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 thereat 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.