Why Apple Can't Sell Me on Lightning Headphones

Ever since I first heard the rumor that Apple plans to eliminate the iPhone's headphone jack, I've pondered about how this could push me, an iPhone user since the 3G, to an Android device. And now, the Wall Street Journal— which has a strong track record with Apple rumors — is reporting that the company will not include a headphone jack in the iPhones it releases this fall.

Image: Shutterstock / Vladimir Arndt

Image: Shutterstock / Vladimir Arndt

This news comes from "people familiar with the matter" who told the Journal's Daisuke Wakabayashi and Eva Dou that the "Lightning connector will serve double-duty as a port for charging the phone and for connecting headphones." So now I'm hoping that my iPhone 6 Plus lasts until Apple sees the error in its ways, and I'm also on the lookout for news of new Nexus phones, because I have no interest in life without the headphone jack.

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This change is supposed to enable a slimmer, more water-resistant iPhone, two features that I don't think are worth eliminating the port for. As Samsung and Lil Wayne have shown, smartphones with headphone jacks can still be water (or rather, champagne) resistant. Sure, Apple will likely release an adapter for headphones that use the 3.5mm jack, but the last thing I need in my life is another dongle.

Does Apple expect me to buy adapters for my MacBook Pro, work laptop, recording microphone, PS4 controller and every other piece of hardware I own? Am I supposed to carry an adapter to every party, so if someone passes me an auxiliary 3.5mm jack, I can still contribute songs?

Apple makes and sells a lot of adapters. I don't want another one.

Apple makes and sells a lot of adapters. I don't want another one.

For a moment last night I considered what would happen if Apple introduced new, Lightning-based Beats headphones that were affordable and on par with my current pair. That hypothetical headset may make the new phone a less bitter pill to swallow, but they wouldn't work with anything else I own.

An iPhone without a headphone jack doesn't just limit the headphones you can use, it adds a strain to digital lives everywhere. If I bought this new iPhone, I'd become the jerk with a device that doesn't work with my friends' speaker systems. Apple may argue I should use AirPlay in those situations, but that technology is far less ubiquitous than the 3.5mm jack.

If Apple ever claims that its Lightning ports offer greater reliability than the traditional headphone jack, it should address the corrosion problems in existing Lightning cables that lead to wonky connections. This Apple support forum thread shows that the company acknowledges this is an issue and the only fix is having them send you a new cable, so new Lightning port headphones better have detachable cables.

In a post on his Daring Fireball site, renowned Apple-blogger John Gruber suggested that a move away from the 3.5mm jack is akin to the company switching from the 30-pin connector to the Lightning port. Not only is this wrong because an iPhone with just one Lightning port (and no adapter) doesn't allow you to charge and use headphones simultaneously, but changing power cables is much easier than finding and buying a new audio accessory.

And what of the headphone jacks in Apple's own MacBooks and iMacs? While Gruber thinks the company "probably" won't remove the audio port there, he goes so far as to suggest people "Cough up the extra $29 for a new pair of Apple EarPods," which is laughable. Apple's packed-in headphones may have improved slightly over the years, but their lack of a good fit and still-meh audio quality makes them an accessory of last resort for me.

Gruber argues that "The essence of Apple is that they make design decisions 'no one asked for,'" which suggests that Steve Jobs knew, and Tim Cook knows, best. This reminds me of the Apple Watch, a product that the company launched without providing a compelling reason for me to buy.

Unless Apple has some unexpectedly convincing explanation for how removing the 3.5mm jack will improve the music-listening experience, I'd say the next iPhone is a device that no one asked for.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.