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The curious case of the disappearing 3.5mm jack

How far do you remember in terms of using a cell phone? If you are like me, who started using cell phones in early the 2000’s, you  might remember connector variations based on manufacturers. However, they all had one common grievance; none of them sported a 3.5mm headphone jack. Ahh, the dark ages, when we all had to carry our proprietary connector headphones or stupid dongles to allow 3.5mm connections. Then finally, by the grace of god and common sense, slowly, all manufacturers started adding this miracle of a connector as a boasting factor for their products, and suddenly, any device that didn’t sport it was dubbed backdated.

So imagine the irony when Apple shocked the world with rumours that they were planning on axing the gold standard 3.5mm for their own proprietary Lightning connector, and subsequently established the rumour with the iPhone 7 and its plus sized sibling, minus the headphone jack. And as Apple is considered a market shifter in terms of certain trends, many of the OEMS from the Android camp followed suit with their seeming war with the headphone jack.

So, you may ask why the market is suddenly moving back in time instead of forwards. Sure, the society has a habit of getting into a retro vibe where they start bringing back old ideas and brandish it a bit. While that is fine for things like fashion designs, it is certainly not fine when it comes to technology. I can’t imagine someone giving up their 4K ultra something LED panel for those ancient CRT televisions which you have to bang three times to get it to work properly and needed the whole neighbourhood to move it one inch to the left.

Before you end up saying something like “What’s the big deal?”, let me explain that the inconveniences they cause can be annoying to say the least. Put yourself in everyday scenarios and you will see just how annoying it can be to live the jack-less life. Imagine yourself on a road trip where your friends are playing hateful music and you want to change that with the songs on your phone. You reach for the aux when you suddenly remember you don’t have the jack. Or losing your dongle and shelling out not very little money to get another. Or forgetting your headphones at home and not having the ability to use a cheap one for the time being because of, you guessed it, no jack. Before any of you head for the comments to say “Go wireless”, let me remind you that phones with jacks ALSO have wireless options. And that’s the thing with technology. It is supposed to GIVE you options, NOT take them away.

So how are manufacturers getting away with this you may now ask? Simple. By flogging words like “Digital” or “Freedom” or “Courage” or whatever other jargon they can come up with. They also use excuses like using the space saved from the jack to do something which they could have done anyway, but Shhh, you aren’t supposed to know that. So let’s investigate each of their ‘arguments’ and see if it justifies their motive.

Suspect: thickness

Manufacturers argue that by getting rid of the jack, they are able to make phones thin enough for you to slice apples in between long calls. But, in all seriousness though, has their argument for being able to make thinner phones held up with the sacrifice that was made?

The current thinnest smartphone on record is the Vivo X5 Max, measuring in at 4.75mm, and guess what, it can and has packed a 3.5mm headphone jack whereas the 7mm thick iPhone 7 and the 5.2mm thick Moto Z didn’t.

Verdict: Not guilty. Until phones hit sub 3.5mm thickness, the argument regarding thickness is pointless. Besides, if they do hit that thickness, it’s not like USB C or Lightning would do any good either as neither would fit.

Suspect: digital Audio

This is probably the loudest drum being played by OEMS right now to justify killing the headphone jack. They argue that while the 3.5mm only gave analogue signals, the new USB-C/ Lightning connectors give you true digital sound. Some manufacturers  even supply Active Noise Cancellation through their USB-C headphones, saying it would not have been possible with 3.5mm jacks, in the hopes of quelling some of the hate. So is this digital audio claim another fluke? Well lets clear that one out quite simply. Analogue means physical movement is required to generate sound, whereas digital means ones and zeros. I have yet to encounter a human who has a native USB connection to their brain , having the ability to decode ones and zeros because the only way to experience digital audio is to connect the phone’s USB cable directly to your brain and decoding the ones and zeros.

What manufacturers have done instead is ship the responsibility of decoding the sound to your headphones by placing the DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) to your headphones instead. There, this DAC converts the digital signal to analogue movements for the driver inside the headphone , creating this ethreal “digital” audio. In the not too distant past, this DAC lived inside the phone and all you had to do was connect your 3.5mm headphone jack and you were good to go. This also meant that manufacturers who made flagships paid extra attention to this in-built DAC to give you a good sound, like the LG V series. Now, they have relegated this duty to USB headphones instead, so technically, you get less for your money now. As for the active noise cancellation, Sony showed us with the Xperia Z2 back in 2014 that you could have active noise cancelling with the 3.5mm jack.

Verdict: Not guilty. Lowering manufacturing costs by not having to focus on a good DAC for their phones and yet, bumping up smartphones prices per year is hurting no one but the consumer.

Suspect: design and spacing

OEMS have even resorted to rubbish like claiming to use the space saved to put a larger battery or some other feature which could not be fitted had the jack lived. Some have even started to blame the new trend of bezel-less screens for the demise of the jack, but how much of this is true? I am afraid it’s more snake oil from the OEMS. Most of us have seen a smartphone teardown,  witnessing the now-extinct headphone jack component. Getting rid of it won’t yield any battery gains.

Take examples such as Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 and Mi Max 2, Asus Zenfone Max, and Lenovo P2. What do they all have in common? For starters they are all phones with battery capacities exceeding 4000 and 5000mAh AND with 3.5mm headphone jacks. As for the bezel-less argument, let’s have a look at the shiny and pretty Samsung S8, Note8, and LG V30 shall we. Boasting industry leading bezel-less displays and yet, they manage to carry a 3.5mm jacks, and bloody good ones too.

Verdict: Not guilty. The jacks hardly occupy any meaningful space that the manufacturers have used for anything useful.

Suspect: wireless audio

Yet another, albeit slightly more reasonable argument regarding the demise of the jack. There is no denying the existence ofquality Bluetooth headsets out there,and they serve the general populous with satisfaction. However, wireless still has some ways to go before they have the ability to match the  standards of wired connections. When was the last time you saw a DJ or a music producer using wireless headphones at work?

Wireless is not a solution for the audiophiles who pay for the top flagships for their sonic performance, so cutting down the jack really doesn’t serve any purpose other aggravation. And lest we forget, wireless solutions and wired solutions can, and HAVE been coexisting together for a while now.

Verdict: Not guilty. Wireless audio hasn’t matured to a point where they are justified to replace their wired counterparts. Besides, there is nothing wrong with keeping both and giving the consumer the the freedom of choice.

Suspect: creating a universal standard connection

This one is almost so close to absurd that it requires but a simple question. What was wrong with the universal and mature connection that is the 3.5mm jack in the first place?

It has been around for a 100 years now, and the market is rich with cheap to expensive options that work with just about anything with a 3.5mm jack On top of that, the whole argument seems ironic when Apple has their own Lightning connector whereas Android has USB-C,  which in turn is  incompatible with several  Android OEMS.

Verdict: Not guilty. This is a moronic argument on which almost the entirety of the elimination of headphone jacks rely on.

So who is really to blame here? For Apple, its mostly profit as they own the right to the Lightning jack and  the OEM has to pay Apple royalty for it. Also, let’s not forget that before the unveiling of the iPhone 7, Apple  acquired one of the biggest wireless headphone brands; Beats. As for the OEMs from the Android camp,  it seems meaningless on what they are doing, as USB-C is not under any of their own creations. With the way things are going, the headphone jack is on its way out.  But if history serves as a reminder, then hopefully in the future, we will see manufacturers regain their senses and bring back the headphone jack. Until then, all I can end with is a simple “stop it”.

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