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iPhone 7, and the step backwards for audio

by Mat on 3 August, 2016 No comments

This is something I wrote for MacRumors. I thought I’d share it here, too.

The argument goes like this. Apple is considering removing the 3.5mm jack. Given the fact that Samsung is already commenting on it, and every rumour and leak from here to the WSJ believe it is, in fact, disappearing.

There are four ways to get audio out of a 6s:

-External speaker
-Bluetooth 4.5
-Lightning/DAC
-3.5mm

On the 7, you will likely see:

-External stereo speaker
-Bluetooth 4.5
-Lightning/DAC

Of course, the Lightning/DAC analog converter will dongle your way into 3.5mm usage. As such, here are the arguments so far for removal of the 3.5mm jack:

-Allows device to be thinner
-Allows for more space for internals
-Allows for DAC selection
-Lets Apple sell more accessories

Now I’ve heard “innovation” thrown around a lot. Yet, every time I’ve challenged someone to say how this will make audio better on the iPhone, everyone falls short. In fact, there’s only one slightly technical reason to give some credence, and that is to get a Lightning/DAC dongle that has a better DAC chipset. Let’s talk about that.

In the case of an improved Lightning/DAC, it’s fair to say that first, any improved chipset will very, very likely be servicing a 3.5mm plug anyhow. Despite this, the technical presence does exist in that you could have a better dongle. In that case, it will be neither cost effective nor reasonably portable. Even if someone was to come up with such a contraption, it’s still a fairly better option to have a Bluetooth A2DP wireless adapter for your 3.5mm headphones. Yes, those exist; I found that out here a few months ago, and they’re going to start going like hotcakes. However, in the end, the “Better DAC” argument doesn’t hold water. It isn’t a practical signal chain, and it will never be a mainstream product given the cost and portability issues. I don’t doubt that someone will want a “ghetto blaster” “boom box”, but I’m feeling on solid ground that this will be an exception.

In every other case, the technology presenting in the 7 will be equal to the 6s. It’s x = x algebra. It all cancels out. The external speaker is there, so the internal DAC is there as well. And if they waste space on a stereo output, that whole “removed the jack to make room” argument is not only wrong, it’s very, very wrong. I’m not opposed to stereo output, but it isn’t due to this plug. You can make a case against stereo in that it’s just not going to sound very left-right unless they put the output above the top… where the antenna bands are. Not impossible, but not a strong selling feature.

What I’m left with is simply what every customer hates when they feel bent over by a company. They feel like they have to spend more than they otherwise should for something less convenient. I know that if I was presented with a phone that had no headphone jack, I’d be buying a DAC cable. And I’d look at it over and over and say how dumb it is. Maybe some won’t, but after 8 years of iPhones and years before that where iPods were all of that lineage, it’s hard to see why it would be removed. In fact, the clip-on was even the power charger once!

So there is no realistic benefit to buying a 3.5-less phone. Why would Apple do it then? The most plausible reason is simple. Margins are king at Apple, as well they should be. They made a play for Beats headphones, and haven’t been able to turn that purchase into a good return. The obvious thing is to make Beats a brand that is more readily accepted at a greater margin. That margin was built into marketing through rap / hiphop. Now, it’s basically just brand value. They’re ok cans, but they aren’t Sennheisers, Shures, or any other nice upper mid brand you can get. They do have street cred, and everyone knows they’ve got Apple’s ownership. So that brand will be positioned to take advantage of the newly created market of Lightning-based headphones. They will capture a decent amount of money in the semi-proprietary area where iPhone is the only thing you can plug into. And if I’m guessing correctly, they’ll actually be the real driver of Lightning/DAC conversion dongles.

Think about it this way… it isn’t that old cans need a dongle for iPhone. The story is that iPhone cans can also be dongled to use your old crap, too. At least, that’s what the Marketing Team will want you to believe.

In the end, this is about a margin play. It is not innovative. It is a calculated gamble that enough people will just get over it. I think it’s a bridge too far; the iPhone was taken seriously by the mass market because Steve Jobs stood up and said, “what if…. phone, music, and the whole internet on one device?” It’s centuries ago in 2007, but the truth is that people consume media by phone now. It’s the number one, by far, device where people listen to music. It cannibalised the iPod. Over 100,000,000 people pay $10 or more per month to stream audio to their devices. The risk of making that ease of access disappear is, in my opinion, too early.

If Apple waits until Bluetooth A2DP is the norm, dropping the jack isn’t a big deal. Instead, they are choosing to be “bold”. To what end? It adds nothing, it isn’t necessary for waterproofing, and it doesn’t offer anything better than the previous model. Hell, even the Macbook, of two port fame, offers a USB-C, and a 3.5mm jack. It leaves only one realistic plan, and that’s to push Lightning Beats like hell.

Viva La 6S.

MatiPhone 7, and the step backwards for audio

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