Headphone News: June 2014

The Demise of the 3.5mm Headphone Jack
Wheeeeee! The sky is falling and the 3.5mm jack is disappearing!!! At least that's what the plethora of news blurbs over the last two weeks on Apple's Lightning connector would have you believe. Jordan Kahn's story broke on June 3rd on 9to5Mac, and the webiverse went a little crazy reporting on the impending doom of our little jack.

Unfortunately, most reports were just hair fires, and no one that I found reported on exactly what was said at Apple's World Wide Developers Conference, so I dug into it a little bit to sort it all out. Here's what I found:

In Apple's 2014 World Wide Developer's Conference session 701 "Designing Accessories for iOS and OS X" (presentation can be found about half way down this page), at the 5:00 minute mark, presenter Robert Walsh, Manager, Platform Accessories, in describing the "Lightning Headphone Module" features says:

"This year we have some new functionality to offer you: We're offering a Lightning Headphone Module. Now this is a module that breaks out analog audio for you, and it connects straight into the Lightning connector on your iOS device."

The Lightning connector is touted as a very flexible interface, but I had always thought it was digital signal and power only. It sounds to me like if you plug in a pair of passive headphones properly wired with a Lightning connector you'll get an analog signal to drive headphones. What I was, unfortunately, unable to figure out was if that's true for all Lightning connector iOS devices, or only future models. I suspect the latter.

Regarding the continuing existence of our litte friend jack, at 7:45 mark in the video Walsh does mention the 3.5mm jack as being supported by upcoming products saying:

And last but not least, all of our products also support the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and we also provide a module for you to incorporate into your products, which allows you to take advantage of the remote control functionality that we offer over this jack."

And that's the complete statement about the 3.5mm jack. So, it will still be there—at least in the near-term upcoming product releases, but it doesn't sound like they're drawing much attention to it.

One thing to note is that Apple's most commonly stated reason for this move is to allow the iDevice to provide more control of the headphones. Specifically, they call out the ability to control and power noise canceling headphones. And they've even got their own little spin on noise-canceling: This Patently Apple article describes an Apple patent application for "Hybrid Adaptive Headphones" that have a small internal vent that can open and close with a signal from the iDevice.

140618_HeadphoneNews_Diag_PortedHeadphone

Amazingly, that Patently Apple article linked above does a really great job of describing the advantages of having a headphone that can both be open or sealed. Pretty cool stuff.

The problem I have with all this is the impending connectivity war. For a very long time we enthusiasts have enjoyed a world where pretty much every headphone could be plugged into any headphone jack. I think that's going to go away for a while...maybe forever. We've already tasted a bit of it with one-button Android remotes and three-button Apple remotes on headphones...this upcoming battle will be a lot worse. Beats will likely make the first Apple Lightning headphones, and their advantage will be very difficult to overcome. And who's going to be first with an Android equivalent?

Signs of the battle beginning? Sure. Beats headphones have been banned at the World Cup, and Sennheiser has produced a World Cup commemorative headphone. Sennheiser has also just launched a massive marketing campaign focused on lifestyle and the 18-34 year old market, and have partnered with Spotify in a "large traffic generation contract", all in an attempt to stave off any advantages Beats and Apple may gain in their partnership. No, it's not about connectors....yet. But make no mistake, we're about to see a war in the world of headphones.

Vaults Filled with Gold
140618_HeadphoneNews_Photo_GoldAtLabels

You and I know that the best thing that could ever happen to music would be if all the record labels decided to dig into their archives, select the best masters, and republish pristine examples of the great art currently buried in their vaults. Well, my spidy senses are tingling, I think we're on the verge of something that just might be great...maybe.

A couple of weeks ago the DEG, CEA, The Recording Academy and major labels reached an agreement on the definition for high resolution audio files. The agreement harkens back to the old "AAD" days assigning a code to track to signify the nature of the master from which the track was made.

  • MQ-P - From a PCM master source 48 kHz/20 bit or higher; (typically 96/24 or 192/24 content)
  • MQ-A - From an analog master source
  • MQ-C - From a CD master source (44.1 kHz/16 bit content)
  • MQ-D - From a DSD/DSF master source (typically 2.8 or 5.6 MHz content)

The important thing to note here is they're creating standards for masters. That sounds good to me, they've obviously been thinking about the issue. Add that to Neil Young's now three years in the making Pono effort where, despite all the yabber about file resolution, they're also very concerned with the quality of the masters. Oh, and Apple's noises about hi-rez downloads. And then, the new Led Zeppelin remasters that, according to reports, are lovely. I'm convinced we'll be seeing, or rather hearing, more of these musical treasures anew soon.

