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iPhone 7 and making Lightning strike twice

Will iPhone 7 include a headphone jack? Will there only be a Lightning port? Is that a good thing, or bad? What will it mean for headphones? For Bluetooth? For music?

I've already gone on the record that I don't think Apple will make that move, at least not now. But I then had a conversation with someone a lot smarter than I am, who happens to share the same last name with me, and also goes by @cgartenberg elsewhere. Yep, this lowly intern for some other site showed me the impossible: I might be wrong.

Bringing lossless audio to Apple Music

Simply, digital audio exists in two forms. Lossless, as the name implies, retains the exact audio quality of the original input without any compression degradation; it includes files in formats such as .WAV and .FLAC, along with Apple's own codecs for lossless audio .AIFF and .ALAC. The downside? Much bigger file sizes.

In contrast, with lossy audio — which encompasses the more familiar .MP3 or .AAC files — your music files are compressed; this diminishes audio quality in exchange for a much smaller file size.

Typically, the audible difference between lossless and lossy audio formats for anyone but the most discerning of listeners is typically moot. (Of course, hardcore audiophiles — who tend to prefer the sound of a vinyl collection to that of CDs — will argue otherwise.)

That said, when you pair your music with a better set of headphones — say, ones that could take advantage of increased power and access to a better Digital Audio Controller (DAC), perhaps from a Lightning port — you may notice a much more apparent difference. This could explain Apple's motives in trying to push Lightning headphones as a new standard.

Streaming lossless audio would also serve to help distinguish Apple Music from its competitors, including Spotify, whose 30 million paid subscribers still outnumber Apple Music's 15 million by a factor of two. Combining lossless integration with a hardware push for Lightning headphones may offer a tangible feature difference between the two services beyond a mere race for media exclusives.

Apple already has the software support for lossless audio with its own codecs for macOS; iOS devices could easily add high-definition audio as part of the major Apple Music update in iOS 10 this fall — right alongside the presumptive next iPhone.

There are issues with this line of thinking. For one, the average consumer doesn't really care about high audio quality at this level, and it's already been done — see the weak performance of Tidal's original $19.99/month lossless audio subscription. That said, Apple does have the track record for being able to educate consumers on this type of experience. (Look no further than the Retina display.)

Sound and color

It's not hard to see Apple focusing the next iPhone around high-definition audio, and embracing Lightning as the primary hardware option for sound on the device — a hardware option that would pair excellently with upgrades to Apple's software. It's extremely in line with the software-driving-hardware/hardware-driving-software synergy that Apple excels in executing. If you want to object based on third-party licensing fees for the Lightning connector, remember Apple can always elect to kill that fee to promote innovation and early adoption; even if the company doesn't, it's likely that manufacturers will still line up to create headphone options.

I'm not always right, but sometimes someone opens my eyes (or in this case, my ears), and occasionally I think different. Does this make sense, or do I just need to plug in my Bose wireless headphones and move along?

