Did the iPhone 7 Kill Luxury Headphones?
Originally published in the Daily Beast.
Apple has killed the headphone! Long live the headphone.
Well, not quite.
Apple’s iPhone 7 will be the first model created without the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple is also touting its wireless AirPods (available in late October) as the cutting edge in smartphone audio technology.
Apple’s iPhone 6S was the top-selling smartphone model in the second quarter of 2016, according to research by Strategy Analytics. The same report found that Apple makes two of the three best-selling smartphones sold globally.
So whatever Apple does—or does not—do with its iPhone design reverberates across multiple industries, including in this case, the audio accessories world.
As the world’s most popular smartphone maker eschews a headphone jack, does this mean it’s time to retire your wired headphones?
Not necessarily, but change is afoot.
Luxury headphones are having something of a moment as design geeks and audiophiles are at last no longer forced to choose form over function.
On the most recent season of Fox’s hit show Empire, the character Hakeem Lyon sports the unmistakably blingy 24K Gold Monster headphones ($299), while his brother Jamal is more of a Master Dynamic ($399) fan. And earlier this summer, Beyoncé wore Pryma Carbon Marsala headphones ($549) to sing a ballad in one of her “Lemonade” clips.
In the case of Pryma, the Italian company touts its luxury leather headband and metal accents, which are meant to mimic a designer handbag, as well as its audio technology, which is supplied by Sonus faber, an acclaimed 30-year-old audio technology firm.
The conceit of Pryma is that everything is of the highest possible quality, from an entirely human (not robot) made product to state of the art audio firmware. But while the company was not surprised by Apple’s bet on wireless, they are not yet ready to confirm if or when there will be a wireless version of their status products.
“We know all the wireless standards available on the market,” says Livio Cucuzza, head of industrial design for McIntosh Group, which makes Pryma headphones. “We are working around the standards, because our company is really focused on the best audio quality possible.”
“We don’t want just wireless or Bluetooth,” Cucuzza adds. “We want the best available system at the moment.” Cucuzza would only say that Pryma engineers are “exploring” wireless options for their headphones.
For musicheads, connecting their pricey analog headphones means relying on the standard 3.5mm audio jack (which Apple is still allowing, via an adapter packaged with the iPhone 7).
Without falling too far down the music nerd rabbit hole, a 3.5mm jack converts the digital music files in your phone into an analog sound in your headphones. Bluetooth headphones skip the conversion, and keep all the files in a digital state.
While an analog sound is accepted as higher quality, experts believe that most people can’t tell the difference.
“You’re always going to get better sample rate of the music through a wired connection,” Caeden CEO and mechanical engineer Nora Levinson says. “But for the vast majority of people, the difference is really not noticeable once you go to something like a Bluetooth headphone.”
Caeden, a company founded by Levinson and her business partner David Watkins, makes Linea, a line of wired and wireless in-ear and over-ear headphones ($80—$175). Linea uses vegan leather and is accented with faceted earphone covers. It also features a three-axis pivot, which the company says leads to a more comfortable, low compression fit over time.
“Most people in a couple of years will be using Bluetooth headphones,” Levinson says. “The wired headphones will be reserved for creating very high-end experiences and focusing on audiophiles and studio recordings.”
There are pluses and minuses to both headphones scenarios.
In the case of wireless headphones, users now have one extra thing to remember to charge.
“If you forget your charger, it’s the same thing as leaving your phone charger or Apple Watch charger at home,” audio engineer David Linehan says. “You’re kind of screwed if your battery dies while you are at work.”
Linehan notes that in the case of professional users, like recording artists and even competitive video gamers, wired headphones are still the standard, for their lack of battery issues as well as superior sound. An uncharged Bluetooth battery can bring a recording session or a professional video game match to a dead stop.
On the other hand, one of the first things Linehan wondered about the new Apple design was, if the wired headphones connect in the same port as the battery charger, how can someone use their headphones and charge the phone at the same time? He’s guessing a split dongle of some sort will soon emerge as an accessory. (A combination audio jack adapter plus phone charger is not currently listed on Apple’s accessories page.)
Pryma’s Cucuzza, who says he’s had good experiences with wireless headphones, adds that Bluetooth devices will occasionally run into interference or interruptions in busy spots, while wired connections are stable.
It’s also worth noting that headphones are only half of the audio equation.
While streaming service Tidal has made its lossless, high-fidelity audio a major selling point of the service, the majority of streaming music is played over the Spotify and Apple Music services. Spotify has 40 million paying subscribers, while Apple boasts 17 million paying users, and Tidal has 4.2 million subscribers, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
That means that even the best quality headphones are still working with compressed files.
“The momentum of the industry is towards mid-level compression,” Levinson says. “Not so compressed that it’s noticeable, but the levels of compression that are used in Spotify and Apple Music are very similar.”
“There are entry-level headphones, and then when you go from that to mid- to high-tier headphones, there’s a huge audio quality difference,” she adds.
So as Bluetooth technology evolves, the audio quality between high-end wired and wireless headphones is becoming negligible for all but hardcore users.
“With wireless Bluetooth headphones, technically it’s not a 100 percent signal quality, but most people can’t tell the difference,” Levinson says. “In terms of the source of the audio file and the method of delivery, the vast majority of people can’t tell. And the people who can tell, or think they can tell, are very vocal but not very numerous.”