The truth in the end, like always, is that it's all about money. The record labels have spent the last 20 years bleeding at MP3 rates, they need to find a way to make bank on their catalogs and hi-rez streaming of great remasters sure as hell would get my $29/mo. Steve Guttenberg's recent "As We See It", which has just appeared on Stereophile's website, lays the cards on the table nicely for you to see. But if you want a look at the way industry insiders are starting to talk about the subject, check out this video by Marc Geiger, head of William Morris Endeavor's music division, from the MIDEM conference this year...his talk passionately implores all record labels to get on-board now with high resolution streaming services.

Kicking in Kickstarter
I like to rifle through Kickstarter for personal audio gems. Here's a few I've found lately.

140618_HeadphoneNews_Photo_BeatsStation

Beats Station ($39.99)
Well, this wasn't actually on Kickstarter, I was looking at this cool desk that was, and followed the links back to iSkelter's website filled with cool products built of bamboo. I find the name a bit unfortunate, but otherwise the Beats Station seems like a handsome headphone stand solution.

140618_HeadphoneNews_Photo_Deloop Deloop Headphone Bag
I've been involved with making headphone bags for about 20 years...sometimes I think I did things too soon. Anywho, I kinda dug some of these headphone bags. Better hurry if you're interested only a few hours left on the Deloop Kickstarter page.

140618_HeadphoneNews_Photo_Sprout PS Audio Sprout
They've blown through their $36k goal and are now pushing near a quarter million dollars in backing money. Wow! This will be an interesting product to watch; the Sprout is an integrated amp with inputs for phono, USB, digital coax, aptX Bluetooth, and analog signals. I find this product an interesting mix of contemporary and traditional sensibilities...I'm wondering what the demographics of purchasers are? A quarter million bucks means the appeal is there. Interesting.

140618_HeadphoneNews_Photo_Handiheadset

Handiheadset
Awwwwwwww. Failed with just over 1% of his Handiheadset idea funded. Too bad, so sad, as far as I'm concerned it was worth it for the picture.

And that's it for Headphone News. G'night.

COMMENTS
Impulse's picture

I don't find it the least bit surprising that Apple is going for a proprietary connector/standard for headphones after buying up Beats... I do hope against hippie it backfires on them though, regardless of the relative merits.

DaveK1977's picture

Why take a de facto standard that is over 100 years old at its roots and throw that compatability away?

Hjelmevold's picture

Throwing compatibility away is not necessarily a terrible thing to do - we recovered quite well a few years after Apple stopped using floppy drives and switched to USB in 1998. And while it's relatively easy to repair a jack connector with a soldering iron, the jack connector does have its problems, such as the ground pin causing a brief loud buzz when inserted in the wrong order.

With that said, the problem here isn't so much throwing a de facto standard out the window, but rather that it's a proprietary connector. In other words, if you buy a new pair of iBeetz headphones, you can only use them with a small range of devices that use the Apple connector. And you can't create your own product that uses this connector without having an agreement with Apple. That is a barrier that limits innovation.

Another sad example: Apple and 9 other mobile phone manufacturers signed an EU-driven agreement that they would use Micro USB as the de facto mobile phone charging standard. The purpose of the agreement was to reduce the amount of waste caused by mobile phones using different types of chargers. In 2012, Apple pulled out of the agreement and released the Lightning connector. If you want to charge over Micro USB, you need an adapter cable, which leads to... more waste. I can understand that a company may be forced to make such bad moves every once in a while, but with Apple it's become a strategy to use proprietary standards, and that's taking it too far.

Luckily, I don't think the jack connector is going to disappear anytime soon.

DaveK1977's picture

One of my favorite things to do recently with old and obsolete headphones is to modify them with a female 3.5mm jack, so that they will easily work with the smartphone compatible cords that came with my Koss and Skullcandy models. It doesn't make them less compatible, it makes them more compatible and more fun for casual use. If the end result of this is a cord with a male 3.5 on one end and a Lightning connector on the other then I'm ok with that 100%. If instead the end result is a $100 Beats-branded dongle with a 3-pole 3.5 to limit and inconvenience use of non Apple/Beats headphones then I will be jumping ship to Android for my next phone. I've already noticed in online reviews that the new Beats models have 4 conductors on the end that meets the headphones, and I don't know yet why. I doubt that it's a balanced connector. I just hope that signs like that don't lead to strictly use of approved devices.

