apple always does, took this in stride using it as an opportunity to push their own agenda complete with proprietary assisted bluetooth headphones, leveraging their Beats brand with new Lightning-enabled headphones, and largely ignoring the outcry for the legacy port. They did however, extend an olive branch to adopters by packaging not only lightning headphones, but also a lightning to 3.5mm adapter with every iPhone 7. They extended it further by allowing users to buy the adapter for the un-Apple accessory pricing of an affordable $9, easily within Amazon impulse-buy territory. Moto on the other hand also claims that the Moto Z was one of its best selling phones in years, outselling many of their prior devices that to many of our readers were vastly superior phones. HTC followed suit later last year with the thoroughly unimpressive HTC Bolt, but it wasn’t until they announced the ill-fated U Ultra in late March that it hit their upper echelon of devices.
While the lack of the headphone jack was the least of its problems, it was a large departure for HTC, a brand that recently is well known for their outstanding audiophile-grade performance. As far back as the HTC One M7, and even further, HTC set the benchmark for Android when it came to how powerful its amplifier was, and how capable the DAC could be for its users. However, HTC’s current flagship – the excellent U11 is yet another device in HTC’s stable that forgoes the port in lieu of design, water-resistance, or just plain cost cutting — though at least the U11 ships with a USB-C to 3.5mm DAC in the box unlike the U-Ultra. It is important to note that HTC has tried this before with ExtUSB, an earlier failure in attempts to remove the 3.5mm port on a series of devices including the original HTC G1 — and this move was as wildly disliked then as it is now. Coming back after last year, Motorola just recently announced its Moto Z2 Force will yet again be shipping without the 3.5mm port, no doubt based off the feedback and success of the Moto Z. Furthermore, rumors indicate that at least one, if not both, of the 2017 Google Pixel devices will remove the port as well. We hope that’s just a rumor, but it’s credible enough in today’s smartphone market and that alone is worrying. So what is going on, why are so many manufacturers intentionally handicapping their devices by removing the port? The answer is simple, these aren’t crucial handicaps that’d deter most customers in the main markers of these flagships.
The iPhone 7 is selling strong, the Moto Z sold well from what we know, and the U11 is selling better than the HTC 10; all devices that superseded their predecessors’ sales benchmarks and all without the headphone jack. This doesn’t mean that they sold well because the headphone jack’s removal allowed relative advantages in other, more favorable areas… but it certainly means these devices can sell well in spite of not featuring the port, and that’s good enough for them. In the admitted ‘echo chamber’ many of us find ourselves in, it is sometimes easy to think that as enthusiasts, what we notice is what everyone else notices, and that just is not true. While I am not saying that the normal or average users, the “large number” buyers, do not notice the absence of the port anymore than they would any other small annoyance, it’s just not something that actually matters all that often to them and in those markets, or in a way that detracts them from purchasing the phone. My wife, my boss, my boss’s wife, and numerous workmates have had their iPhone 7’s since launch and none of them have exclaimed in anger that they are just done with the phone because it didn’t have the port.
In the same breath though, I personally have found myself on two occasions being highly irritated that I did not have the port on my iPhone 7+. The first was while I was setting up DJ equipment for a work event, in which I needed to test the audio and I forgot my adapter. I was surrounded by high quality 3.5mm plugs, yet I had functional access to none of them. The second, and far more frustrating situation, was when I was in line at the Star Wars Celebration 40th Anniversary panel in Orlando – at 5PM the night before. I brought my brand new Nintendo Switch, my OnePlus Bullets V2, and my iPhone 7+… and you can imagine what I forgot. While it was highly irritating, I was glad I brought my iPhone over my Honor 8 Pro despite the loss of the headphone jack, because while my iPhone irritated me it also had vastly better battery life and a far superior camera, both things that were more important ten times over. Since October of 2016 I have used a phone without a headphone jack about 75% of the time, and when it came time to look at replacing my aggravatingly laggy Galaxy S8, I didn’t even think twice about the U11 not having the port, it just was not that big of an issue. To me and, looking at the sales numbers, to many others the headphone jack some of us feel so strongly about is a minor feature inconvenience not unlike wireless charging or an IR blaster to some users.
All of this being said, there are some real issues that plague the adoption of alternative – Lightning, USB-C or otherwise – headphones, and that is every manufacturer doing things slightly differently. For instance, my upcoming Moto Z2 Force headphone adapter will not work on my HTC U11, and my HTC U11 headphones will not work on my Z2 Force, or any other USB-C device. This is a problem, and one that needs to be addressed since it seems that the decision to include the DAC in the adapter or on the device while using USB-C audio passthrough is up to the manufacturer. This break in the ease of adoption could greatly impact the public’s perception of the issue. It could be easily assisted by HTC making their adapter available to purchase, both through their site as well as Amazon like Apple does, but as of the time I am writing this it is still being listed as “Pre-order” on the US site despite having devices requiring this adapter since November of 2016. The argument can be made that if they never removed the port this wouldn’t be an issue, and it is a valid one, but the port is gone and supporting their customers should be a top priority. Unfortunately, for Hi-Fi lovers, and those who use external DAC’s on Android, the situation is similarly frustrating. Google needs to fix support of external DAC’s without audio gain controls like the DragonFly Red and Black, which I love for their performance and ease in portability. But these devices are affected by a bug deep in Android that prevents them from attaining full power on unless the phone is rooted, a major problem that still does not appear to be fixed. When an Android OEM decides to make the simple needlessly complicated, they also need to make sure the customer’s experience due to these decisions is as easy and smooth as possible. Hopefully, with indications of Google stepping into the USB-C audio future with the next Pixel phones, we will see standardization and fixes to help ease the transition into the new future for our mobile devices. LG is aiming to buck this trend, at least as of now by touting their quad-DAC available in the LG V20 and the Hi-Fi DAC in some variants of the G6 and G6+. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be stopping the steady decline of demand for LG devices as noted by their 2nd Quarter 2017 financial results.
Day to day performance, battery life, the camera, software, water resistance – all of these are things most users will place at the top of their importance lists for what they will and will not buy. The headphone jack has slipped to being just another nicety today – as frustrating as it sounds – but when it comes to actually being a buying-decision issue, sadly the numbers just do not back up the claims that it is device-hindering and essential. More and more Android manufacturers are going to follow Apple, HTC, Google, and Motorola’s lead in removing the port as they see that they can benefit from removing the port for things like better ingress protection, less points of failure, more radical designs, and less cost. We as users are going to have to adapt to this, or be stuck with an ever-shrinking selection of devices. There are real-world scenarios that each and every early adopter will have to face, and while Apple is leading the charge in making this easy, Android is lagging behind getting everyone on the same page. I now have to have to choose if I am going to stick with my HTC bundled headphones at work, and use my adapter at home, or use my adapter at work and be forced to use my HTC headphones in my home. If I am setting up my equipment at work I need to make sure I have my iPad nearby or risk not being able to level my audio properly. When I stayed overnight at a hotel for a work event, I had to actively remember to bring my adapter or not have the use of headphones the next day, and one time I took my adapter to work with my headphones and forgot them over the weekend. The grass isn’t greener on the other side and there are issues and annoyances in having to adapt to the lack of something we have had for decades that will continue to live on in other devices.
For me though, if I am forced to choose between a device that meets my battery, performance and camera needs and one that sacrifices any of those but has a headphone jack, I will go for the former every time. And I’d do it with admitted reluctance, of course, but that will sadly decrease over time as the omission becomes increasingly normalized, like we’ve seen with features such as removable batteries. My Galaxy S8+ may just be the last phone I own with the legacy port, and honestly I don’t think I will miss it… until I do.