Bring on our inevitable Apple wireless headphone future

Music Memo
Music Memo (Image credit: iMore)

We've heard our fair share of rumors over Apple's supposedly dropping the headphone jack in the next iPhone. And as much hollering as we've heard over the potential change, it makes sense: Taking out the headphone port frees up internal space, and audio over a port like Lightning could give audiophiles a much nicer sound than the 3.5mm jack can currently provide.

It appears Apple's not the only company leaning in this direction; on Tuesday, Anandtech reported on Intel's proposal during a developer conference in China to use USB-C for audio, and Android phone maker LeEco unveiled in China a trio of Android phones with USB-C and now headphone jack. Proposals are far from actual shipping products, but I'll take anything that gets us closer to wireless accessories.

Our great wireless future

I've been using Bluetooth headphones for about a year now, after I finally took the advice of the Wirecutter's Dan Frakes and picked up a pair of Jabra Move (opens in new tab) headphones. Once I picked them up, it only took a month of active use to make me want wireless headphones for all my audio-related tasks.

Now, as headphones go, they're nothing fancy: You won't find Bose or Sennheiser-level audio quality here, and there's no noise cancelling to be found. But they're just about the nicest sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones I've ever used.

They're comfy and adjustable, and don't squish your head or cause headaches like many other over-the-ear models. The Bluetooth connection is quick and reliable, I've yet to run into any significant video/audio lag. And the battery lasts a serviceable 8 hours straight; I can regularly get around two weeks' use from my coffee-shop-and-travel outings before having to charge. And if I run out of battery, all I need to do is plug a 3.5mm cord into the headphones and my computer to turn it into an unpowered wired headset.

The freedom that comes from wireless headphones is liberating. You can get up and pace around a room or refill your iced tea without having to disconnect cords or remove headphones. They take less packing space, and you don't have to worry about accidentally bending cords. When traveling light, you can store them around your neck without accidentally choking yourself on wires.

That said, while I very much enjoy wireless audio, it has quite a few problems to perfect before audio enthusiasts can jump on-board. For one, Bluetooth — while better than ever in version 4.0 — still has major latency issues; those aren't great if you're trying to watch video or edit podcasts. The audio protocol also has some trouble maintaining the fidelity and sound of a track: I don't mind the trade-offs when working portably, but audio engineers and finicky listeners likely feel quite a bit differently.

And there's the battery issue: Bluetooth headphones are power-hogs, with built-in batteries that rarely exceed the 8-12 hour range. While your headphones will likely make it through a day of heavy use, draining that pack means one more thing to charge at night, and with a different connector (there a Lightning connector headphones, but as of yet no Bluetooth headphones that charge off Lightning).

Charging forward

While I hope Apple is secretly working on a standard inside the Beats business that blows Bluetooth's audio quality out of the water, I'm a little skeptical we'll see it anytime soon. More likely, it's an opening for the company to find a middle ground.

For this, I look toward Apple's Magic Keyboard 2 and Trackpad 2, which both use Bluetooth: When either accessory gets low, you have the option to plug them in via Lightning, where they'll quick-charge; while they refill their batteries, however, you can also continue to use them for your tasks. (Sadly, the Magic Mouse does not have this as an option, as its Lighting Port is on the bottom of the accessory.)

Taking this lesson to heart: Imagine a pair of wireless Apple/Beats headphones that let you go wireless when you needed, but connected via Lightning (or USB-C) for any audio-critical tasks — and quick-charged your headphones while doing so. To me, this sounds like a wonderful compromise on the way to building the perfect wireless accessory — and one fewer cord to bring when traveling.

Of course, this won't work if Apple doesn't launch with a good set of headphones, or great MFi partners. But, with luck, that's partially what the company's Beats acquisition was designed to help do.

