USB Type-C Connector the First Step Toward Ubiquitous Smart Headphones

I recently posted about rumored Apple plans to rid the iPhone of the 3.5mm headphone jack, and how that might be quite a disturbance to the headphone market. If you recall, the actual main gist of the article was that it might all be cover as Apple madly works in secret developing the first generation of really smart headphones.

I also wrote a CES post about Sennheiser's front and center display of prototype immersive audio products in an attempt to get the industry excited and working towards the infrastructure of software and hardware standards needed to pull off immersive audio experiences with consumer electronic devices.

An astute InnerFidelity reader tipped me off to evidence of a very real step forward for the development of smart headphones in the future: The USB Type-3 Connector. A recent Anandtech article details plans brought to light at the Intel Developer's Forum Shenzen for soon-to-be-introduced USB Type-C Digital Audio standards.

Highlights include:

  • Type-C connector proposed as an ideal replacement for the 3.5mm headphone jack.
  • Optional analog audio connections for dumb headphones.
  • Backwards compatibility with previous USB audio formats.
  • And, of course, "Intel proposes to [manufacture] special multi-function processing units (MPUs), which will perform beam forming, noise suppression, acoustic echo suppression (AES), acoustic echo cancellation (AEC), non-linear processing and other operations."

Intel is, after all, a chip-maker, so a lot of their desire to see smart headphones come from wanting to make the brains inside them. And they're motivated, they're in the process of laying-off about 11% of their work force as they re-tool from being mainly "inside" PCs to hopefully being inside the phone in your pocket.

What ever their motive, it's a sure sign that the world is moving on, and likely without a 3.5mm headphone jack for too much longer. But more importantly—and not really mentioned in detail in other reports stimulated by the Intel presentation—is the Intel USB Type-C Digital Audio standards are an open door for headphone makers of all types to start making smart immersive audio headphones without having to enter into Apples hardware ecosystem.


The race is on. Would you like that Sennheiser Momentum 3 with a USB Type-C or Apple Lightning connector? I bet you'll see that choice in less than 2 years.

Related Resources
Anandtech article on Intel's USB Type-C Digital Audio standard announcement.
Wikipedia on USB Type-C
"All you need to know about USB 3.1..." on
"USB Type-C: One cable to connect them all" c|net

Impulse's picture

Is that it will probably be ubiquitous on laptops as well... This presents an interesting crossroad for Apple.

Their typical MO would be to stick with a proprietary port they can milk, but cramming a Lighting port on a MacBook just for audio doesn't make any sense.

I guess it's quite possible they'll get behind both ports, that would actually be good news in light of the potential mess this could otherwise turn into.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
From what I read, you're exactly correct. If Apple got behind this connector, things might become very fast forward indeed.
burnspbesq's picture

... It was Apple that introduced the USB-C connector, on the 12 inch MacBook. They can go either way, or both ways.

Impulse's picture

But the MB wasn't the first device out of the gate sporting a Type C port

Impulse's picture

Also, having a single solitary Type C on a laptop is still dumb... More so than on a phone. It's a shame they didn't change that on the first refresh but it's bound to happen. Needing a hub just to charge and access a flash drive or use your headphones is a fail.

To their credit they are helping push Type C adoption regardless of the poor implementation and the early snafus with charging issues (not really their fault but cable maker's).

They tend to jump on most new interfaces before the rest of the market, whether it's destined for widespread use (USB in early 2000 & now Type C) or it ends up being more of a niche (see: Thunderbolt, Firewire)...

This is all related to their Mac OS / x86 devices tho... It's never really been the case for iOS/mobile where they've chosen a different road at every opportunity. Those roads are seemingly now converging tho, it'll be interesting to see whether they just end up backing both or what.

drblank's picture

I'm in agreement with the MB only having 1 USB-C connector. I think it should have 2 of them, plus one that supports Thunderbolt. That would make it a really good music server since it's fanless and it would have everything one would need in a dedicated music server.

I think USB-C is going to eventually replace other USB connectors and it's just going to take time. They just haven't finished the entire design of what it supports.

It does support Thunderbolt, which is a high end I/O that Apple adopted which some PC mfg are adopting.