Thorsten Mühler's picture

From what I've been hearing from other techie sites (and indeed, from a quick skimming of the 9to5Mac article), with this new Lightning Headphone Module initiative, isn't Apple just finally officially supporting outboard DACs on iDevices? I mean, iOS 7 already supports USB Audio 1.0, and it's already possible to use the Lightning Camera Connection Kit to connect a USB DAC to an iDevice, so how is this different? I really don't think that Apple would abandon the 3.5mm standard anytime soon, just like they didn't abandon the 3.5mm jack even though the old 40-pin iPod connectors had analog line-out functionality.

Speakerphile's picture

Love Apple, and most of their products. Not blindly, mind you. This is unfortunate news though, in my opinion. I think it would be fine to allow digital output for a new breed of DAC-included headphones. These at least, could include both a USB cable for Android/PC and a lightning connector for iOS devices. This also has the added benefit of potentially improving the quality of portable listening without requiring a "portable stack". Nixing the tried and true 3.5mm jack for a proprietary cable with negligible benefits though, is a little too much. I could actually see this diminishing the output quality Apple is known for providing in their devices. I think Apple sees this as a way to lock customers into their ecosystem who might buy these headphones. While their ecosystem is already closed off, it doesn't limit itself like this for the sake of locking in customers. May have to question my product purchases a little more going forward. This just gives me a bad feeling...

thelostMIDrange's picture

my $30 soundmagic e30's and a $50 sansa player which plays flac and sounds frickin' fantastic. And I'm a demanding listener believe it or not, most headphones and audio gear just plain sounds wrong. These corporate bean counters and their nepotisticly appointed talking heads do not care one whip about the customer's needs, 100 years of precedent, or the fine function of the standard audio plug. They must 'innovate' and excel at creating 'solutions' to non existent problems, often ruining perfectly good time tested solutions in the process. It reminds me of the music industry in general where suits and ties make executive decisions about art and have the balls to put on a conference with titles such as "the definitive future of the music business". It will take some time but the whole thing will come crashing down under its own bloated corporate weight. Meanwhile true audiophiles and musicians will continue enjoying and creating DIY grassroots music and audio reproduction gear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVV7RUk3_p0

Aiden101's picture

I'm a huge fan of your reviews Tyll, in fact i'd trudged through countless review upon review looking for a set of headphones last year until i finally found your page. It was around 2am and it was like a eureka moment when i scrolled through the hall of fame.

I knew all the effort and searching had finally paid off. You basically described everything that i was looking for in a new headphone. I used to travel extensibly with work so the Bose Quiet Comforts where my essential headphone for a long time but they never had the excitement that i was craving from my music. I bought the V-Moda Crossfade M-100's after reading your review and watching your video. I've remained delighted by them ever since.

Anyway.... i digress from my original intention.... (Fan appreciation complete.)

Would you ever consider covering other Audio products that are increasing in popularity such as Soundbars and Soundbases?

I'm sure I'm not alone here in wanting your ever trusted opinions on said products.

I'm personally looking for a device to satisfactorily accompany my plasma tv and have spent the last 3 days soldiering through what i can only describe as a holy mess of varying opinions and slightly less well informed reviews and i'm still no closer to deciding what to buy. I guess thats the problem with living in the middle of nowhere, an over reliance on internet shopping.

If you know of any Go To sites/people where i can find the holy grail of reviewers like yourself, who can reliably do all the dirty work for me, it would be immensely appreciated.

Keep up the great work Tyll. Always a pleasure reading your posts.

dragoonv's picture

I am just curious how we are going to listen to music while charging the phone?

lafaard's picture

The design of the 3.5 mm jack is very flimsy and bends/deteriorates over time. Just look at the Audio Technica M50/Grado Sr80 for instance, the connector looks pathetic next to the sturdy cable. If manufacturers give the option to switch between the lightning port and the classic 3.5 mm jack with removable cables, I support that. This technology makes no sense on cheap, affordable headphones though.