What do you think, iMore? Would you buy a pair of wireless Lightning or USB-C headphones? Let us know below.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

45 Comments
  • I'd have no problem with that, USB-C that is. And to add to that, I'd love the Ipad switch their lightning port for a USB-C port as well (and get some manner of internal file management system for documents while they're at it).
  • I don't know why everyone is so sexed up with USB-C. Lightning is more capable and THINNER than USB-C. It takes up less internal space as well. Yet everyone is so hot to have Apple drop it in favour of USB-C. No sense at all.
  • Agreed, but whatever. Other than being reversible he connector for USB-C is not much better than prior USB connectors.
  • I think Apple sees USB-C as the future of connectivity for all of it's devices (the new Macbook being the first) and everybody else is just following suit.
  • Great, even worse battery life from my phone. Sent from the iMore App
  • So true.
  • Might want to get that checked out. Mine will last all day with no issues Sent from the iMore App
  • What's to check out? Having another radio on all the time is going to drain the battery faster. Sent from the iMore App
  • Marco Arment (developer of the Overcast podcast app) was actually curious about this and he found that Bluetooth headphones use *significantly* less power than powering the iPhone speaker, and standard wired headphones ever less power. I was definitely surprised by this, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about the amount of energy that speakers consume. (The date of his testing is also very recent.) I highly recommend the read. He's an excellent developer! https://marco.org/2016/03/14/overcast25
  • That's what I'm saying, wired headphones are going to use less power than wireless ones. Plus they want to make the phone thinner, so the battery will be even smaller?
  • I picked up a pair of Skull Candy Hesh 2 Bluetooth headphones during Christmas after my wife told me that my teenaged son loved his. These things are fantastic. I don't care about high fidelity audio and honestly my ears really can't tell the difference anyway. I'm Bluetooth all the way now. I can listen to podcasts while cleaning up after dinner and not get the cord caught in every kitchen drawer known to man. It's also great for wandering around the office (I can wander from my MacBook and keep the headphones on). Sold. Now if only Apple would support multiple sound channels on my iPad so I can listen to Overcast while playing Alto's Adventure or Crashlands I would be a very happy man.
  • I made the switch to wireless (for non-domestic use) when I got my Apple Watch. Having that great remote on the wrist, and still fighting the cable that gets tangled in coat buttons, interacts with the strap of my laptop bag (normally resulting in painfully pulling my ears) etc. Away with it. I bought the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless after comparing 7 or 8 pairs in the shop – none of the others came close, not even remotely. Great sound, 17 hours of battery life, built-in mics, pairs with up to 8 devices. And if the battery does run out after all, there is even a little standard cable to bridge the gap. My daily commute is approx. 2 hours total, so I have to charge them every weekend. Sound quality is, as I said, great. But it would be even better if Apple would get around and allow iDevices to have aptX support. They do not need to invent anything, just use something that works.
  • One of the reasons why I choose an iPhone is because they have a decent DAC built into the phone. If they get rid of the 3.5mm jack then whatever accessory they provide will have to have an external DAC which means more battery drain and probably crappier components. Being that I use high-end headphones and I really enjoy high quality music that is reason enough to ditch the iPhone as a music player completely. At that point I may as well buy a standalone music player and I can for sure say it won't be Apple. For me at least, nothing good will come out of getting rid of the 3.5mm jack.
  • Fully agreed. I will be moving away from the iPhone should the 3.5mm jack be removed and if I don't have an iPhone I'll likely look to replace my iPad with something from the same OS as the phone I opt for. If I'm no longer all Apple mobile-wise my Mac will go back to a Windows machine too. I have zero issues with the current design. Removing the 3.5mm to favour slimming is unnecessary and I see no problem with wired headphones. Cables don't need to interfere with anything if you wear them right. The affect on battery life and the loss of sound quality will be the biggest issues and I think there's a large number that agree. Sent from the iMore App
  • Will be difficult to find a phone in the future for you it seems. That audio jack is going to disappear from everything soon Sent from the iMore App
  • I am sure there will be a lightning connector dongle offered for 29.95.
  • And many more offered at half that.
    I was fine with my 1989 dodge shadow.... But for some reason technology had to move forward even with out my approval... Weird
