Opinion: Apple’s decision to remove the headphone port is based on ‘consumerism’ not ‘courage’

“The real courage is buying a phone that costs Rs 60,000 and the AirPods for Rs 15,400, and then looking at your bank balance”

By the time Apple launched the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus last week, every tech enthusiast — including their mothers and grandmothers — had an inkling that the Cupertino tech giant was going to remove the ubiquitous headphone port. And, Apple did just that – it removed the headphone port on the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, and announced that the Lightning port on the phone, also used for charging the device, will double up for wired audio. Apart from this, Apple also announced a new pair of AirPods headphones — which included a new W1 chip — to drive home the fact that we need to move past the 100-year-old 3.5mm jack for audio needs. The verdict is still out on whether the future of audio is going to be the Lightning port (or USB Type-C as far as Android phones go) or wireless, or a combination of both. 

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Talking about the move to remove the headphone port, Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple, said at the launch, “Some people have asked why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone. It really comes down to one word: courage. The courage to move on to do something new that betters all of us.” 

Honestly, Apple’s decision to remove the headphone port has nothing to do with courage and is actually driven by the fact that it can make more money selling accessories and asking manufacturers to join the MFi program — necessary for enabling the Lightning standard. For the uninitiated, the MFi or Made-For-iPod program started as a means for accessories manufacturers to get the hardware connectors and components that are required to manufacture iPod, iPhone, iPad, and AirPlay audio accessories. Furthermore, it also clearly mentions communication protocols required to interact with Apple’s devices and the standards that accessory manufacturers need to follow. 

Which brings us to the point – the usage of the word ‘courage’ to describe Apple’s decision to remove the headphone port from the iPhone 7 is more of a grandiose statement than the hard reality. By definition, courage means that you are doing something to overcome pain. The only pain here is the one Apple is inflicting upon consumers by asking them to buy a $9 (approximately Rs 600) Lightning to 3.5mm dongle, for when they lose one invariably, or the rather hideous looking $40 (approximately Rs 2,700) Belkin Lightning adapter for charging your iPhone 7 and listening to music at the same time. Furthermore, Apple has categorically stated that the reason for removing the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is so that it could add the IP67 certification, which makes the phone resistant to water spills and dust. Honestly, I am not buying into that line of reasoning because the Samsung Galaxy S7, which has an IP68 certification, includes a 3.5mm jack. 

Honestly, consumerism is the right word to describe Apple’s decision to cut the jack off. 

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I spoke to Raghav Somani, the founder of Headphonezone.in, who is enraged. “I don’t see how Apple is serving anybody’s interest except its own. Not only does every headphone manufacturer have to seek Apple’s certification (MFI) for their products, but even the proprietary Lightning connector chips can be procured only from apple. This is just Apple flexing its muscles to maximise profits.”

While big name brands like Sennheiser, Beats, and Skullcandy might be able to do that without much trouble, think about the state of low-cost brands like Brainwavz. Earphone/headphone manufacturers like Brainwavz, Cowon, and SoundMagic would have to price their Lightning connector earphones/headphones at a higher cost than the 3.5mm variants, invariably. Another reason for the increased pricing is that these headphones themselves require a digital-to-analog convertor (DAC), which is an additional component. 

(Also read: Hit the road jack – Apple bids adieu to the 3.5mm headphone socket)

Audeze is a high-end audio equipment brand that makes some of the best headphones in the world. The company recently launched the Audeze Sine planar magnetic headphones with a Lightning connector variant. It should come as no surprise that the Audeze Sine Standard edition with the 3.5mm jack costs Rs 34,999, whereas the Audeze Sine Cipher edition with the Lightning connector costs Rs 39,999. 

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What are the advantages of the latter over the former, you ask? Well, you get a slightly amped up volume in the Cipher edition but CNET’s generally trustworthy audio reviewer David Carnoy states in his review, “However, a true headphone amp — a good one anyway — would improve the sound more significantly. I preferred the sound slightly using the Lightning cable, but depending on your tastes, you may prefer using the standard 3.5mm audio plug.” This clearly indicates that the Rs 5,000 price difference might not be worth it. Heck, for the difference in price you can get the Rock Jaw Alfa Genus V2 in-ear headphones, which offers a great sound quality and come with special filters for bass and treble to boot. Low-end headphones that cost as much as the $29 (approximately Rs 12,00) Apple EarPods with the Lightning connector will mostly continue to sound bad or average at best because of the low-quality DACs used in these headphones.

Now, coming to the part where Apple wants to sell those Rs 15,400 AirPods – it just augments my argument that the company wants you to buy into its ecosystem. Firstly, the fidelity of wireless audio is circumspect at best. Secondly, the asking price is ridiculously high. Thirdly, you are adding one more device to your gadgets list that will need charging. It will also serve you well to know that no wireless headphone can sound as good as their wired counterparts, which are incidentally available at cheaper prices. I love the sound quality of V-Moda Crossfade Wireless, but at the same time I think that the much cheaper wired counterparts like Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 and the ATH-M50X offer a better overall sound.

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I am pretty sure that mass adoption of a newer standard is a given but there is no need for Apple to sugarcoat it by saying that removing the headphone jack is an act of courage. By the time the next iPhone is launched, the Lightning earphones would have become so commonplace that Apple will save some more money by not bundling the dongle with the phone, like it is doing with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. 

In its current state we have to deal with four different connectivity options (if not more) for portable audio – the Lightning port, USB Type-C port, 3.5mm port, and the wireless standards like Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi. This means that you will have to use a universal hub for all these hardware standards just to connect multiple devices, just like you use a universal remote for your TV and Set-top box. Only thing, it is going to look ugly and messy as a bunch of cables packed together generally do. 

All said and done, in light of the recent developments, who is currently laughing all the way to the bank? Apple. And, who is crying? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

 

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