The Case of the Headphone Hijack

Last week, Apple announced their new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus devices, and the internet collectively flipped its shit. The reason? The removal of the standard headphone socket.

Like any product engineering decision, this one comes with trade-offs. There are advantages and disadvantages; if the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, for you personally, it’s completely reasonable for you to be disappointed.

On the other hand, the degree of shit-flipping over the past few days has been spectacular — and most of it has been based on what could, charitably, be called misunderstandings at best.

What, exactly, happened?

The standard 3.5mm headphone socket on the base of recent iPhone models (and the top side of earlier models) is no longer on the base of the iPhone 7 series.

Instead, it’s been moved to an adaptor supplied free in the box.

This adaptor plugs into the Lightning socket (the port used for charging, syncing, and connecting other things to iOS devices since 2012), and the other end has exactly the same standard headphone socket you’re used to.

It allows you to connect existing standard headphones (and other devices that use that socket) to the iPhone 7 series.

Also, the set of headphones that are supplied free with the iPhone are changing to use the Lightning port directly, with no adaptor needed.

What does this mean for me?

If you don’t have, or intend to buy, an iPhone 7 series, absolutely nothing.

For those who do, for the vast majority there will be almost no difference: most people use the free headphones that came with their iPhone, and they will continue to use the new free headphones that come with the iPhone.

The only difference will be that they can’t charge the phone while using the Lightning headphones at the same time, without the use of some kind of splitter cable. Most people charge their phones overnight and get through an entire day without needing to charge it again, and the new iPhone 7 gets about 1-2 hours extra battery life (depending on which model you get), so most users won’t be affected.

But if you use your phone very heavily and need to charge it while listening to it and you want to use wired headphones to do so, then this could be a disadvantage for you.

If you don’t use the free headphones, but have some other wired headphones, the situation is essentially identical but with that free adaptor plugged in.

If you already use wireless Bluetooth headphones, then there is no change at all. Or if you don’t, you could switch to Bluetooth, if you wish. Any will work, they don’t have to be from Apple. Then you could charge your phone while listening through the headphones. But you don’t have to. No-one’s forcing you.

Or alternatively, if you wish, you could pick up some of Apple’s new fancy “W1”-based wireless headphones. They have 4 new models, with different sizes, shapes, price-points, etc. Again, no-one’s forcing you.

Any device that used to plug in to the headphone socket, should continue to work plugged in through the free headphone socket adaptor. You don’t have to stop using the equipment you’re already using, unless you personally want to.

What about more complex audio setups?

I make software for putting together podcasts or radio journalism on the go, and some of my customers are podcasters or journalists with pretty well-known networks or news organisations. They typically use the Lightning port to connect a high-quality microphone for making professional recordings, either directly or via a Lighting-to-USB adaptor.

Since these already connect via Lightning, this will of course continue to work — and while obviously I can’t try every single USB/Lightning microphone out there, the ones I’ve used (and the ones I’ve seen online) take over audio duties completely, so they already disable the standard headphone socket and/or or have their own headphone socket for monitoring. So no change there.

I also make a number of synthesiser apps, so many of my other customers are musicians. If they are driving the synth via a wired MIDI connector, they might also be affected — they might need some kind of splitter cable to listen on wired headphones while playing MIDI to the device. The MIDI controller is usually relatively bulky anyway (e.g. a MIDI keyboard, which, even the smallest & slimmest I know of, the CME X-key, is about 6x the size of the iPhone), and most are larger. So having a splitter-cable as the keyboard, shouldn’t be too onerous in terms of portability, I think? Or, you could use a wireless keyboard, of course.

So, as far as I can tell, the only people affected are those who absolutely need to charge (or MIDI connect via wires) their phones, while simultaneously using wired headphones — they will need to buy a special adaptor. Or those with a profound hatred of adaptor cables for whatever reason.

Again, it’s important to note, I don’t want to dismiss these concerns — they are valid concerns. My problem is with people inventing other, non-valid ones.

So why did Apple do this?

