January 14, 2021

The Downfall of Headphone Jacks

The Downfall of Headphone Jacks

As you can tell by the title of this post, I am pretty upset about phones losing the headphone jack. "Just get a pair of Bluetooth headphones like everyone else and stop being such a pain about it." I do indeed have Bluetooth headphones, and I use them sometimes because having a wire is not always convenient. Yet I still believe that the headphone jack is an essential part of our personal computing devices. That's like saying you're going to remove the charging port next. (this statement is probably going to age terribly knowing Apple).

Now before you brush me off as another luddite who shuns progress, let me attempt to convince you why the future is horrible and we're all doomed to a future of wireless suffering.

Quick rundown of the wireless future

No wires
More features that are locked to the company’s ecosystem.
People with hearing aids no longer feel out of place

You have to keep them charged, yet another thing to have to remember to charge.
Sound is out of sync
You can’t quickly connect it to multiple devices.
Not backwards compatible with devices that don’t have Bluetooth.
If you have wireless buds, have fun losing them. In fact Japan had to create a special tool just to pick up those small earbuds from train tracks.

How about dongles?

Don’t get me started on dongles. Whoops, too late.

Dongles sound like a fun little compromise doesn’t it? Except that it is no longer a universal connector. You might think this ends with me complaining that this is an Apple vs everyone else thing, because of their very special lightning connector. But no, it gets worse.

A standard USB C to 3.5mm dongle does not work with Samsung phones. From my understanding, different manufacturers use different protocols for the audio. This means that not only do you have to buy their overpriced first party dongle, you also would have no way of telling the dongles apart, because they look the same! That also happens to be the most infuriating thing I find about the USB C standard as well, but that’s a post for another day.

So if you had a Google Pixel phone and a Samsung Tablet, you would need 2 separate adapters just to plug in your headphones. That's 2 more things to buy and another 2 more things to lose. To make matters worse, you can’t even charge your phone and use the headphones at the same time.

There’s probably some tech jargon-y reason for this, but I really can’t be bothered to figure it out. There simply isn’t a standard yet, meaning that manufacturers have the freedom to do it however they like. A standard could have been formed at some point to make things usable, but why would any company want to cooperate with other companies? How would you force people to buy your overpriced dongles like that?

At this point, Bluetooth is looking pretty good, since it’s actually a universal standard.

What’s wrong with Bluetooth then?

When I want to listen to music, I don’t want to be fumbling with settings and pairing modes. Trying to get it to connect to your car, or earphones is hard enough. Sometimes it randomly automatically connects to speakers you didn't want it to. Sometimes you have to un-pair and re-pair them. Some devices like a car sound system can only take up to 5 devices, so you have to keep fiddling with the settings if, heavens forbid, you have more than 5 users of a single vehicle.

Yes, all these can be brushed off as minor inconveniences, but you know what else is a minor inconvenience? Having a battery life that's about 20 minutes shorter. Manufacturers claim that removing the 3.5mm jack gives them an even bigger battery, and can boast an all day battery life. But that was a thing even when headphone jacks still existed. So it's not like those additional 20 minutes of battery life is providing such amazing benefits for anyone. Waterproofing also isn’t that great an argument because phones with headphone jacks and charging ports can be made pretty water resistant.

In fact, the mid range Asus Zenfone 6 not only had a huge battery, but a flip camera, a triple sim / sd card tray, AND a headphone jack. All this with flagship specs at a midrange price. I would have ended off by saying Asus is now my favourite company, but they’ve gone ahead and removed the jack in the Zenfone 7.

Tangential note, I had the same issue when phone manufacturers made batteries non removable. I never had battery issues since I could just swap out the phone battery. When they removed removal batteries I was pretty upset about it. But now I carry 2 phones just so I have a spare in case I run out of battery on one.

Still no solution?

It has been 3 years since the release of the iPhone 8 (Sep ‘17), the “courageous” new phone from Apple that dropped the headphone jack. Somehow every other company who was quick to make fun of Apple suddenly grew a pair of courage and we’ve lost the headphone jack.

Xiaomi Mi 6 (Apr ‘17)
Google’s Pixel 2 (Oct ‘17)
Razer Phone (Nov ‘17) (A gaming phone no less)
Oneplus 7 (May ‘19)
Samsung’s Galaxy Note10 (Aug ‘19)
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 (Mar ‘20)
Asus Zenfone 7 (Aug ‘20)

Even tablets and laptops are seemingly losing their headphone jacks. Look at the Galaxy Tab series, or even the Surface Pro X.  With so many companies dropping the headphone jack, we’ve yet to see a good solution to this. Yes, if you have airpods and an iPhone, the connection between them is super simple. You open the airpods and the iPhone connects instantly. This happens between Samsung earbuds and their phones as well.

The issue is that if you so much as need to connect it to something else, you need to punch in the konami code on your Bluetooth devices just to get them to connect. Good luck to you if you misplaced the instruction manual, assuming it even comes with one. Companies are making use of this to lock people in their ecosystem even more. This harks back to the times where Sony tried to force people to use their (much more expensive) M2 memory card instead of the standard SD card. I’m so glad they lost that battle. And I sure hope that everyone else agrees on a standard way to connect their wireless headphones.

Speaking of which...

Possible Solution that already exists

This is probably not very well known, but NFC can be used for connecting your Bluetooth headphones to your phone. Assuming both devices support it. It's everything I wanted in an ecosystem.

Connecting devices is exactly what you would expect in our eventual AI controlled utopia. You simply tap your phone to the headphones and it'll automatically pair. When you want to change devices, just tap your phone to the new device. Everything about this makes sense and is the logical next step in the wireless future. It also mitigates the main problem I have with finicky pairing processes, and it would not lock you into any one ecosystem.

Most phones these days have NFC capabilities. All iPhones have NFC readers but apple limits their use to Apple pay only. Scratch that, it appears that my information is out of date and iOS 14 released in September 2020 now allows for NFC to be used for general purpose scanning. This invalidates one part of my rage against Apple.

I guess now all we need is for all wireless earphone companies to implement the NFC pairing chip into their devices. I doubt that will ever happen unless some regulatory body steps in to force a standard.

If you love the jacks so much, just stick to mid range phones that have them.

I am a technophile. I loved new technology in the latest phones, whether or not I bought them. At least it meant that  when it was time to get a new phone, I would have the option to get a phone with the functionality I wanted. But now, there is almost no phone with both the latest features, and a headphone jack. If this trend keeps up, eventually the mid range phones will all stop having headphone jacks as well. Who in their right mind would want to live in that kind of dystopia? The world is completely ruined and I can’t live like this anymore. Thanks Apple.

Of course if that is the world we end up living in, I'll be left with no choice but to accept the regression in quality of life. All things considered, it's not that bad. Have you seen the other things happening around the world lately?

A glimmer of hope

Did you know that Sony still makes phones? Neither did I. For some reason, they've been very quiet about the new phones that they've been making. Back when they released their Xperia phone without a headphone jack, I had written them off as another company that's fallen to the dark side.

But recently, I just discovered their new phone, the Xperia 5 II. In addition to having a terrible naming convention, they have all the cool flagship features and a good camera set up (they manufacture the camera sensors for Samsung and Apple) with a headphone jack. All this while maintaining a really good battery life and water resistance. Unfortunately, if you look at their market share, and their featureset, it really does not look like it'll have the mass market appeal required to shift consumer habits. I don't foresee them doing that well despite really wanting them to. While their phone is almost everything I ever wanted in a small device, I must admit that I am part of a pretty niche audience. I guess I'll get that phone second hand when my current one dies in a few years.