There have been rumors of a possible budget variant of Google’s flagship Pixel smart-phone; it was only recently that we got a glimpse at what it might look like. It has been referred to as the “Pixel 3 Lite”, and it combines the design of the Pixels with a smaller 5.5-inch display and a mid-range Snapdragon 670 processor. Although the usual complaints about the antiquated design and large bezels persist in this phone, one of the issues that a significant portion of consumers have been clamouring for a long time might have finally been addressed. By far the most interesting aspect of this phone is Google’s apparent decision to include a headphone jack for the first time since their very first Pixel phone.
Phones and headphone jacks have complimented each other for the longest time. For most of us, our first feature phones had a 3.5 mm jack, and it was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the phone to each of us at the time—cue countless hours of ripping MP3 files and loading them onto tiny memory cards. With smartphones, the need of a headphone jack was even greater—smartphones aimed at being the convenience guarantor and having a 3.5 mm jack on your smartphone was the convenient way to listen to music or recordings. And while the industry has transformed from feature phones to flip phones to finally smartphones, the headphone jack has largely remained constant. In an industry as focused on innovation as the smartphone industry change is the only constant. Thus we had to part ways with our headphone jacks, while Bluetooth and USB-C ports look to be the future. However, is that a good thing?
Firstly, the reason the headphone jack stuck around for so long is that it worked. It was a solved problem; there wasn’t much reason to move forward. Yes, we always strive for quicker and more convenient ways to solve a problem; provided the problem is still solved with the amount of quality retained. And the bottom line is, Bluetooth just doesn’t do that. Bluetooth audio quality is nowhere near the quality offered by most cabled equipment, yet. They simply can’t play high bit-rate files, or at least at the same quality wired equipment can. However, it is convenience vs. quality here, with different people obviously valuing different things. Audiophiles will always value cabled equipment, while consumers who value the convenience and portability of Bluetooth will opt for it. But the thing is, it isn’t too much to ask for both options on a device, especially when the manufacturing cost is so small.
It isn’t fair to say Bluetooth is bad for listening to music. High-end Bluetooth equipment can dish out music that is only perceptively worse than wired equipment. But to achieve that quality with Bluetooth, one has to spend a lot more than one had to for a wired option of similar quality. There is essentially no way to listen to a raw, loss-less sound on Bluetooth earphones; they just aren’t capable of it yet. All sounds need to be encoded to the Bluetooth headset, then decoded back to play. This is essentially the same tech as it was in 2004 when the first stereo Bluetooth headset came out. So Bluetooth still has a long way to go to match the 3.5 mm jack in performance.
Bluetooth headphones, ironically, offer less diversity than wired headphones. Active noise cancelling, bass-heavy, treble-heavy, you name it. There are headphones offered specifically to gamers, joggers, for Skype calls, etc. There’s a ton of flexibility when it comes to wired headphones, mainly because they’ve been around for longer and have had the time to address each specific need in the market. Bluetooth simply doesn’t offer that kind of flexibility yet. Bluetooth is mostly aimed at an active lifestyle, being more portable. They tend to have minimal builds, make complete seals with ear cups for better noise cancellation, and mostly just need you to adapt to it rather than it adapting to you. That doesn’t work for a lot of people and as it has been said before, there is simply no reason not to have both wired and Bluetooth options.
The weight then falls onto the USB-C type ports and dongles to make the argument for no headphone jacks. And I’m just going to say this flat out—dongles are bad. A lot of DACs and amps simply don’t work with the USB-C tech, and using one port to both charge your phone and listen to music causes an unnecessary amount of wear and tear. It is also a sloppy thing to use, as it’s easy to lose and just adds a new point of failure, being an external accessory.
On the point of convenience, Bluetooth doesn’t necessarily become the convenience provider most distributors make it out to be. Having a Bluetooth device means having another device to charge. At the same time when smartphone companies are trying to offer quicker ways to charge your phone to maximize time utilization—like fast chargers and larger batteries—doesn’t having another device to charge actually feel less convenient (if not completely defeating the purpose)? Bluetooth might indeed be the future, as it can only be improved upon. The problem is it hasn’t been fixed yet. There was never anything added to the experience of owning a device without a headphone jack, options were only taken away from it. For this reason, the headphone jack coming back in a market leader’s next big device is a welcome change. I personally feel like this is a good decision by Google, and eagerly await the return of the 3.5 mm jack in all its glory.