In this interview, Apple execs explain that it was a trade-off, where they lost the headphone socket, but gained:

  • additional battery life
  • an improved camera with optical image stabilisation on the iPhone 7
  • two improved cameras with enhanced optical zoom and control over depth of field on the iPhone 7 Plus (it already had, and continues to have, optical image stablisation)
  • better haptic feedback
  • better waterproofing

Apple believes the number of customers whose lives are improved by those things, are greater than the number of customers whose lives are made worse by not being able to charge their phone and listen to wired headphones at the same time without additional adaptors.

Again, if you’re one of the latter group, I understand that you are upset. Adaptors can be fiddly and annoying. Feel free to express your upset-ness at this fact!

On the other hand, there are a lot of statements being made that are just untrue, or are red herrings unrelated to the headphone socket:

An “Internet Expert” told me Apple could have added those features without removing the headphone socket

Just because someone on the internet read an iFixit teardown once, doesn’t make them an expert on industrial design. Given how controversial this move has been — and Apple knew it would be — they wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t need to. Apple don’t just go around making people angry for funsies. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Ugh, you’re so naive! OMG corporations! How can you believe their lies‽

Okay Shelby, if you’re not buying their explanation, you need to come up with one of your own that’s compelling enough reason for Apple to take the heat for this change.

I’ll wait.

(Unfortunately, this is where things get crazy. Warning: I use “anyway”, “and”, “also”, and “even if” a lot in this piece, because most of these things are not just wrong, they’re wrong in like three different ways simultaneously.)

Jony Ive just wanted to make the iPhone thinner!

No. The iPhone 7 is the same thickness as the previous model.

Apple want to force you to buy their expensive headphones!

No. They give you a pair free in the box.

And they give you a free adaptor to use any standard wired headphones from any manufacturer.

You can also use any standard Bluetooth headphones, again from any manufacturer.

Shenzhen Special Economic Zone will have your cheap headphone needs covered one way or another.

It’s Apple peripheral lock-in! Once you buy their headphones, you won’t be able to use anyone else’s smartphones!

No. Apart from the fact that you don’t have to buy Apple’s fancy new wireless headphones in the first place, even if you do, they will work with any Bluetooth device. You can use them with an Android phone or a Microsoft tablet or a Dell laptop if they still make those I don’t know I haven’t looked at Dells in over eight years. Whatever else you want that supports Bluetooth.

It’s true that the free Lightning headphones that come in the box won’t work on other phones, but that would be true regardless of whether the iPhone 7 has a headphone socket or not. And they were free anyway. And whatever phone you might choose to switch to probably comes with its own free headphones anyway. (Plus you might have a few sets of the old-style freebie headphones still sitting around in their packaging that you could use…)

It’s all about DRM! Apple want to lock down the ports to stop you copying music!

No. Apple have been against DRM on music for years. The only ones who ever pushed for it were the music industry, and they gave up on that more than a decade ago. So the music you buy from the iTunes Music Store can already be copied in pure digital form, and it’s been that way for a long time. And listening to music without paying for it is already so trivially easy — 99% of the time you can just go to YouTube and type in the name.

Plus, anyway, has there ever been a music DRM scheme that wasn’t cracked to give pristine digital copies? Ultimately, you need to be able to hear the music, which means the keys to decrypt it need to be in your possession somewhere, even if they’re well hidden. It never lasts.

And even if Apple somehow lost their minds, decided to walk back more than a decade of policy and tried to lock down first the music, and then the ports, and did somehow rewrite mathematics to came up with a scheme that couldn’t be cracked? Ultimately you could just break open any pair of Lightning headphones, do a little soldering, and now you’ve got a DRM-circumventing audio cable.

Sure, it’ll be a lower-quality, analogue copy with no metadata, lyrics, or artwork, but if you’re complaining about the headphone socket being relevant to DRM, that’s the kind of crappy copy you were already talking about.

And only one person has to actually do that — once a single copy leaks onto the internet, the genie is out of the bottle. Or the Meeseeks is out of the Meeseeks Box. Whatever, it’s all over but the downloading.

And finally Apple make so little money off of music, compared to the money they make off of iPhones, that there’s no way they’re going to “mess up” the iPhone and do all that other crazy stuff… just to prevent the theoretical possibility of you making a crappy analogue copy of music that they already let you make perfect digital copies of!

