After a slew of leaks, Samsung this week unveiled its latest high-end smartphones: the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. As expected, they come with big screens, tiny bezels, powerful specs, a weird laptop dock, and, lo and behold, 3.5mm headphone jacks.
That last bit is significant. For a good chunk of the last year, the common wisdom was that the traditional headphone jack was living on borrowed time.
Apple famously ditched it with the iPhone 7 in an effort push people toward wireless headphones. The move upset a lot of people, and it hasn’t magically fixed Bluetooth’s issues, but Apple devices live in their own world. If the break had to happen, at least it was relatively clean. If you’re a headphone manufacturer, you can make wireless cans or Lightning cans and know you’ll have all iPhone users covered from now on.
With Android, though, the situation is sloppier. For the past several months, Intel and others have been pushing USB-C — the do-everything port that’s replacing older USB ports on more and more devices — as the 3.5 mm jack’s replacement. USB-C is a digital connection, so it could bring the same enhancements as Lightning, but it’s also an open standard, so nobody has to pay Apple a cut to use it.
Being open, though, means a higher chance of fragmentation. And with the flagship phones from the world’s most popular Android device maker sticking with the 3.5 mm jack, that seems likely to stunt USB-C’s chances of being a replacement for a little while longer.
While the Galaxy S series on its own doesn’t outsell the iPhone — Samsung’s market share is high because it sells many phones at many price points — it’s still Android’s biggest high-end device. Without it onboard, there’s less incentive for headphone companies to make USB-C pairs. The fact that other recent Android flagships like the LG G6 have also kept the jack — and the fact that the bulk of Android’s affordable phones still have it — doesn’t make adopting USB-C any more attractive. Motorola and HTC aren’t setting the sales charts on fire.
Yes, the Galaxy S8 has a USB-C port for charging, so it still technically supports USB-C headphones. But with the headphone jack still there — and with Samsung throwing a $US99 pair of traditional wired earbuds in the box — it’s hard to see people choosing something that’s generally pricier and doesn’t allow you to charge your phone and listen to music simultaneously.
To be clear: Samsung sticking with the jack is a good thing. Nobody enjoys using a dongle. And again, to truly hear the benefits of a USB-C connection, you’ll likely need to pay a bit more than you would for a simple, good-enough analogue pair. The move also gives Samsung a very easy selling point in its ongoing blood feud with the iPhone (for whatever that’s worth).
On a higher level, the headphone world is still moving toward wireless pairs and so-called hearables. The Galaxy S8 isn’t stopping that; if anything, it’s expediting it by being the first phone with Bluetooth 5 and making it easier to stream wireless audio to multiple pairs of headphones at once. And by 2018, Samsung may ditch the jack regardless.
But for now, giving people the option to adapt USB-C without banning the alternative is a friendly move. Just don’t expect to see many more headphone makers go all-in on USB-C because of it.
This article was originally published on January 27 and has been updated to reflect the launch of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+.
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