Why no one knows if Apple’s new AirPods are any good

Apple finally did it. They killed the 3.5 mm headphone jack, which has been around for 138 years.

Instead, owners of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus will need to use wireless headphones or headphones which attach to the iPhone with their proprietary Lightning cable.

Every iPhone will come with Lightning cable-connected headphones called EarPods. Apple is also selling wireless, Bluetooth earbuds called AirPods. They cost $159.

But the biggest question on everyone’s mind — are the new headphones better than the old headphones? — remains largely unanswered.

When weighing the pros and cons of headphones that use Lightning cables, versus wireless ones, versus headphones that use a 3.5 mm jack, there are a lot of factors, like the need to charge your earbuds or being able to charge your phone and listen to music at the same time.

But what about audio quality? Which kinds of headphones will make your music, audiobooks, and podcasts sound best in your ears?

Once we get our hands on a pair of AirPods, we’ll be able to review them in-depth. But for now, we can tell a lot about the audio quality with the kind of technology that Bluetooth, Lightning cables, and the 3.5 mm audio jack uses.

Basically, the difference between the 3.5 mm jack, Bluetooth, and Lightning cables comes down to how they convert digital music in your phone to music you can hear.

Apple airpod

Audio files convert from digital (your song files) to analogue (the music in your ears) with a chip conveniently called a digital-to-analogue converter, or DAC.

Headphones with a 3.5 mm jack don’t convert the music, but rely on a DAC in your phone to do it. That DAC is what converts all those MP3 files into music you can actually hear.

Headphones that use a Lightning cable or Bluetooth, however, have a DAC inside the headphones. These include Apple’s AirPods and EarPods.

They transmit data with the same basic technology that you download things with WiFi, or move a file from a computer to a device with a USB cord.

But just because they convert music differently does not automatically make one set of headphones better than another.

Apple headphone jack
A good ol’ fashioned 3.5 mm analogue headphone jack. Steve Kovach/Tech Insider

When measuring audio quality, one of the most important factors is the quality of DAC, Robert Rowe, the director of Music Technology at New York University, told INSIDER.

So then the question becomes: What type of DAC device does an iPhone with a headphone jack use, and what type of DAC do AirPods and EarPods use?

And that’s the thing! No one knows what the DAC in the new headphones even is.

No one’s even sure if the new phones themselves have a DAC. Because the iPhone 7 doesn’t use a 3.5 mm audio jack, there’s no point in converting the digital signal to an analogue signal within the phone. Apple might have cleverly put the DAC into their $9 “dongle” adaptor. Or they might have kept it in the phone anyway.

No one’s really sure, and Apple declined to comment about it.

Once we get our hands on the phone and the adaptor, we can tear it apart and take a look. But for now, no one knows.

It’s the same thing with the AirPods and EarPods — we don’t know if they have DACs inside them because we know so little about the specs. The product page for AirPods doesn’t say anything about the DAC.

The DAC is important when it comes to audio quality, but there are a whole lot of other things to consider when buying headphones.

Philips fidelio lightning headphones
These Philips Fidelio headphones also use a Lightning cable, and they have been around for a while. Antonio Villas-Boas/Tech Insider

There’s the shape, how well they fit in your ears, how well they handle outside noise, the price, and whether you want to charge them.

Plus, Lightning cable and Bluetooth headphones have been around for a while. In fact, the iPhones 7 and 7 Plus are not the first smartphones to ditch the headphone jack. The Moto Z and LeEco Android phones ditched it for USB headphones earlier this year.

Reviews are mixed.

For headphones that use Lightning cables, the reviews are generally positive. Basically, if you get Lightning cable headphones with a good DAC, then they will be better than many analogue headphones, which depend on the phone’s DAC (unless you use an external adaptor with a different DAC). The EarPods will use Lightning cables, but like I said above, it’s unclear how good the DAC will be.

For Bluetooth headphones, there are other issues. Bluetooth is wireless, but the technology wasn’t designed with big audio files in mind. So with very high quality audio files, there can be playback issues.

The DAC that Apple used for the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus isn’t that spectacular, but does the job for most non-audiophiles. We can expect similar chips to be used by Apple’s new products.

Apple’s AirPods, in particular, are supposed to play audio files at a maximum bit rate of 256 kilobytes per second. That’s solid for Bluetooth headphones, but not very good compared to most wired headphones.

Ultimately, the jury is still out on Apple’s new headphones.

Apple iPhone 7 airpod

We simply don’t have the specs yet and won’t know the quality of the DAC — the key component when it comes to headphone quality — until testing.

Ultimately, don’t trust anyone who tells you right now that the quality of an AirPod will definitely be better than wired headphones.

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