  • This kind of misses the point and I'm not opposed to advances in technology. It needs to be an advancement in terms of functionality for me though. Show me a wireless headphone solution, one using ANY technology, that can offer the same quality as a pair of high end headphones/IEMs. If it's there and the cost isn't silly, I'll happily adopt it. Sent from the iMore App
  • Then see what happens before jumping to conclusions, i personally don't believe they will be wireless, and see no reason why everyone assumes they will go wireless. And i dont think ditching that plug is to make the phone thinner
  • So your new vehicle doesn't use wheels? Crazy!
  • Good article. It all depends on your needs. Two headphones are needed in music work. Closed back noise cancelling for recording, and open back for mixing. Trouble is, most good pair are not wireless. It will be interesting to see what is done with the MacBook line in the future. There are some great programs for iPhone, and iPad for music work. MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, iMac, and the Mac, there are excellent DAW's from Logic to Pro Tools, and all others. All really need connected headphones. The other problems I find with wireless, battery life can really vary. I guess that is the main issue for all our devices. Battery life has not really caught up with current technology. Sent from the iMore App
  • Charging over lightning might sound like a good idea unless the battery in the headphones is half the size of the battery in your phone and... you see where this is going! I do want some nice wireless headphones that are not over ear and not in ear. What I want is white apple earbuds just wireless...
  • I'm more concerned about how I'm going to listen to music in the car. I've got an older car and I use an aux cord currently. Looks like I'll have to get an aftermarket radio with bluetooth to listen to my music now. Not too happy about it.
  • No doubt if they ditch the 3.5mm jack they'll be an adaptor for those of us with older (and more expensive headphones). You can use that in the car.
  • Adapters for lightning to audio already exist. Your car will be fine Sent from the iMore App
  • Can you post a link please?
  • Amazon has literally hundreds of Bluetooth adapters that you can plug into the aux jack of your car, some costing as little as $10. Concerns alleviated. You're welcome.
  • Yeah, I already bought one and the volume and sound quality aren't up to par.
  • So some how you think inferior headphones are a good idea? And sorry for all you people the have invested in high end headphones. But I'm sure Apple will sell you another pair of Beats. All they are doing is inconveniencing the customer to free up a minimal amount of room so they can tell us how much thinner the phone is.
  • Look at the inside of the phone. That port takes up a surprisingly large amount of room.
    Who cares about thinner, it will free up room for better stuff inside.
    And why cry about something that a 5-10 dollar adapter will fix? Oh no, my headphones will have a 2 inch extention on it!?! I hate you apple!
    Infact to all tech companies: you may never mov me forward because some people still use the old stuff! So you have to keep only hardware thats 50 years old! Sent from the iMore App
  • That extension is a very weak point that is bound to break something. Adapters are not a great solution. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • For people as you mentioned trying to hold onto old tech because they paid high prices for them, then adapters are about the only choice you have.
  • You have no idea what you are talking about, do you? The 3.5mm jack is an analog output. This means that the DAC is inside the phone, doing the audio conversion from digital to analog signal. If Apple gets rid of the 3.5mm jack then they will get rid of the internal DAC too. The signal coming out of the Lightning or USB-C port will be digital and since basically no headphones are powered and do their own digital to analog conversion you will need a powered adapter with a DAC to drive the headphones. In fact, it will need a DAC and an amp. So no, the adapter will not be $10. It will be much more expensive, and it will drain more battery or rely on its own battery pack. It will also be bulky (relatively speaking), and it will probably not be very good.
  • And by "inconveniencing the customer" you are referring to yourself, of course.
  • I've been using wireless earbuds for a couple of years now. I hate going for a run with earbud wires flopping around.
  • Not sure why everyone thinks the new headphones will be wireless. Sent from the iMore App
  • I hope they are not. Lightning earbuds I can deal with. If bluetooth earbuds actually worked or were desirable, everyone would already use them. It's not like bluetooth is a new thing.
  • One of those rare times I have to disagree with the estimable S.C. The last thing I need is something else to charge that will likely punk out on some long run leaving me with no audio. I'll skip the mild concern of EMF exposure and go straight to the difficulty of adjusting volume, answering the phone, and switching tracks - so convenient on a stock apple wired earphone. Yes, I see the clear advantages of no wires, but the cost benefit of higher price and frequent charging, lag, reduced fidelity and access to controls isn't worth it to me. I won't quibble about dumping the 3.5 if they give us the adapter with the phone - but I don't want a phone battery eating, daily charging set of blue tooth ear buds that will be easy to lose as the standard device that comes with the phone..
