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article imageIntel wants to replace headphone jacks with USB Type-C ports

By James Walker     Apr 27, 2016 in Technology
Intel has published a proposal to replace the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack with digital USB Type-C connections. The company claims it would provide higher quality audio and simplify the connection of audio equipment to different kinds of devices.
Intel is currently finalising a specification for USB Type-C Digital Audio technology for release in the second quarter, according to AnandTech. It wants to update the existing USB Audio Device Class 2.0 spec to support the new reversible USB Type-C connector, improve power management facilities for connected audio devices and add new features to the audio jack.
Intel is also working to ensure that headsets using the new system work as seamlessly as current 3.5mm jacks. It should be as easy to use as plugging in a 3.5mm pair of headphones, automatically routing audio to the connected device with immediate effect.
The digital nature of USB would allow headsets to include more features and take responsibility for the audio processing that smartphones currently do themselves. A headset would be able to include its own amplifier and controller, powered by processing units installed in the port such as noise suppression, echo suppression and cancellation and sound beam forming.
The standard will also include native support for HDCP digital rights management (DRM) technology. This would provide automatic piracy protection, making it impossible to digitally copy recordings using a headset output. This would benefit publishers but could prove controversial amongst consumers.
The new functionality doesn't come for free though. Intel admits that the new features and the requirement for headsets to include their own processing chips means prices will rise. Picking up a decent pair of headphones for $5 could become a thing of a past. Costs will fall as more chips are built but initially digital USB headsets will be pricier than their traditional analogue counterparts.
Intel has ensured that any switch will remain compatible with 3.5mm headsets. The USB Type-C standard includes pins that can be used to transfer analogue audio. This would allow traditional 3.5mm headsets to work with the connection via a simple 3.5mm to USB adapter, preventing current headphones from turning obsolete as digital models become popular.
The audio industry has attempted to replace the 3.5mm audio connector before in the past. Several feature phones had only a micro USB connection for power, data and audio out, including branded headsets to listen to music through the USB port. Such systems were unpopular due to their restrictive proprietary nature. A modern and open standard based around a proven technology may prove more accessible to consumers.
USB Type-C as the de facto audio connection may still be many months away but it is feasible it could become popular. 3.5mm audio has been around for decades and is based around analogue technology prone to interference. Devices have to include components to mitigate this, adding weight and using up space internally.
Replacing 3.5mm with a modern digital standard could create higher quality audio and new listening experiences. The technology industry has successfully rallied behind digital standards before, such as in the move from analogue VGA video cables to HDMI and DisplayPort, and it could adopt USB as the new way to listen to music.
More about Intel, Usb, usb typec, Headphones, Audio
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