RIP 3.5mm headphone jack, the enabler for music revolution

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 19, 2016 15:02 IST
The headphone jack

Music composer Pritam may not know this, but he just killed off one of the most loved and used pieces of technology worldwide. The 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s been around for more than 50 years, was one of the main reasons for the success of the Sony Walkman, was the enabler for the whole portable music revolution and is the access point for the entire billion-dollar headphones market. And without knowing it, Pritam walked onto a stage, made a few innocuous comments – and killed it off.

As it happened

The event was a new LeEco phone announcement (two phones actually), the location Sirifort auditorium, the audience comprised thousands of screaming fans (the term used is Super Fans) and the shocker was that neither of the two brand new LeEco phones had a 3.5mm headphone jack. Pritam walked in doing the best impression of a teddy bear I’ve seen in recent times, announced that they had tried this phone with a new technology called CDLA (Continual Digital Lossless Audio. Yes, a mouthful of tech jargon) and called it way superior to anything he had heard before. And just like that, the start of the end for the 3.5mm jack was initiated.

LeEco’s new phones come with CDLA and don’t have the traditional headphone jack

Legac y

The 3.5mm jack has always had a mixed bag of reactions. To many audiophiles, it’s the worst link in a chain of technology that eventually delivers music to the human ear, while others swear by it. Without starting a controversy, let me call this one. The 3.5mm port is a very inferior way of hearing music. Unfortunately it’s now a legacy, a piece of technology so entrenched in the industry and with us, the consumers, that it’s tough to break away from it. And while LeEco is first off-the-block with killing it off, they aren’t going to be the only ones.

Apple killer

The rumour has been strong that Apple will also kill it off with the iPhone 7. From part suppliers to vendors, almost everyone has confirmed that the iPhone 7 does not have a 3.5mm jack. And if Apple does it, everyone will follow. I’ve heard rumours from almost every brand that their future phones will not have a traditional headphone jack. So it does seem like the days of ‘the jack’ are numbered. Time to take a look at whether this is a good move forward or one that will leave most of us frustrated?

There is a strong rumour that Apple too will kill off the headphone jack with the iPhone 7

Will everyone go wireless then?

No, that would be terrible. While Bluetooth and other wireless tech for audio is good, it still doesn’t come close to a wired product. Plus, I don’t see free BT headsets inside a box anytime soon.

If not 3.5mm then what?

Yes, this is the big scare. Everyone will have some new digital standard, and right now there doesn’t seem to be a consensus at all. Differing standards are terrible for consumers. LeEco’s CDLA is fantastic (I did a blind test with multiple users and CDLA blew the headphone jack plain out of the water), but I don’t see it adopted by all right away. So, if Apple does its own, LeEco its own and a few dozen others come up with their own versions, we are about to have a whole new format war. A messy one!

What do I do with my old headphones then?

The answer is pretty simple. Add it to the digital landfill. Yes, most will turn to electronic junk very soon. Think pager, fax machine and typewriter!

But they will all have to provide an adaptor for us to use our old headphones, right?

Right. And that’s self defeatist in purpose. When you move forward and ditch old legacy standards, you’ve got to have a clean break. The adaptor will make the transition less painful but will also make sure that you don’t get the benefits of the new sound standard.

Will there be a pair of headphones for this new standard free with every phone?

Nope! This is as much a game of adding more sales dollars by forcing a new standard on to all, as much as better music. Think. Every single pair of headphones across the world replaced by new ones. That’s trillions in new revenue. Why spoil it by giving it away? Won’t happen for some time.

I don’t want the 3.5mm jack to die. What can I do?

Join the petition called #SaveJack. It has hundreds of thousands of people already on it.

Is all this new stuff actually better?

Well, I’ve already answered one part of it with the LeEco CDLA test I did. What this really does is keep digital music more or less digital in delivery to the headphone. No real conversion is needed. The digital processing is done inside the headphone and not on the device. The sound is remarkably better.

No jack would mean thinner phones, lesser use of space and better sound quality

What other advantages will there be?

Thinner phones, lesser space used, much better quality of sound especially bass, in-built noise cancellation, smarter tech (plug in your headphones and it opens the music app on its own), better acoustic control, lesser power used, better battery life – quite a bit actually.

To get a taste of this all new audio paradigm shift, give the LeEco phones a twirl. Both the Le 2 and Le Max2 are brilliant phones and mega bang for buck. They also represent the future. Or should I say they represent the ‘6 feet under’ burial of poor old Jack. Pritam, yeh tumne kya kiya?

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, June 19, 2016

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