iPhone 7 will hopefully pave the way for wireless headphones that work

This morning, my parents heard on the news that the new iPhone 7 won’t have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. They were confused. Why would Apple do that? Surely it will only lead to frustrated users? What good could possibly come from removing one of the most useful features of a phone?

I don’t know if Apple will profit from this, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want a phone without an audio jack slot myself (yet). But in the long run I think this move will probably massively benefit everyone who uses audio devices, because Apple will finally make wireless headphones work.

The current condition of the wireless audio equipment market is absurd. The technology to reliably transmit high-quality audio wirelessly, and to play it without using too much battery, has been available for years. And yet, almost everyone uses wired headphones in their phones and laptops; wires with limited reach, that get caught up in door knobs, that tangle up into a mess every time you put them away.

The laptop I write this on has an external USB sound card connected to it, because the audio jack for the internal sound card is broken. See the video above to understand how it broke. Clearly, wireless headphones have some qualities that are superior to corded ones. And yet, they all suck.

Today’s wireless headphones are usually one of three different types:
1) USB dongle
2) Bluetooth
3) Standalone transmitter

The first type, the USB dongle, is really simple to use, but also not very flexible. The audio signal is sent digitally through the USB port to the dongle, which transmits it wirelessly to the headphones, where the signal is converted to analog audio. USB dongles usually work by just plugging them in, with minimal settings and connections to worry about, so this is almost as simple as plugging in an audio jack cable. The huge downside is that you need a USB port, which none of your cell phones have and most sound systems also lack.

Bluetooth is supposed to be the solution for this. By now, pretty much every sound-outputting device on the planet supports Bluetooth out of the box, and a Bluetooth headphone is supposed to be able to connect to any of these. The latest versions of Bluetooth can also carry fairly high-quality audio. The only problem is that Bluetooth is a huge mess and never works as it should. It was not mainly designed for audio transmission, but basically tries to be a universal solution for everything wireless (mouse, keyboard, file transmission etc.), and (in my experience) pretty much fails at all of it. First you need to “pair” your device and your headphones. Maybe there are some high-end super expensive headphones where you just have to press one or two buttons, but I have never been able to do this smoothly. It inevitably takes five minutes to pair them the first time, and since most headphones can only be paired to one or a few devices at the same time, you have to go through this process fairly regularly. When they are paired, the device and the headphones are supposed to connect automatically when they get in each other’s range. Unfortunately, about halv of the time they won’t connect automatically, and I have to go into weird menus and try several times and finally just unpair and pair again and repeat until I can finally listen to that damn song. And even if I manage to connect them properly, there are still problems. Whenever I connect my Android to the car sound system (after unpairing and pairing etc.), the car usually decides that I only want to use it for calls, and I have to manually force it to play all audio through the car speakers. At which point it suddenly starts playing whatever music or audiobook I was last listening to before connecting, without waiting for me to press any “play” button. Which is great sometimes, and really incredibly annoying most of the time. Especially when I get into the car with my phone with Bluetooth on, and it inexplicably manages to do all of the connecting etc. by itself, and after one and a half minute of driving suddenly starts booming out trance music on the highest volume.

And all of this is a huge shame, because if Bluetooth was properly designed from the start, with strict standards and a strong emphasis on ease of connection, I bet almost nobody would still be using corded headphones today. Instead, many manufacturers have started making the third type of wireless audio device I listed above; the one with a standalone transmitter, which is connected to the audio source through a standard audio jack cable. I actually thought it was a joke the first time I saw one of these: what is even the point of a “wireless” solution if you need the same audio cable (plus power cables!) to make it work? And then I went ahead and bought a pair, and I am super happy with them and use them all the time. The only problem, of course, is that I can only use them in the house, near the transmitter. Whenever I go out, I still use corded headphones.

Back to Apple. Why would all these problems suddenly be solved by Apple making their own wireless headphones? First, Apple makes things that just work. Macs are plug-and-play. iPads don’t crash. You don’t have to go into some deeply hidden settings on your iPhone to enable flash on the camera. Second, Apple removing the headphone jack suggests they are committed to making wireless headphones that work. If Apple’s wireless headphones work as badly as normal Bluetooth headphones, people will be unable to easily listen to music and watch YouTube, and will be frustrated at Apple. So they have to work well, and Apple have probably poured a ton of resources on making a system that works as simple as plugging in an audio cable. Third, iPhones have a huge userbase. In September when iPhone 7 launches, the number of consumers who own wireless headphones will suddenly rise by an order of magnitude, and in half a year everyone still using uncool corded phones will look like they still live in the stone age. Demand for wireless headphones that work will surge, more money will be spent in R&D departments in companies all over the world on them, and hopefully the industry will agree on some robust standards really quickly. In two years, everyone will be using wireless headphones for almost all purposes, because they are as easy to connect as corded headphones, the battery lasts for a day or longer, and they are available in all price classes. Only grandmothers and audiophiles will still be seen with cables out of their ears.

At least this is what I hope will happen. Unfortunately, Apple chose not to bundle their wireless earphones with the iPhone, instead selling them separately for a really stiff price. Those who choose not to buy them can still use the included Lightning port adapter, and plug their normal corded headphones into the charging port. So Apple aren’t really forcing anyone to switch, just giving them a light nudge. Also, their wireless technology is based on Bluetooth (and their earphones compatible with other Bluetooth devices), so it’s not some new revolutionary way of doing wireless audio transmission.

But I wish Apple good luck with this one, and hope we can finally get rid of these silly cords.