  • Since a couple of months I have the pleasure of using a pair of B&O H7's and they are just fantastic. I agree that wireless brings a level of comfort /liberation from wired headphones that will make you never ever want to use wired again. Having said that there are two prerequisites that I feel every BT headphone (and certainly the more expensive ones) MUST have in order to be consider. #1 - Headphones MUST have a replaceable battery. Your battery will be worn out long before your headphones are up for replacement. What are you gonna do with your Sennheiser Momentums in 2 years if the battery life has deteriorated to 2 hours or less? #2 - Wired backup, just in case you do run out you don't want to left with a large and useless necklace
  • I have no problem with bluetooth over the ears "cans" but only a teenager or an eediot wants to walk down the street wearing giant headphones. What you want is earbuds, and there just aren't any good bluetooth earbuds that don't look like a monkey's rear end. Even if you buy into the garish aesthetics, you either have to settle for "hooks" over the back of your ears, or those stupid cords that go behind or under your neck. Neither solution is comfortable, neither actually work very well and both make you look like the dorkiest of dory-dorks. Apple will either have to come up with a miracle of design here, or they will be better off making lightning earbuds. Bluetooth earbuds are just not doable at the moment without severe drawbacks in both looks and function.
  • You could use a bluetooth dongle and clip it to your chest pocket or lower collar, and continue to use your wired earbuds. Speaking of whick, the only bluetooth unit I've tried that doesn't give completely crap sound quality has been a dongle just like that, though a pricey one (search for "Noble BTS" if interested). Every other bluetooth headphone or earbud (complete with monkey rear end you mentioned) I've tried doesn't come anywhere close to a decent set of wired in-ears.
  • I hate having the untangle my EarPods every time I use them, I tried my sister's wireless Bluetooth headphones and man that difference in sound quality is noticeable. So I say bring on the inevitable wireless headphones future. Sent from the iMore App
  • Why I'm all set with the wireless headphones I'm going to be out of luck in the car unless I get a new one. Kind of sad about that.
  • My problem with all of this, and something I don't see mentioned in these articles, is the issue of the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) and Headphone Amp. If you take the headphone jack out of the iPhone, you have to move the DAC and Amp into the headphones, whether they be bluetooth or lightning. That also means the headphones are going to be more expensive, and bulkier. It's also a bit redundant, as the iPhone will still have to have a DAC and Amp inside to power the speaker(s), earpiece and microphones. And it's not a given that sound quality will improve, as it will be completely dependent on whatever headphones you buy and the quality of the electronics in them (as the internal parts in the iPhone will no longer be powering the sound, they'll just be sending data to the headphones). Whereas now you can buy a really nice pair of in-ear headphones for under $100 (my favorite pair were $75), in order to achieve comparable sound quality with lightning/bluetooth headphones, they are going to cost quite a bit more, since they'll need a decent DAC and Amp built in. You can see that now with bluetooth headphones. A nice sounding pair of large, over-the-ear, wired headphones costs ~$100, but a decent pair of similar bluetooth headphones is in the range of $250-$300, and their sound quality is still hampered by bluetooth. And on a pair of lightweight, small in-ear headphones, where are they going to put the DAC and Amp? Either in the cord, which seems fragile, or in the headphones themselves, which will make them bigger and heavier. You can already use the lightning jack for audio (using an external DAC/Amp or one of the few lightning headphones currently available) and you can already use bluetooth headphones. Taking away the headphone jack just removes an option without adding any benefit that we don't already have. The only upside will be that I'm sure headphone makers will start producing lightning/bluetooth powered headphones at a faster pace, spurred by the iPhone's popularity, so hopefully it won't take long to see less expensive units that are still decent quality. I'm not against the idea in principle, but bluetooth headphones haven't yet caught up to wired units in terms of sound quality, and lightning headphones will only work with iOS devices and I'll be they're going to be pricy. If Apple could come up with a way to make bluetooth sound quality match traditional headphones, and keep the cost down on lightning powered units, then maybe I'll bite.
  • I have touched on this in my previous comments and coincidentally I think both you and I said the same thing about the DAC/Amp. Don't forget they will also need to be powered. This isn't even planned obsolescence any more - it is in fact forced obsolescence.