Apple has removed the headphone jack from
its newest iPhones. Among other things, that means anyone who doesn’t
want to go wireless will have to hook up this little guy to their current pair of wired headphones.
In addition to the dongle above, Apple will put a Lightning-based pair of its ubiquitous EarPods earbuds in every iPhone 7 box to make the lack of a headphone jack slightly more palatable.
In the long, angry lead-up to the headphone jack’s removal, one of the common arguments in favour of Apple’s decision was that these kind of Lightning headphones would sound better than what we’ve had up to now. Instead of relying on that dusty old analogue port, the thinking goes, we could just tap into the more powerful digital connector that’s been sitting there all along.
Technically, this is true! But only technically.
For something like those Lightning EarPods, any upgrade in sound quality is very marginal. If anything, I found the
older EarPods to sound a teeny bit better on my iPad mini 2, with a little more oomph in the lows and a little more depth overall. When things ramp up on a bass-heavy track like Jamie xx’s “Gosh,” I felt slightly more impact going through the analogue port.
Now, the vast majority of people won’t notice any of that. I spent a good amount of time switching between pairs of headphones with the same songs — something nobody will do in real life — and even then the changes were practically imperceptible much of the time.
And to be clear: Both of these EarPods are still very bad, in my opinion. That bass can get boomy, the highs often feel recessed, and there’s a constant sense of fogginess that obfuscates finer details. They’re still ok for a pack-in pair, and still nowhere worth $29 on their own. But if you really care about audio, you already know to stay away. (If you don’t, you’ve probably stopped reading by now.)
This is exactly the point, though. Lightning in and of itself doesn’t do anything to improve sound quality. It’s just a connector. If you keep the same enclosure, drivers, and other design bits, nothing’s going to change.
That said, Lightning headphones can sound better — but likely only in more expensive pairs. A headphone maker could stuff its own digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) and amplifiers into those, supersede the relatively weak audio components that are built into iPhones by default, and make it a revelation on any iDevice you’ve got.
But providing those good DACs and amps costs money. As does paying Apple its cut to licence the Lightning tech. If a company wants to keep costs down, as it might with an affordable Lightning earphone, it will probably have to cut corners somewhere.
And so, around the $30 mark, you get something like the new EarPods, which won’t work with your other devices, yet bring zero performance benefits. If you don’t care about audio, sure, they will be as they have always been. If you’ve found a good value over the years, though, keep that dongle handy.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.