The Real Reason why the (3.5mm) Headphone jack died for Bluetooth

June 2018

So, the 3.5mm headphone jack is dying as we speak, and anyone not jumping into the Bluetooth headset wagon is called a Luddite that stalls evolution. To call the wired headphones a Luddite choice is to believe that a step back is an improvement. It isn't. So why did Apple, and most Smartphone makers, decided to upgrade downwards? in one word: space, but not the one you are thinking. Read on...

The Bluetooth revolution

When Bluetooth was introduced, it was meant as a wireless voice signal for headsets meant basically only for you picking up a call hands free. It didn't take much for the tech industry to realize that a short-range connection had many other uses, and we saw several other devices being paired with Bluetooth: keyboard, mouse, file transfers over short distances, your car stereo with your phone and so on. Bluetooth had to evolve to accommodate these uses and as of early 2017 we had the 4.1 version being the most advanced and used increment around the world.

But it was still a short-distance, small bandwidth connection capable of very limited data transfer ... as intended.

Yet, people also used it for music, after all, it is audio, and it was meant to deliver audio, why not music? The fact is, most people use headsets, wired or not, in specific situations and places: your commute, your work, while you exercise, maybe even in your home when there are other people present. In all these situations, there is one little factor to remember: there is background noise, sometimes a lot of it.

This background noise removes the need or even means of a headset to deliver quality music. You won't really bother that the audio is flat and loosing pitch when most of what you hear is actually the traffic outside, or the metro noise. People talking or the environment noise usually breaks all chance of having a quality music session, and therefore, you don't care that Bluetooth delivers inferior quality. Also, these little commutes or work sessions last only a couple of hours at most, so battery life were never an issue.

And so Bluetooth headsets outsold wired headsets in 2017, sending a somewhat garbled message that people were preferring it over wired headsets. Well, they are, when they don't even notice quality. The thing is, people usually have two sets of phones, one for their commute, the "cheap" ones they can loose, and the quality ones, for quality music in the quiet silent of their homes (if they don't want to amp the stereo and annoy the neighbors). Maybe the commute ones are not cheap at all, but they have one important trait: they don't need the quality you expect for the home quality session ones.

Bluetooth is in no shape to offer quality. Even with the release of Bluetooth 5 (which came first, not surprisingly, with the iPhone X) the bandwidth is just too narrow and the codecs too restrictive to carry all the data in music. New improved codecs had to be built specifically for music over Bluetooth to improve the quality: Qualcomm's aptX and Sony's LDAC evolved fast as soon the 3.5 headphone jack started dying and people realized that Bluetooth is not really an improvement.

But why remove the jack if the replacement is not ready?

All companies agree on the same excuse for removing the headphone jack: space. Except they lie to you about what space. It is not the jack itself, but rather, a small chip called DAC (Digital-Analog Converter). You see, to convert your digital music into the analog signal required by speakers, you need a dedicated chip that takes up space (see, space after all) on your tiny motherboard, and that is what everyone wanted to get rid of. The 3.5mm jack is located on the edge of the phone, anywhere it can fit, it doesn't really take much internal space, and it doesn't prevent the phone from getting thinner (no phone released as of yet without the headphone jack are too thin to prevent a jack being present) - but motherboard space, well, that is costly. It might be tiny, but you can put so much more useful features if you just remove that DAC chip.

When you use a headphone jack adapter on your Apple or Android product, you might not know but inside that little dongle, a small DAC chip connects the two parts. It is so small we think that adapter is just rearranged wired, but it is actually a chip. Small for us, huge for the internals of a smartphone.

But what benefits would we ripe that are so important that it made us crave for that tiny space? I honestly don't know, but I can tell all about the alignment of right conditions for that happening, and one of them is who would be ahead of the music standards.

The alignment for little Jack's demise.

1. Smartphone makers were trying to implement a wireless standard for music for a while, but things were not going too well with Sony, Google and Apple at heads on which to use. 

