Apple is widely expected to ditch the headphone jack on the forthcoming iPhone 7, leaving users to connect their headphones through the proprietary Lightning port or wirelessly over Bluetooth.
One company that would know about those plans is Cirrus Logic, Apple’s longtime audio-chip partner. Apple is reportedly working closely with the Austin-based company to adapt its chips to work with the Lightning port.
There’s just one problem: Cirrus can’t talk about Apple even though it accounts for 75% of Cirrus’ revenue, according to SEC filings. It can’t even include Apple’s logo on a slide discussing its main customers.
During a conference call on Wednesday, Cirrus CEO Jason Rhode did not mention Apple by name once, but he did drop hints about what could be coming from its largest customer later this year while assuring its investors that his company has “several new products that we expect to drive strong growth” in the second half of the year.
Here’s what Rhode said and what it could mean for the iPhone 7 (text in brackets our own).
The amount that we can talk about [headphones connecting through Lightning] outside of other folks who are MFi [made for iPhone] partners is relatively limited, but yeah, there’s things that are up and running via the MFi program that people can take and design with today.
Headphones that connect through the Lightning connector will require a specific chip and licensing fees paid to Apple, and Cirrus makes that chip for headsets that are already on sale. Headphone makers can get those parts as well as help building those product from Cirrus through Apple’s accessories partnership program.
There are definitely people considering putting [noise-cancelling headphones with Cirrus tech] in box … anytime somebody talks about adding content inside a box, inside the box it ships with the phone, you can imagine the agonizing that goes into any additional micro-penny that gets added to the box.
As Apple blogger John Gruber wrote earlier this month, it “would be madness” if Apple doesn’t include a pair of Lightning or Bluetooth earbuds in the box with the iPhone 7. One of the main advantages to using a digital connector like Lightning over the traditional headphone jack, according to Cirrus, is that it can pull power for active noise cancelling so the headphones don’t need a battery.
However, Rhode also mentioned shortly after these remarks that he doesn’t have “any comment outside of the Android space.”
When discussing Cirrus’s microphone business, Rhode then dropped this hint:
In particular, if a customer was going to try to do what we refer to in the shareholder letter as a non-leak — as a non-sealed earbud, which is what I think is the most compelling form factor.
Non-leaking earbuds refer to earphones that don’t include a rubbery tip that goes into the user’s ear canal. The most common model worldwide is Apple’s Earpod that’s included with iPhones. Cirrus’ other handset partners, including Samsung and LG, usually include sealed earbuds with their phones.
Of course, Cirrus’ management is careful never to reveal Apple’s true plans, but it must walk a fine line: because Apple is by far its largest customer, changes made in Cupertino can have a huge impact on it and its shareholders. For example, Apple’s recent iPhone sales slowdown materially impacted Cirrus’ bottom line this past quarter. So there’s a strong Apple subtext to everything the company does or says.
Cirrus Logic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.