Won’t someone speak up for the little big guy?!
The dust is now settling, but there can be no doubt that many people are unhappy about Apple removing the audio jack in the iPhone 7. So how about this: Despite all the grumbling, Apple has done something brilliant for the personal audio market. By going digital it has taken a lead, driving the market towards higher quality with minimal sacrifice of compatibility in the short term. This will enable Hi-Fi quality audio in the Apple ecosystem and will likely drive this improvement right across the mobile audio industry.
It’s a calculated risk to push the market to a state where digital is the minimal viable product for audio accessories. From that point on, the incremental cost of improvement will be negligible, with digital hardware improving and becoming cheaper over time. What this means is that the bottom end of the market, the “dirt cheap” headphones, will have a much improved performance base line. In addition, making them even better will cost little to manufacturers and may drive them to increase sales by improving sound quality. High end devices are likely to sound better and designers will be able to use even higher quality algorithms.
Minimal sacrifice of compatibility? But there is no jack!
No, there isn’t, but Apple has provided an adapter with every iPhone 7 and consumers can use their old wired headset if they prefer. Sure, for the time being consumers can't listen to music or watch films and charge the phone at the same time, but the iPhone provides a reasonable battery life. This may not be absolutely ideal, but it allows Apple to further their high quality audio agenda with only a minimal technology trade off.
High quality audio? Even a pair of $100 headphones has cheap drivers. And the music files you are listening to aren’t that good anyway - they're compressed.
I’m going to leap into the techie detail here, but my conclusion will be this: while the above is technically correct, the pessimism is mistaken. Digital audio will make a difference.
“The music you are listening to isn’t that good anyway”
Any ‘lossy’ compressed audio track will by definition have lost some information and is not truly a Hi-Fi source of sound. Modern high efficiency codecs, such as AAC and aptX, do a very good job of only removing undetectable information from music files. Years of research in psychoacoustics have allowed codecs to achieve compression ratios of 4:1, while minimising data loss. While the average or discerning listener is unlikely to be able to differentiate an uncompressed digital file from a good quality compressed one, they will most definitely detect crackle due to a bad jack connection, a noisy wall charger or power supply inside the playback device, and poor quality headphones.
Next consider services such as Tidal, the artist-owned “High Fidelity music streaming service”. Tidal may not be popular with subscribers so far, but it’s blazing a trail for high quality uncompressed audio streaming. Perhaps it’s just playback quality and the lack of digital audio that’s holding such services back. Why would you pay extra if your headset is poor, your jack is scratchy or you can hear the hum of the power supply while you are charging your phone?
It seems that high quality streaming/downloads and high quality playback on our devices are a chicken and egg problem. You can’t have a great audio experience without both, but you won’t get one, until the other comes along. Apple is changing this – It has just enabled your new generation iPhone to playback high-fidelity audio. More accurately, they are forcing the market and third parties to start investing in high fidelity audio headsets, because cheap analogue wired ones will be phased out sooner or later.
But why are cheap digital headphones better?
“Even a pair of $100 headphones has cheap drivers”
Most consumer-grade headphones – the majority sold - use inexpensive drivers. This limits audio quality, even when placed in properly designed cans or earbuds.
But this is, within reason, something that can be compensated for. In fact some higher-end consumer grade headset manufacturers have been doing this for years. Compensating for decent, inexpensive drivers allows them more flexibility. In most cases it delivers improved sound quality compared to using significantly more expensive drivers, that would still require extensive acoustic design to perform as well.
By actively and dynamically equalising the input to those cheap drivers, manufacturers are achieving a crisp and balanced (or bass heavy if that is their trademark) sound. Often this is being achieved using real-time microphone feedback, in order to compensate for the environment or to complement active noise cancellation features.
Why will going digital make this simpler?
“Going digital” today means taking the analogue sound, converting it to digital, processing it digitally, and then converting it back to analogue for playback. This requires some involved design on the analogue front end. Converting the audio to digital is the most critical part here, as this will introduce signal degradation if not done properly. It also tends to require relatively expensive component parts to ensure good quality audio. A battery is also required, which adds weight and limits form factor.
The lightning connector provides power, and a digital signal. In a stroke this removes most form factor constraints, a costly component requirement and a design step. This will ultimately reduce the price of the headset. Generic Lightning cable earbuds seems to start at about $20, but a quick search reveals that generic active noise cancelling earbuds cost only a little more. I'm confident that it won't be long before these converge into one fully digital product, at the same price point.
So I believe that the trend will be for more affordable headphones, playing superb audio. That’s great news, because it will make streaming higher quality music actually worth it. Don’t throw away your professional high impedance balanced driver cans just yet. But for everyone else, this may just be the end of poor quality, cheap headsets. As for $15 mass market, high volume branded headsets, they’d be transformed by a digital input, at a cost increase of only a few dollars.