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

35 Comments
  • People are focusing too much on sound quality. There's more to going Lightning-only than just sound: http://macdailynews.com/2016/06/27/apple-is-known-for-dumping-legacy-tec... "For just one example, see Apple’s U.S. Patent No. 8,655,004: “Sports monitoring system for headphones, earbuds and/or headsets.” And that's just tip of the iceberg.
  • RE: "People are focusing too much on sound quality."
    Worse yet, most of those (mainly bloggers) focusing on the sound quality don't know jack about the subject.
  • Alrighty.
  • no pun intended
  • Remember when Apple killed the 30 pin connector? The uproar over getting rid of the headphone jack sounds the same. In the change over period it will be rough but right now you can buy plenty of third party cables and devises that connect over the Lightning port. If not on the iPhone 7 then the next iPhone you can kiss the Jack good bye. Sent from the iMore App
  • 30 pin connector was used only by iOS devices, the 3.5 jack connector is an universal connector, the Lightning connector is a proprietary connector
  • It was only used to charge and load data onto original iOS devices so it's not important right? Most people don't care or can't tell the difference in sound quality. And if you don't like Apple removing the jack you can always move to Android or Windows phone. Supporting a old standard just because you don't like change is ridiculous. As for headphone makers having to pay for the connector so what? Price of doing business in a market you don't control.
  • Do you really believe the thing you write? Not only are almost wrong, they even doesn't have anything to do with what I have said. And yes, there was no problem because the connector was not an universal connector and a headphone can be connected to any device you want. A Lightning connector cannot be connected to computer, Android device or any other audio device.
    Do you get that or you're still missing in your fantasy world?
  • I think that the idea of going Bluetooth everything is a good idea. I've switched to using Bluetooth headphones, even when using my desktop. I bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones and a USB Bluetooth adapter for my desktop to use them. Why? Life is so much simpler without wires. Granted you do have to charge them but who really cares? I charge these headphones about one a week (twice a week with heavy usage) and I'm good. Same will go with my iPhone 7 if it doesn't have a headphone jack. If you ask me, we should have dropped the headphone jack and gone completely Bluetooth years ago. Wires just get in the way of things especially if you go running or any kind of exercise.
  • 3.5mm is a current universal standard. Not an old standard. All audio begins and ends as analogue.
  • Sound quality might be how Apple tries to sell consumers on losing the headphone jack however it would be just as disingenuous as this article is about the subject: 1.) A DAC and AMP doesn't equate to better sound quality, despite the source (lossy or lossless). There are DAC's built into all smartphones and desktop computers and comparatively speaking those DAC's are actually really good. Especially better than the used to be some years ago. Oh and also, you know those crappy bluetooth headphones that cost $10 on Amazon, every single pair of those have DAC's as well. The DAC doesn't equate to good quality audio. GOOD HEADPHONES equate to good quality audio. The way the cans or buds themselves are designed is responsible for this. Anything else is negligible at very best. So Apple doesn't need to remove the headphone jack to improve audio quality... people can just buy better headphones without losing anything (except more money for buying better headphones). 2.) All these 'advantages' of lightning connector headphones are being discussed by people who are so pro-Apple that they want to justify their every decisions but they seems to be missing the fact that lightning headphones can ALREADY RIGHT NOW be used... removing 3.5mm jack doesn't change anything but remove choice for the user. It's not preventing people from buying lightning headphones, it's not preventing manufacturers from making them. What is preventing this? The fact that purely speaking of audio quality - there is no real advantage. Anyone telling you otherwise is misleading you - purposefully or not, they are misleading you. When writing articles about sound, please please please understand how sound quality works within the component stack sound flows through. Don't try to justify moves that will clearly be bad (at least up front) for the consumer by selling them on non-existent advantages. That lacks integrity and is plain slimy. I'm telling you right now, if Apple does this and then tries to sell it as a move that is pro-consumer with benefits of grandeur pertaining to sound quality, it will be the first time in a long time where I can honestly say Apple will be lying to consumers to push an agenda to benefit Apple while trying to make consumers believe it's for their own benefit. Heck EVEN if they explain this as a way to use headphones with built in monitors for heart rate and the like i.e. this will enable 'smart headphones', the truth still remains that they didn't need to remove the headphone jack the accomplish this. The lightning port is ALREADY there. The most germane thing to keep in mind when trying to process their possible reasoning for this is the simple fact that right now every other headphone maker can sell Apples customer headphones and Apple gets not a dime for that sell. However IF Apple does remove the headphone jack, any manufacturer who wants to make headphones for iPhones will from then on have to pay Apple a licensing fee for each lighting headphone manufactured. This would be the only clearly different fact between keeping both ports or losing one. Apple is a business, they exist to make money and be successful at making money - many times they make money by providing customers with great value, however also many times they make money by ensuring 'lock in' and removing choice to increase the money they make per customer. It's nature of business. I'm not making moral judgement, it's literally part of business. What I am ascribing a moral judgement to is telling the customer something that's not really true to sell them on an intent that's not your true intent and misleading them about your decisions - OR a blogger doing this on the companies behalf.