Yeah, it's not only does Apple jump on new I/O, they also make it work better. Look at the beginning of USB, PCs had USB on their computers before Apple, but Apple's implementation actually worked because they supplied working drivers within the OS, Microsoft was lazy in supporting USB. With Firewire, that was Apple's design and it was to provide a better I/O for higher end applications, and then Thunderbolt came out, (which was Apple's idea, they just went to Intel to actually do the development) and Thunderbolt was to replace Firewire, Fibre Channel, SCSI, and anything else in the high end audio production/video production/storage. Apple just did a better job with the drivers.

But moving forward, I think USB-C will eventually replace everything else. It will just take a few years for all mfg to incorporate it in their products.

Impulse's picture

But the MB wasn't the first device out of the gate sporting a Type C port

24bitbob's picture

I'm mindful that 99% (okay, make that 98%) of the music buying public is happy listening to MP3 files using smart phones with $200 headphones, and why not?

With that in mind, the switch to USB 3 is more likely to be for reasons other than sound quality, be it better quality, or some way of immersing people in sound. Minimising the number of ports, or reducing their size being likely explanations.

Sure, we shouldn't push back on it given the potential, but I've seen too many new sound formats come and go to believe that the quality of the sound has anything to do with it.

thefitz's picture

You'd hope getting rid of the 3.5mm jack would open up the already-healthy market for portable USB DAC/Amp combos. However, we all know what Apple thinks about third party products...

Aufdemaury deus ex machina's picture

I personally have an old april 2015 PDf. that you guys distribute here at innerfidelity, and of course
it has the old Q701 measurement, not the current one you have on display.

I inquired an employee about new production changes, and now they are made in china.
was the one you have currently up a chinese production model or an austrian one?
the old Q701 measurements of course were Austrian made, since they were measured around the time of release, and old measurement of the Austrian version Do have better measurement regarding Square waves (stronger falling edge, slightly less overshooting)better extension on the low end, as well as better and more linear ThD measurements.

If this so happens to be the case, could you so kindly repost and the old measurements, since there is a fruitful amount of Austrian made Q701's circulating around classifieds and trade forums, and even current distributers of the like.

otherwise if the current Q701's measurements are of an Austrian pair could you specify the date of purchase or production, so we could draw lineage between the times? other research into this suggest that there are indeed slight differences in the injection moulding processes and the pads also are apparently more softer and more pliable as well, check it out for yourself. Which leads me to believe they are also more air permeable, this itself could be the cause of the regressing bass response extension and square wave composure.

Also, there is talk of different production changes in different serial numbers of HD800's, Headroom measurements further suggest these changes as well. so any data/spreadsheets on this would be appreciated. My personal HD800 graphs i got for my sr32xxx pair suggest this as well as they differ consistently from 22xxx+ pairs as well as 18xxx - pairs. Personally i'm really glad that you distribute multiple graphs of the Audeze Lcd - Series so, if you could do the same with other headphones, tha'd be awesome.

Thank you for your time.

SonicSavourIF's picture

Why on earth would we need smart headphones? My headphones should play music as good as possible. Period. No batteries, no software, no internet, not hackable, no bullshit. I really don't see any benefit.

thelostMIDrange's picture

hack directly into your nervous system? what a luddite you are sonic!

3.5mm works without issue. And it's inexpensive. No wonder they want to mess with it ! anyone who pushes this 'inevitable' 'smart' gear is on the darkside (under the progress and helping people with disabilities, guise)

johnnyjazz's picture

Can existing headphones be made compatible with type C USB.
Johnny, @

OldRoadToad's picture

What is so wrong with what we currently have that we need to complicate that which works just fine? When you insert the jack into your computer, receiver, headphone amp, etc., do you hear the music playing or the voices in your head telling you that's not "enough"?

More ENC. Emperor's New Clothes.

elino's picture

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SteveErvin's picture

USB Type-C will soon be the new standard connector for both charging and information. A year ago, Type-C showed up as a port on a modest bunch of frameworks, including the Apple MacBook and Google's new Chromebook Pixel. online academic service In any case, in 2016, we ought to see a ton of telephones and tablets that utilization the port. With Type-C installed, you can duplicate records at USB 3.1 rates, convey enough energy to charge a portable workstation or use Alt Mode to send different sorts of information utilizing DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3 associations.

jazz8521's picture

Thank you.