The iPhone coming out this fall reportedly isn’t going to have a headphone port — instead, headphones will be able to connect through Apple’s proprietary Lightning charging port.
The big question is: Why?
It’s because headphones with a digital connection — like Lightning or USB-C — can do so much more than traditional analogue headphones, according to Carl Alberty, VP of marketing at Cirrus Logic.
He would know — Cirrus announced this week a developer’s kit that will allow any headphone maker to make a new set of cans that use the Lightning port instead of the venerable 3.5mm jack.
Plus, Cirrus has worked very closely with Apple and supplies audio components for the iPhone.
“We have a passionate opinion on how good the audio performance is coming out of an iPhone because we probably know a thing or two about that circuit,” Alberty told Business Insider.
For now, Cirrus’ Lightning development kit is focused on high-quality digital audio. But the company is looking to the future as to what the digital connector like Lightning can enable when it gets in the hands of headphone makers.
Here’s what Lightning headphones will be able to do that normal headphones can’t:
Headphones can gain new features without requiring heavy batteries
When you buy high-end noise cancelling headphones from Bose or other companies, they require batteries.
But when headphones use the Lightning port, they can draw power from the phone. That opens up a world of possibilities that could turn headphones into fully fledged gadgets, instead of simple personal speakers.
At the very least, noise cancelling headphones could become a whole lot lighter.
“We can build a whole lot of different user experiences and functionality by having active electronics without some really big, clunky battery,” Alberty said.
Noise cancelling will be big
Noise cancelling works by using microphones to measure sound around the headphones, then using software to “subtract” that sound from what the listener is hearing.
“The digital connection allows the electronics to be in the headset without a battery, and is precisely what forthcoming products from Cirrus will include,” Alberty said. “It’s almost like having a blank sheet, when you consider having an open platform that you can innovate on, you’re capable of supporting one mic or two mics or even five microphones per ear.”
Don’t forget virtual reality
With Lightning powering a set of headphones, “you can start to track head movement,” Alberty said. Head tracking in headphones would be a big deal for optimising audio for a given environment, but could have even bigger implications, if Apple is working on a virtual reality headset, as has been rumoured.
Lightning headphones “gets into the whole realm of virtual reality and augmented reality, and with sensors, such as an accelerometer that can be helpful for tracking head movements, both directionally and speed,” Alberty said.
Head tracking is considered to be one of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption of virtual reality.
Your headphones could become your FitBit
Some companies, like SMS Audio and Intel, have experimented with putting heart rate monitors into a pair of earbuds. But with Lightning and USB headphones, manufacturers could take it to the next level.
“There’s a whole bunch of fitness-related applications for sensors, obviously,” Alberty said. “You can measure heart rate, for example, with an [infrared light] or with a laser or even a microphone. There’s a lot health-related applications as you start introducing sensors.”
In 2008, Apple patented an invention that would collect biometric data such as temperature, perspiration, and heart rate with a set of headphones or earbuds.
And Apple is doing a ton of research on biometric sensors — CEO Tim Cook said in May one of Apple’s big goals was to be able to monitor “more and more of what’s going on in the body.”
Noise cancelling could come to basic earbuds — like Apple’s Earpods — as soon as 2017
M. Woodruff/Business Insider
One of the products in Cirrus’ pipeline is components for a set of “non-sealed” earbuds that have the required microphones to do active noise cancelling.
The problem is that there isn’t much room in a set of earbuds for a battery — but that’s not a problem when you’ve got power through the Lightning port.
“The noise cancellation technology that we’ll bring to market probably early next year is capable of providing the world’s best active noise cancelling across any form factor, including those lower cost kind of earbuds which we think is a pretty disruptive capability,” Alberty said.
That lines up with a Barclays analyst note from earlier this year that speculated that Apple could add active noise cancelling earbuds in 2017.
But don’t throw away your old headphones yet
“I suspect companies like Apple and companies like Motorola and Eco who have started offering digital headsets are obviously mindful of the fact that there’s a huge install base of people of people who have high performance headphones and headsets that do have the 3.5 millimetre,” Alberti said. “So I’d be surprised if there weren’t a variety of options for continuing to use those as folks move forward.”