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article imageHeadphone companies optimistic for a future without 3.5mm jack

By James Walker     Jul 12, 2016 in Technology
As Apple prepares to launch the iPhone 7 without a traditional headphone jack, the audio industry is moving to anticipate a future where the humble 3.5mm connector is no more. Many companies are viewing the situation positively.
Tech Insider spoke with several audio firms to gauge the industry's response to Apple's expected move. While the change remains unconfirmed, Apple is all but certain to launch the iPhone 7 with a single Lightning connector for power, data and audio, based on the rumours of the past few months.
This move will send ripples through the audio industry. People who purchase a new iPhone will no longer be able to use their accessories with it in the same way as before. Either you'll need a Lightning-compatible headset or a dongle to hook up your traditional 3.5mm gear. This presents a predicament for audio companies considering what to do next.
Despite the evident challenge ahead, executives spoke with optimism to Tech Insider. While none exhibited "full-throated enthusiasm," they were reportedly excited by the potential for increased demand for new headphones. Wireless models are also likely to see a rise in sales as these will be compatible with all devices in a way wired versions may no longer be.
"It's a big shift for us and for the consumer," Skullcandy chief commercial officer Sam Paschel commented in the report. "We truly believe it's going to trigger a repurchasing cycle around headphones, with a very fast and very large shift to Bluetooth."
Developments in Bluetooth technology allow audio devices to produce higher quality sound than previous iterations. Innovations like Bluetooth Low Energy have also eliminated the problem of wireless headsets running out of power in just a few hours, making them a viable cross-platform way to listen to music while on the go. Consumers are expected to widely adopt Bluetooth headsets as the 3.5mm jack is phased out, a move which is being eagerly anticipated by some.
"Let me be very clear: This is monumental for us," said Rene Oehlerking, CMO of Jaybird, a firm that exclusively makes Bluetooth exercise headphones.
Lightning and Bluetooth aren't the only new connectors on the scene. As Apple pushes Lightning on all of its products, the more open ecosystems of Android and traditional Windows devices are looking towards something else. USB-C is being billed as the true successor to the 3.5mm port, capable of doing everything from powering computers and connecting memory sticks to outputting audio.
This means headphone manufacturers will need to make their products compatible with two different connectors. Consumers will be able to get around this issue through the use of dongles and adapters, an unsatisfactory workaround that could also persuade people to buy new products.
The transition from 3.5mm is expected to offer consumers two key benefits over time, better audio and improved compatibility. Neither of those will be attainable right away though and it's understandable some people may become frustrated as different platforms adopt different standards. People are used to being able to connect a single pair of headphones to any device, a freedom that Apple, and later Android OEMs, appears to be taking away.
In the short term, headphone pricing is also going to increase. With the adoption of these digital interfaces, the sound cards inside phones will move into the headsets themselves. The cost of this additional circuitry will raise base level prices but also give headphones more functionality.
"You could have head tracking, or microphone input from the headphone, and get that input to the phone so that it can do processing," said Sankar Thiagasamudram, CEO of audio firm Audeze, to Tech Insider. "You could use biometric information or head tracking information and do audio processing based on that. Those kind of things would be possible with a digital connection more easily, either wired or wireless."
The optimism of the industry for the future of digital audio indicates consumers shouldn't be too sceptical of the shift away from 3.5mm. The round plug has been with us for decades and has achieved a level of ubiquity unheard of for other connectors. The humble jack's time appears to be almost up though, led by the iPhone 7 into a future of digital audio.
For consumers, the change is likely to be unwelcome at first. Audio companies appear to be ready to unleash something new though, embracing the move to next-generation technologies and the growth potential in areas like wireless sound. Within a few years, USB-C and Lightning could become the norm, offering higher-quality sound than analogue 3.5mm in an equally convenient form factor.
More about Apple, iPhone, iphone 7, Audio, Headphones
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