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Apple Wages War on 3.5-mm Jack, Promotes Economy Through Planned Obsolescence

by December 10, 2015

By now you may have heard about the problems iPhone 6S and 6S Plus users are experiencing with their 3.5-mm headphone connections. And, you may feel the pain of long-time iPhone users who are now discovering that the same pair of headphones that worked with previous iPhone models, and in 3.5-mm jacks in other devices, is failing.

Problems include everything from static, loss of signal to unexpectedly activating Siri.

Apple natives are in upheaval after being referred to the company’s policy of only supporting peripherals that are fully MFi certified as a solution to their problems. But that hasn’t stopped the unlucky few who have found that even their MFi earphones are also having troubles with iPhone 6 models.

After much discussion, investigation and help from the Apple community, as well third-party headphone manufacturers, the problems are widely believed to be a result of slight alterations to the new iPhone’s 3.5-mm jack. The most common theory is that the jack on the new iPhones runs a little too wide. This means headphones with a standard 1/8-inch plug may leave just a bit of wiggle room inside the jack, causing a cycle of intermittent open/short circuit and those previously mentioned consequences. 

Headphone Manufacturers Lend a HandRBH EP2

Deeper findings seem to indicate that problems only arise when using a three-conductor style of 3.5-mm jack.

A bit of background info on the 3.5-mm jack: The standard two-conductor style jack, was intended for stereo sound only — the two channels being used for left and right audio. Newer headphones include the extra conductor specifically for a built-in microphone that allows users to take calls while listening to tunes.

Headphone manufacturer RBH has created its own solution to the supposed problem. New RBH headphones now ship with a free spacer intended to keep the headphone plug seated inside the jack, free of unintended movement that leads to intermittent connections.

See the RBH video.

Is Apple Trying to Kill the 3.5-mm Jack? 

Coincidentally, the issues with the iPhone 6 headphone jack have been reaching critical mass at the same time rumors have emerged that the jack could be abandoned altogether by Apple in future iterations of the device. Late last November a report hit MacRumors.com that Apple plans to abandon the 3.5-mm jack completely for iPhone 7. 

The reason for the about-face on the longstanding, ad-hoc standard in headphone connectors is to help future iPhones shed a little of its thickness. Thin is in when it comes to mobile phones — even if at the expense of important functions like battery life, removable storage and well… headphone compatibility.

Is a few tenths of a millimeter in thickness worth throwing away compatibility with generations of headphones? Maybe not for you and me — but technology must move on! After all, where would our economy be if we didn’t have to replace all of our tech much sooner than we’d like? Apple needs iPhone users to buy the next generation of Beats headphones.

To be fair, Apple isn’t the only manufacturer to sacrifice critical functionality to make way for slimmer designs. Galaxy S6 Edge brought a few firsts for Samsung. The new phones have an enclosed system with no room for removable storage or battery. The phone surprised early reviewers with a significant step backward in battery life from its predecessor the Galaxy S5.

But back to Apple – it’s easy to see that the only thing keeping the iPhone 6S from getting any thinner is that 3.5-mm jack.

iPhone 6S

iPhone 6S bottom view

If having no analog audio jack is immanent, Apple may turn to its own ultra-thin digital connector, the Lightning socket. The digital jack could potentially open up a lot of features for future Apple-compatible headphones, including two-way power, multichannel audio and of course HD video – most of which are useless for headphones. But, what if you just want your legacy headphones to work?

In that case you’d need an adaptor, and depending on the future iPhone 7 design, this might get complicated. If Apple decided to forgo the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) inside the phone, which would help build a thinner, cooler-running device, the adaptors themselves will need a built-in DAC. But these hypothetical DAC-enabled adaptors would need their own power supply to power up the DAC chip, which could be a disaster for iPhone 7’s battery life if the adaptor drew its power from the phone. 

From the Department of Pure Speculation

We at Audioholics have surmised that the future DAC-included 3.5-mm-to-Lightning adaptor could double as a phone charger if it had its own battery pack, which may make it a pretty cool little gadget (even if it would be overpriced if all you’re looking for is a simple headphone adaptor).

But who knows where Apple engineers will take the iPhone 7? They’re blessed with a loyal fan base, willing to endure abuses like sudden incompatibility with accepted standards and formats. This kind of loyalty is what can make Apple’s technological direction a bellwether for the industry at large. 

Anyone who remembers the MacBook Air launch, with its conspicuous lack of optical disc drive, knows Apple can be ruthlessly forward-thinking. When the product launched in January ’08, owning a laptop with no disc drive was like drinking tonic water without the gin.

But it turned out to be the way of things. Nowadays disc drives on laptops are a nuisance. 

But, shedding physical media in a portable computer had a different motivation behind it than the ever-thinning of phones. Yes, cutting MacBook Air compatibilities led to reduced stature, but more importantly, it also resulted in huge improvements in battery life. But when it comes to phones, a one-day battery charge is expendable against the pressure to be thinner.

But, continually thinning phones is getting ridiculous considering everyone just wraps them up in bulky cases to protect their precious, diminutive "must have" treasures.

Smartphones: Consumers & Manufacturers Locked in a Cycle of Dumb

Some future civilization may look back at us today and wonder at our logic.Smart Battery Case

We upgrade our phones year-after-year to get the thinner model, only to wrap them up in bulky cases to protect their precious, diminutive form factor. We are also willing to sacrifice battery life, and are occasionally forced to upgrade perfectly serviceable peripherals, all for the sake of thin.

So we get  the latest ultra-thin phone, and we buy new MFi certified peripherals. But then we realize how awful it is to go without that thing we most certainly sacrificed – the battery life.  And that’s where Apple’s new and aptly named Smart Battery Case comes in, which expands battery life, while more than doubling your new phone’s girth. It’s a vicious cycle, but we do all this because, hey… we’re smart consumers!


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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