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?

Michael Gartenberg

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.