  • "However IF Apple does remove the headphone jack, any manufacturer who wants to make headphones for iPhones will from then on have to pay Apple a licensing fee for each lighting headphone manufactured." DIINGG
  • The 5.5" 6s Plus is too tall but the screen size is great. If removing the headphone jack is the first step in getting a reduced lower bezel, kill it.
  • Not at all. Apple loves their huge bezels. Even their 4.7" screened iPhone is as large/larger than most 5" screened devices. Apple seriously needs to work on that, especially with the plus.
  • Bezels...the things nobody cares about aside from blog posters.
  • Until you put it in hand. That is the main complaint for not going for the plus. It is way to tall and wide for the screen size it has.
  • The only problem with your logic is that you don't want to listen to any other opinions. You state your own and wrap it up by saying between the lines "if you don't agree with me well you're wrong, you're an Apple fanboy, you're an Apple apologist". You like everyone else thinks you know all and there is no other reasoning but what you've decided it must be. How about this, they are taking it out because they want to, because they like the aesthetic, or just because they F'ing can. Everyone is upset for a change that hasn't even been anounced yet and you know why? because people hate change and love to complain. It is the same reason that if they leave it there will be someone somewhere that will complain that it's an old piece of technology and Apple is falling behind because they didn't remove it. Who cares if they take it out for god sakes. Don't like it? keep the iPhone you have or buy one of the million other smartphones out there with a headphone jack. Apple is not out there trying to stick it to you and only you personally.
  • But why not use Bluetooth for audio? Bluetooth headphones. I've gone Bluetooth for my headphones even when I use my desktop. I can put on some tunes then get up and walk away from the computer and do stuff all without having to worry about a wire. I like life without wires, can't imagine going back to headphones with wires.
  • Still trying to grasp the need of an external DAC to have better quality or use lossless music. And I bet that the DAC and amplifier in a $25 headphones won't be better than the DAC in the iPhones
  • The headphone jack has been around since the 60s, surely it's time for a change now seeing as everything else is moving forward in mobile technology. I personally moved to Bluetooth headphones years ago now and haven't looked back. Sent from the iMore App
  • 19th Century tech in 21st Century device... Tine to go. And like someone said earlier, the top and bottom bezels are entirely too big for such a big screen on the Plus models. I really dig the larger screen but would love to have these bezels reduced in size as to be able to handle the device easier. My $.02. Sent from the iMore App
  • Other smartphone manufacturers have managed to reduce the size of screen bezels considerably, without removing the headphone jack. Given all the incredible things Apple has done with technology over the years, I have a feeling they can reduce the bezels without removing the headphone jack. I see your point but I don't think the headphone jack MUST go in order to reduce bezels.
  • The Galaxy S7 bezel isn't much different. There is only so much to reduce before the jack is in the way. See this picture. http://www.phonearena.com/reviews/Samsung-Galaxy-S7-vs-Apple-iPhone-6s_i... I have a feeling that Apple doesn't want to just reduce it, they will want to eliminate it. And guess what? Samsung will copy them after the Galaxy phones look dated.
  • Apple didn't invent the elimination of the headphone jack so there isn't anything to copy.
  • I think @itpromike pretty much nails the DAC argument. You've got to spend a LOT of money by most people's budgets to get a traditional headphone that exceeds the quality of the DAC and amplifier already in recent iPhones. FWIW, I'm one of those people with "golden ears". I've spent a huge amount of time doing critical listening, including listening specifically to lossy codecs in development. I'm the guy who walks over to one of the codec developers "hey, hear this? you have a bug somewhere here. <points to spot in code>". As much as I'd love to see the lossless revolution for archival reasons, I think the chances we'll get it are nearly zero. So to the Retina comparison: I don't think that's apt. Retina was revolutionary in that they were an immediate, slap-you-in-the-face improvement in display quality. Text and image display got way better, instantly. The only way to get vastly better sound reproduction from today's iPhones isn't the compression method, it isn't moving the DAC into the headphone, it's just to spend a LOT more money on the audio reproduction side, starting with the headphone/speaker drivers. So what does that leave? The only thing I've come up with from a user experience perspective that brings real advantages would be a truly great wireless headphone experience, not swapping one cable for another slightly more capable one. If the iPhone 7 doesn't have an analog headphone jack, Apple's intent is /not/ going to be for everyone to switch to Lightning. They'll have decided that the technology is ready to finally cut the cord altogether.
