Let’s talk about distortion.
It is now fewer than 48 hours left until Apple unveils the iPhone 7. Barring any unforeseen events, it will be the first iPhone without a 3.5 mm headphone jack. It will likely be the first flagship phone of its kind to forgo a headphone jack, and it will set Apple on the path to inexorably eliminate them from at least some of its products.
Rumors of this have swirled around for many months now, long enough for speculation, frank discussion and sober comparisons to take place. The killer point is that very few people who have went into depth on this issue see many ultimate upsides. Lightning, MFi headphones already exist, and are more reliably correlated with high prices than with superb audio quality. (Followers of Beats will not be surprised.)
The argument that Apple is institutionally driven to remove the wire and move to wireless technology has undeniable cultural and psychological merit, especially with both the MacBook Air and the MacBook having been introduced since the first iPhone, with and without the involvement of Steve Jobs.
For me, it isn’t so much about standards and leaving gadgetry behind as it is about this: how will it be better? Right now, wireless headphones come with strong trade-offs – they’re the right piece of equipment for some people, but not for everyone. They need to be paired, you can lose contact with them and drop signals, you don’t easily see at a glance that they’re plugged in and god help you if you pair them to multiple devices, or a single device to multiple headphones. Some of the above are pain points for Bluetooh and could conceivably not be for a new wireless standard, but not all of them can be waved away like this.
Passing through the human body is just about the worst case scenario at least for the 2.4 GHz radio used by Bluetooth headphones and the transmitters they are able to use, and Apple would not ship chunkier smaller earbud-type headphones. The Bragi Dash has attempted to sidestep Bluetooth for bud-to-bud communication in favor of near-field magnetic induction, to what seems like widespread disappointment. And as relatively simple as Apple has made some of its interfaces for connecting to other wireless devices or networks or sending things here and there, they’ve also been plauged by connectivity and reliability issues – like how I can’t AirDrop things from my Mac to my iPhone, but vice versa is fine, and how this behavior suddenly changes sometimes, but not in response to OS updates, router restarts or network interface reenabling.
The user interface for a headphone is as simple as possible, and not simpler. You plug it into where it picks up the sound from. The cable both ferries the sound from the source to the target and is a cue for connection, and if you yank it, it disconnects. It is tactile and understandable, to a point where Apple has even went to pains to finish the story digitally, in making its devices stop playback when the cable is disconnected, one of few flaws.
Meanwhile, getting wireless headphones to pair with a device, making sure they stay connected, in range, not forgetting to change devices if your headphones are mobile, too – which they well might be in the case of the $300—400—or–much–worse monsters that some take to for a bearable sonic experience – involve work. It is a struggle, it is a downgrade in reliability, it is another increment of compounded frustration. For some, who have optimized their workflow to minimize these pains, or for whom the freedom of no wires is significant enough, the tradeoff is worth it. But not, by a long shot, for every single of the 40-or-so-million iPhone 7/iPhone 7 Plus owners we will see within the next year.
These people will instead be treated to a choice between a Lightning version of the craptastic Earpods, or the (guessing) $19/$29 little dongly thing, converting from the 2010s to the 19th century. The sort of little dongly thing that looks stupid on a MacBook and thoroughly ridiculous on a phone, even more so if it is big enough to allow for the Lightning pass-through to allow for charging.
I am dumb enough for many things, but not to believe that this will prevent Apple from going this route. They will set this path subject only to their own discretion, and I praise their freedom to do so. What I can’t quite get over is seeing people who were open earlier to seeing the alternate solution, the unseen parts of this equation, what only Apple knows right now, are taking delight already in consigning anyone not already dancing in the streets over the loss of the shackles of old jacks to the slow luddite moron basket. So much for sticking to the argument, seeing it play out, and possibly even taking Apple to task for killing something that was actually simplicity in its purest form over something that – for the purposes of being a replacement – is simple in wolf’s clothing, bringing side effects, needless manuevering, repetetive loss of connection and general anguish in its wake.
The loss of a “legacy port” and of another fraction of a millimeter of thickness – they’re both disproportionate sacrifices. And I may yet be wrong, but it will likely take some brilliant engineering to bring the tactility back to the user experience of being able to plug in headphones and be crystal clear about what exactly that means, and how easy it is to stop using them.
My only prediction for Wednesday’s event is that there will be no “it just works” over the wireless headphone story for iPhone 7. Oh, and that the new audio source/AirPlay audio icon, the arrow with the circular emanating waves on the second card in Control Center, will come to mean something more, possibly even be given an InterCaps name.