There are plenty of things about the iPhone 7 worth complaining about, but the loss of the headphone jack isn't one of them. The phone, which debuts today, is the first Apple product to drop the 3.5mm headphone port, and instead require earphones to be synced up wirelessly (via Bluetooth) or plugged into the Lightning port, the same connection that routes power to the device. This shift gives just about everyone a quick, and ultimately none-too-bright talking point when discussing the new model. Here's why this is a gripe you shouldn't have.
Your Old Headphones Aren't Obsolete
Apple is including a free Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter with new iPhones that will allow you to keep using earphones with a standard connector. This won't be some clunky, aggravating slab of gear, but an unassuming doodad that will live on the end of your headphones or earbuds, replacing the cable's tip with a new one.
This Could Make Bluetooth Headphones Cheaper
One way to interpret this shift is to say that Apple is forcing you to buy a new, Lightning-cabled pair of earphones. But that ignores the huge numbers of consumers already using Bluetooth models, which will pair up with the new iPhone the same as they did the previous one. If anything, this development should push the state of the art in Bluetooth earphones, and ultimately reduce their price premium over wired earphones. Companies that want to be part of the Apple ecosystem, but still appeal to non-iOS users, have an incentive to make more and better wireless models, potentially making those the new default tech for earphone connection. Just as Wifi has all but replaced wired internet, Bluetooth and follow-on wireless connections are natural successors to the 3.5mm jack.
Lightning Headphones Can Use Your Phone's Battery
Because Lightning cables can output both data (meaning audio signals, usually) and power, they can harness the iPhone's battery to run features in earphones. The best example of this so far is in the active noise-canceling earbuds from JBL and Libratone. Rather than sticking a heavy, clunky rechargeable battery and electronics on the earphones' cable, the companies were able to offset ambient noise — a process that requires acoustic analysis from always-on microphones — by accessing the iPhone's hardware and battery. Other features that are less of an incremental improvement, and more revolutionary, are bound to come, now that Apple is allowing (on a case-by-case basis) manufacturers to use the Lightning connection's full mix of data and power transfer.
Lightning Headphones Sound Better. Much Better
Finally, there's maybe the biggest benefit of the multitasking Lightning cable — it transfers audio files with less data loss. That's a jargon-y way of saying that music comes through cleaner. That's especially important for high-quality digital music, the kind of huge-bitrate tracks that can sound amazing when pumped through the right home audio system, with the requisite receiver, preamp, digital-to-analog converter and loudspeakers, but that sound merely good when squeezed through headphones. Where standard earphones left much of that extra data behind, Lightning earphones will retain the quality of tracks. This also means that high-resolution audio (HRA), which is a significant step up from the quality of streaming music or even CDs, will finally hit the mainstream.
Until now, listening to HRA on headphones has required being tethered to a PC, or buying a dedicated music player, or else pulling off an arcane techie runaround, using obtuse apps to store and play HRA tracks on devices that aren't set up to natively play them, such as the previous iPhone. Even then, Lightning headphones were the best way to guarantee that all that upgraded audio quality was surviving the trip from the phone to your ears. But now that Lightning cables are the iPhone's only wired connection for earphones, it's expected that the iPhone 7 will play HRA natively, and that this next level of audio bliss will be available to everyone.