  • For the most part I only use Bluetooth to listen to audio as it is now. I only really use the wired headphones once in a while.
  • One of the major things that most of these article's miss; Apple is not adding any functionality to the iPhone, they are removing functionality. The iPhone is already capable of playing back "lossless" audio files. I use iTunes to put lossless files on my iPhone for offline listening (and they actually sound pretty decent with good headphones). Besides the lack of FLAC support, it works fine with Apple's lossless format. Lossless streaming music options exist (Tidal) and they are not overwhelmingly popular. Although I do think that if Apple music offered a lossless option, it would be much more widely adopted, given their cachet. But then again, Spotify and Google Play Music could add that option as well. You can already use Lightning headphones with current iPhones (though there are few), not to mention external DAC/AMP devices to improve the sound quality. The audio quality of Lightning headphones will be entirely dependent on the build quality of those headphones and their internal DAC/AMP. So just as there are cheap, poorly sounding headphones now, there will be cheap, poorly sounding Lightning headphones. If Apple really wanted to up their game, I'd say adding higher quality audio hardware to the iPhone and retaining the headphone jack will be a better option in terms of user experience. Not to mention, how many of us use one pair of headphones for multiple devices? I can't plug Lightning headphones into my Mac (although they could easily make a USB adapter). What about for those who have an iPhone and an Android/Surface tablet? You'd need another adapter. If the iPhone used USB-C, that would be a different story, since it's much more universal (or will be soon). But a pair of headphones that only works (natively) with iOS devices, and not even Macs? What about the fact that the iPhone is only 9 years old, and has gone through two different charging ports (three ports over ~15 years if you count the OG iPod as an iDevice)? If I buy Lightning headphones now, will they be compatible with my iPhone 3 years from now? High quality headphones and audio equipment with traditional/universal plugs have a usable life that is much longer than that of a smartphone. My point is that no article I've read thus far has pointed out how this could improve the user experience or audio quality beyond what is already possible with current hardware.
  • Bluetooth audio sucks. I'm by no means a die hard audiophile, but good sound quality is very important to me. I own a pair of $350 headphones. So now with no jack I'll need the adapter. But I'd be okay with that if I had to buy a set of new lightning headphones. My only issue is that you can't (at least as far as the rumours go) listen to music and charge the phone at the same time.
  • What's wrong with Bluetooth audio? Sounds fine to me and I use it daily with my desktop for listing to music and watching stuff on NetFlix. Sounds great to me, plus it's wireless so it makes it even better. I'll never go back to wired headphones.
  • Roll-off at both the bass and treble ends, for starters, and loss of resolution in note decays if you're the type that notices these things, even with compressed 320kbps mp3 - because bluetooth protocols (SCB, A2P, AptX) add another helping of compression on top of your compressed music before the transfer. Grab any decent pair of in-ear monitors/headphones, and by decent, I don't mean uber-audiophile, but something at least a couple of steps above stock Apple earbuds or Beats stuff - and plug them straight into your iPhone/iPad and take a listen with a decently "mastered for iTunes" track - genre doesn't matter, but preferable one with a decent amount of content in all regions of the frequency scale. Then unplug those same headphones and plug them into the best bluetooth dongle you can find on the market (currently the $100 Noble BTS is the best I've tried, and this has circuitry that's a lot better than what you find built into your Bose and Sony flagship Bluetooth headphones), and listen to the same track again. It's actually quite obvious even without "golden ears" or whatever they call it. You'll be able to tell that there's simply less detail up top and down below.
  • I will admit that I heard a difference. But, is the difference enough to make me give up the convenience of being wireless? No, not at all. As with most things, there's a tradeoff. You have to give up one thing to gain another thing. I tested with a pair of Skullcandy headphones.
  • "[The sound sucks] because bluetooth protocols (SCB, A2P, AptX) add another helping of compression on top of your compressed music before the transfer." If TC agrees with you, then he also has the means to do some innovation at this level. New proprietary compression? Perhaps transmitting 'lossless' Bluetooth? And then, maybe TC buys and releases Apple Tidal as a premium lossless music service delivered by Bluetooth or wire.
  • Very few humans have the hearing acuity to determine the difference between MP3 and lossless formats. Most modern music is recorded with the idea that you don't
    know what good audio really is. Pump up the bass, make the treble sizzle, compress the daylights out of it and there you go. Removing the analogue input is just an act of hubris. There is no benefit to this move.
  • If SIG releases Bluetooth 5 and it's speed and connectivity is as good as tested I think all will be well.
  • What about those of us that charge the phone and use headphones at the same time? Are we going to need to get a splitter? Sent from the iMore App