2. In 2017, Bluetooth headphones sold more units than wired headphones. Something that could be "used" to persuade people that headphones were the future, as long as you hide the facts on how and why these units where being used (low quality music for noisy environments)

3. 2017 was also the year where the new Bluetooth 5 standard with improvements were coming out, a good timing to say "we can now live only with Bluetooth" (only, we can't yet)

4. Apple needed something new to shake things up after a string of uninspired phones, and the AirPods were perfect for it (since they had to offer a bluetooth headset with their jackless phone, the AirPods were never the original idea, but rather the distraction from the idea of getting rid of the 3.5mm jack and trying to boot up their Bluetooth standard)

5. Sony were starting to take the lead on the music over Bluetooth standard (LDAC), with Google actually working with them. Apple choice was loosing.

And, bye jack ... after Apple made the jump, there were no more reason for others to keep holding into that little DAC of valuable motherboard space, specially now that the Bluetooth standard was at stake, so everyone jumped ship. NOT because they wanted to evolve and adapt quickly, but all wanted to be rid of the little jack despite a replacement not being ready: not USB headphones, still a novelty. Not Bluetooth, mainstream but with inferior quality.

What the future holds?

We jumped into the future, but the future is a step back and unprepared. Fixing time!

So far, wired headsets are still delivering better audio, and it is not just for audiophiles that "can notice". It is accepted thorough the industry and anyone can compare a known music over wired and Bluetooth and notice the loss in quality. As Apple pushes the AAC format (which is actually part of the A2DP specification - part of the Bluetooth specification, so Apple didn't really invent anything, they just promoted an optional high-quality codec to the front), Sony worked with Google to improve their LDAC codec, which were already supported on older Sony Smartphones, and is the currently leading codec over Bluetooth for high quality music, capable of delivering up to 990kbps of data, which Sony claims to allow 16bits 44.1kHz audio without loss of quality (which is CD quality). It is not actually all true and some Hi-Res files do show some degradation, but just as a comparison, standard SBC (Bluetooth's own media transfer) can only transfer up to around 300kbps, while Apple's AAC implementation can hold about the same, but the way AAC is encoded is often as better than SBC because it is specific for audio, while SBC is generic;

Bandwidth alone doesn't necessarily means it is better, but it means you can hold more information and, therefore, have a better chance of not loosing important bits of data. 

An alternative that came in between the Google+Sony vs Apple war was Qualcomm's aptX and eventually aptX HD. Current implementations of aptX HD can hold nearly 600kbps, making it a better alternative than both standard SBC and AAC.

Bluetooth Codec Maximum Transfer Rates - by Soundguys.com

However, even LDAC is still pushing the envelope to be accepted as "as good as wired" audio, and it might take one or two years before the codec is perfected, and it might never surpass wired quality until Bluetooth can actually transmit more data. A very important note on all this is that both the device that transmits the audio (the smartphone) and the device that receives it (the headphone) must support the standard, so its pointless to buy a LDAC compatible headphone if your smartphone doesn't support it and, therefore, is probably sending audio using either standard SBC, or another codec the headphone can support. Most headphones already support AAC, since it is an already existing standard and was (forcibly) introduced over wired headphones by Apple, but since both Qualcomm's aptX and Sony's LDAC are available on Google Oreo (released on late 2017), and Apple refuses to support either, it shouldn't take long for these formats to become the standard - it also means that if you are using an iPhone, don't bother purchasing aptX or LDAC phones until Apple decides to stop being stubborn and support those.

Until LDAC (and maybe aptX) matches CD quality, if you want to listen to quality music in the silence of your house, better stick to good old 3.5mm jack. It is old, but it works. And if anyone calls you a Luddite, remind them that it would only be true if you were using older and worst technology, which is not the case, Bluetooth is inferior - and you don't need to worry about batteries.

Before you buy a smartphone or a headphone, I would actually wait a year to check how things settle down.

Some more reading with details on this:

Check other of my articles, like: The FUTURE is comming, check what to expect