At its keynote event on Wednesday, Apple will unveil the iPhone 7, and the phone will reportedly no longer have a headphone jack.
If Apple (AAPL) succeeds in strong-arming the public into saying goodbye to the venerable headphone jack, it won’t just be annoying you with a required USB headphone converter, it’ll be breaking a 138-year-old tradition of simplicity and elegance in a chinless shrug.
Though you may not realize it, the 3.5-millimeter stereo miniplug on the end of your earbuds holds a direct link to the 1/4-inch phone plugs used in ancient switchboards, which date back deep into the 19th century. Since then, only two major innovations have changed the plug: the advent of stereo and miniature versions.
The headphone jack is a rare example of completely mature technology
Unlike so many things in tech, the headphone jack has a near-perfection that has allowed it to resist even the suggestion of innovation since its popular debut on the Sony Walkman—until Apple decided September 7 would be its Judgement Day.
The jack has also made it possible to plug your phone into equipment that predated computer chips and integrated circuits. Even today, many headphone manufacturers still bundle a 1/4-inch adapter so you can plug directly into a Hi-Fi receiver if you, like many millennials, still love the cracks and pops of vinyl grooves.
All this legacy has had some interesting results for consumers. Though there are dozens of hot new headphones in the $150 range, gadget review site The Wirecutter still lists the Sony MDR-7506 as its top pick in the over-ear category. You may not know them or their popular sibling, the V6, by their less-than catchy names, but you have most likely seen them before, and as far back as 1985. You’d be hard-pressed to think of that many electronics whose performance has topped the charts for more than 35 years.
The simplicity and elegance of a cord from pocket to ear still matters too. Without batteries to charge, Bluetooth operations to pair, and extra radiation to worry about—this worries some people, believe it or not—many wired headphones can be repaired easily if you’re even slightly the DIY type.
This simplicity also means that the sound only has a short cable to pass through, instead of a Bluetooth wireless system that’s notorious for introducing latency, distortion, echo and other noise. This is not to say that digital sound can’t be better, but it’s important to remember that Apple’s “innovation” isn’t about embracing digital audio over analog, it’s about embracing wireless over wired.
The pros of wireless headphones just aren’t that compelling
If this were June 30, 1979, wireless headphones might be legitimately exciting. In the pre-Walkman days, if you wanted to listen to music while running, you’d have to blackmail someone to drive next to you with the radio going. So what exactly are the pros of wireless headphones in an era when your phone is always in your pocket?
One argument often put forward is that the headphone jack is keeping phones thick. This, of course, assumes that a phone thinner than 3.5-millimeters is a virtue, and if you agree, it’s hard to argue with. Maybe you’re hung up on the annoying snarl of headphone cables knotted up in your pocket. But I take comfort in knowing that if I see one ear bud and a ball of cords, the other one is attached. I can’t see how the frustration of only finding one wireless earbud is better than having to master the art of untangling.
Another claim reverberating around the Internet is that the headphone jack levees a tax on a phone’s precious real estate that could be used for a larger battery. In actual size, an iPhone 6S battery takes up approximately 12 cubic centimeters. It’s hard to measure how little space the headphone jack takes up, but a rough estimate pegs it at 0.26 cubic centimeters. Allocating that space for more battery would allow for a 2% larger battery.
All this wouldn’t really matter if you didn’t have to fill the landfills with all your old headphones and buy new, more expensive wireless ones. A new iPhone every year, regardless of whether it’s a massive innovation, is hardly a big deal. And of course, it doesn’t make sense to be nostalgic over severing a link with the original telephone switchboard.
But ditching good, simple tech for complex “solutions” with no meaningful benefit doesn’t feel like progress.
Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering tech and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ewolffmann.
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