When Apple first released their latest iPhone without the headphone jack, it caused a lot of controversy. Android users felt quite smug about it, as they had the jack in every one of their phones. There was also a lot of speculation about just why the company chose to take this step. Some people accused Apple of trying to make more money from their customers by selling a separate dongle that can allow you to plug in headphones similar to the traditional way. Others assumed it was to boost the sale of AirPods. However, there’s no doubt that a lot of people were inconvenienced by the absence of a headphone jack and felt that they had been deprived of something basic in the name of technological advancements.
Still, there are some answers to the question of why Apple and other companies are now releasing their smartphones without the convenience of a headphone jack. Look at it this way: prior to computer-created sound files or digital sound, sound was recorded via analog systems. That means engineers used electronic or mechanical means to capture and transfer sound. These are called analog technology. For example, a tape player is analog. It plays back sound through mechanical means.
Meanwhile, your computer plays digital sound. This is encoded data that the computer reads and translates into sound. Almost all the consumer wired headphones are analog technology. However, our phones and the music we play is digital. That means phones need DACs installed on the phone. These are digital to analog converters. Compared to other cell phone parts, they are typically much larger and there’s a physical limitation to how small they can be and still work properly. Also, DACs can have a significant effect on sound quality.
One major way to get significant space to make the modern smartphone smaller, and possibly conserve battery life would be to eliminate the DAC and headphone jack altogether. This is why smartphone companies are now looking at making this change and hence giving their customers a lighter phone along with better sound quality for their music, podcasts, etc.
It’s also about getting a slimmer profile for their smartphones. A headphone jack is usually quite thick and can limit how thin the manufacturers can design their phones to be. Take the headphone jack away completely, and a much thinner phone can emerge.
In addition to this, more phones are competing for water-resistant certifications. If you want your phone to be resistant to water damage, the headphone jack presents a challenge. This is because it needs to be able to conduct electricity and yet resist water damage, which is almost impossible.
Lastly, fewer analog parts and ports mean fewer maintenance issues. The posts and the DAC mean more chances for something to put the phone out of commission.
The downside, though, is that digital headphones aren’t prevalent yet and not nearly as cheap as the regular kind. Obviously, having sound go through the same port as charging is not ideal. Plus, there isn’t a standard yet that all manufacturers can agree on for digital headphones. This leaves Apple to charge a premium price for proprietary technology.
Apple has a rich tradition of not clinging to tradition. If they see something holding back future change, they don’t mind dropping it. They also aren’t nearly as afraid to require customers to buy proprietary technology, as they have a business model that supports this dynamic with their customers. Plus, their market segment does not include customers looking for the best bargain; Apple fans are willing to pay top dollar for the latest releases even if they can’t afford it. That gives Apple a lot of flexibility. However, other companies will probably catch up with them as soon as they can.