Of all the things the iPhone 7 will or won't do when it debuts this month, here's something it's already accomplished: shaking up the earphone industry by reportedly dropping the standard 3.5mm headphone jack from the upcoming phone. Today, speaker-maker Libratone, best known for its stunning Danish-flavored industrial design, announced its first pair of earphones.
The Q Adapt has a feature with universal appeal, offering four levels of active noise cancellation (you hit a button to cycle through them), including one that actually amplifies nearby sounds, letting you hold a quick conversation without popping out the earbuds. It alternately muffles and boosts audio without the usual need for a bulky, built-in rechargeable battery, instead drawing energy and borrowing processing power from the iPhone. For that reason, Q Adapt is only compatible with iOS devices, coming with a Lightning cable rather than a headphone jack.
This shift toward Lightning-only earphones is the biggest potential shift in this category since the introduction of Bluetooth. Apple has always had a love-hate relationship with ports. Even as the company added its own proprietary Firewire, Thunderbolt, and Magsafe ports on its computers, and its 30-pin and Lightning ports on iOS products, Apple has steadily kicked non-Apple ports, memory card slots, and other connections out of its treehouse. The latest exile is the headphone jack, a move that will limit the number of compatible earphones, while also opening up new designs and features. And though Libratone isn't the first company to use the Lightning cable, it's one of the first to use it for more than just transferring audio.
“We worked for almost a year with Apple, and told them the problem we were trying to solve, and that we believed we could do it with minimal impact on power, and battery life specifically, and convinced them to open up the specs,” says Libratone's president, Mike Culver. “Not only for us, but for others.”
The problem Libratone was trying to solve was introducing multi-level active noise cancelation while retaining its streamlined, minimalist design language. Bigger earbuds or a large control box, similar to what companies like Bose currently use on noise-canceling earbuds, was a non-starter. But despite the Lightning's ability to move power in both directions, Apple was wary of letting manufacturers drain the iPhone, considering that battery life tops consumers' concerns about the device. The campaign by Libratone and other companies was successful, and Apple is now allowing for specific, individually sanctioned scenarios where the Lightning cable can siphon juice away from an iOS device. Libratone finally had a reason to enter the earphone market, and the floodgates are now open for other audio gear makers to take unique advantage of the iPhone's combined data and power port.
This development could have far-reaching implications for the entire earphone category, which has hit a design and innovation wall in recent years. Headphones and earbuds that can sip at a device's battery — and we do mean sip, since Apple specified that the iPhone still had to maintain 24 hours of battery life, even with frequent Q Adapt usage — might soon include a range of active features, from even more adaptive noise cancelation to more powerful mics, better able to understand voice commands. Expect other, more surprising iPhone-powered features to show up in the near future, as more companies negotiate with Apple to make headphones more exciting than they've been in years. [$179; libratone.com]