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Are we ready to ditch the 3.5mm audio jack for good?

The formerly ubiquitous 3.5mm socket isn’t quite as popular and necessary as it once was, with more smartphone makers choosing to drop it. But does that mean the death of it?

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The 3.5mm headphone jack is important. It’s been the de facto method to connect a pair of headphones to a mobile phone, PC, personal audio player or tablet for many years now. Indeed, it brings about a form of standardization that has thus far made for a level playing field in the audio industry, letting practically anything work with practically anything. We haven’t had to think too much, ensure compatibility or be in for rude post-purchase shocks. You get what you want at the price you want it, and then you plug it in.

If you’ve been following the net neutrality argument, you’ll see the parallels. The 3.5mm headphone jack represents neutrality; a level playing field and universal support where the hardware manufacturers have nothing to gain from promoting a certain brand, technology or connector port. Doing away with it is taking choice away from the customer, or forcing unpleasant solutions on the customer. If you truly believe in the audio industry, want to promote the little guys and believe in customer choice, you should believe in the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Doing away with the headphone jack is taking choice away from the customer

But the realities are a bit different. 2016 saw Apple drop the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and Motorola had done it with the Moto Z a few months before that. While Moto’s move wasn’t enough to rile people up, an influential manufacturer like Apple taking such a step had bigger implications. Apple is rarely ever the first to do anything, but is usually the trend-setter for whatever it does. Apple’s reasons for doing so may have been under the guise of design and what not, but it is my opinion that the move had more to do with Apple wanting to push its own Beats Audio products. It’s anti-audio-neutrality at its finest.

Even experts and people invested in the industry tend to agree. I spoke to Raghav Somani, CEO of HeadphoneZone.in, an online retailer specializing in headphones and personal audio products. “Headphones are as indispensable to personal entertainment today, as the smartphone itself. As manufacturers move away from providing a 3.5mm jack, consumers will be forced to find alternatives like wireless headphones. Thats not very nice and I’m sure a lot of consumers will be inconvenienced,” says Somani.

As manufacturers move away from providing a 3.5mm jack, consumers will be forced to find alternatives like wireless headphones – Raghav Somani, HeadphoneZone.in

Perhaps the funniest chain of events related to the headphone jack comes from Google. The company took digs at Apple when it launched its own Google Pixel and Pixel XL, only to drop it a year later on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It’s a rare example of Google agreeing with Apple on something a year late, and can be construed as Google having got it wrong, and being too proud to admit it. Somani agrees, “Manufacturers are really pushing consumers to move away from a wired headphone to a wireless headphone, as they abandon the 3.5mm jack. Apple stands to benefit from higher adoption of Beats‘ Wireless headphones, and their proprietary W1 chip. But I don’t see why other brands are following the trend.”

A more reasonable (and worrying) piece of commentary on the headphone jack came from OnePlus this year. OnePlus founder Pete Lau, in a forum post, stated that the OnePlus 5T would include the headphone jack well before its launch. While it was a much-needed vote of confidence for the connector standard, OnePlus’ language has always been cautious. What I make of it is that everything is temporary; the 3.5mm stays FOR NOW, and nothing said for the OnePlus 5T applies to the next product.

Here, let me give you some examples from my own life, and why the 3.5mm headphone jack matters. Watching videos on my smartphone with the sound on while I’m at work is much more convenient on my OnePlus 5T than on my iPhone 8, because it’s easy to quickly disconnect my headset from the PC and plug it into the phone. Letting someone else plug in their music in my car through an auxiliary cable is easier as well when their phone has a 3.5mm jack, because I don’t want to have to disconnect my own smartphone from the Bluetooth system in case I get phone calls.

I might find solutions to these issues for regular use such as listening during a commute or keeping a lightning-to-3.5mm dongle in my wallet. But odd and rare moments such as what I described above prove that the 3.5mm jack is still the most convenient option available. Period. The important thing here is customer convenience, and having the 3.5mm jack alongside the Lightning/USB Type-C port and Bluetooth is still the most favorable option.

And let’s remember that apart from rare exceptions such as the now-obscure LeEco Le 2, ditching the headphone jack is still a trend limited to the premium smartphone segments. If you can afford a Rs 70,000 smartphone, you can certainly afford a pair of wireless headphones for Rs 10,000 or more. But if your smartphone budget is somewhere around Rs 10,000, you probably won’t want to spare more than a few hundred rupees on headphones. The most affordable options still need the headphone jack, and the budget smartphone segment isn’t likely to do away with it any time soon.

The budget smartphone segment isn’t likely to do away with it any time soon

So perhaps the headphone jack doesn’t need to go away just yet. And realistically, it won’t either, at least for the next few years. Flagship smartphones may set the tone for things to come, but ground realities for the mass market are often different. As for me, I’m not ready to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack just yet, because there are times when it’s more convenient. And that should be the most important factor in any customer-centric decision – customer choice.

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  • Published Date: November 28, 2017 12:28 PM IST