So no, this isn’t the reason why either. Keep going!

Apple want to force you to use Apple Pay!

Perhaps the cream of the stupid crop, this is based on the fact that Square and some other services have a credit-card payment processing widget that connects to the headphone socket. So the conspiracy theory Apple are killing those devices off to protect the tiny fraction of a percent Apple makes on Apple Pay transactions.

This one is extra nonsensical, because as a customer making a payment, you don’t connect the Square widget to your phone anyway. The shop is the one who connects it to whatever they’re using to take payments. Getting an iPhone 7 doesn’t restrict how you make payments.

And the wired Square widget is compatible with the adaptor anyway.

And Square also already make a wireless Bluetooth-based reader anyway.

What about hearing aids and other accessibility devices?

Also compatible with the adaptor, and/or moving to Bluetooth anyway.

It’s Apple peripheral lock-in! Again! But for some other non-audio devices this time!

As well as the headphone adaptor, there’s also a USB adaptor for the Lightning port, and an SD card reader too. So lots of non-Apple or non-Apple-licensed items can be hooked up.

But since they never connected through the headphone socket in the first place, this entire line of argument is irrelevant to its removal. So why are people even bringing it up?

If you hate the fact that Lightning is proprietary, that’s fine, that’s your right — but it’s been that way since 2012, and before that they used the iPod Dock Connector which was also proprietary. So nothing has changed there since 2007 (or arguably 2001 when the iPod was released, 15 years ago next month), so it’s still completely irrelevant to the headphone socket change.

(Update: an attentive reader reminds me that the original iPod used Firewire at both ends, and switched to the dock connector 13 years ago, in 2003. Good catch, thanks!)

Something something slippery slope something boiling frog something

There are a bunch of vague arguments floating around about how if Apple move everything to Lightning, in the future they might do Some Arbitrary Bad Thing X.

The problem is, this is always true of anything: anyone or any company might do Some Arbitrary Bad Thing X in the future. It’s a completely meaningless argument until the company actually does Bad Thing X.

The whole boiling frog analogy doesn’t make sense either because dropping support for non-Apple-approved headphones isn’t something you “slowly ease into”, it’s completely binary. Either they work or they don’t. One version of iPhone supports non-Apple headphones (and to be clear, the iPhone 7 series does support non-Apple headphones, through many different avenues), and one (hypothetical future) iPhone doesn’t, and if that ever happens, then it will still be a stark, sudden change, and then you can complain about it.

And don’t give me “but then it’ll be too late!” because they’re not sending shock troops to your house to force you to upgrade. You would either just keep your old phone or buy a new one from a different, non-evil manufacturer. (In this bizarre fever-dream future you’ve concocted where Apple have actually done something evil. Here in the present day, moving the headphone socket to an adaptor still isn’t evil, it’s inconvenient.)

Also, I’m old enough to remember when people said this about USB, which was apparently an evil plot by PC manufacturers and Apple in cahoots with Microsoft (…yeah. I know.) to kill off Linux by getting rid of all those legacy serial, parallel and game ports and keeping the drivers for themselves, or something.

Mmmhmm.

(I tried to find a link to back this up, but it predates Google, so it’s lost to the memory hole.)

Ugh, wireless headphones have to be charged!

Okay, so use one of the wired options then. Same goes for any other wireless complaints, like pairing, dropouts, latency, or codec quality (although bear in mind, word on the street is that the Apple wireless headphones are really good in those areas. I haven’t got a pair myself to say for sure, but people I trust say they are).

Ugh, this will create tonnes of E-Waste!

No, the level of waste will be pretty much the same, it’s just that it will be wireless or Lightning-based e-waste instead of 3.5mm e-waste. Less metal is used now, but it’s in more complex arrangements.

There are the adaptors, I suppose, but since they have the same socket that used to be on the old iPhone, the change is a tiny length of cable and one Lightning plug. If you have concerns about E-waste in general, that’s fine — but this isn’t going to be a noticeable change to it.

In fact, given how often I’ve managed to destroy wired headphones by snagging the cable on things, if people do move to wireless, it might reduce waste overall. Likewise for the waterproofing — how many phones have been destroyed by water damage? Can’t prove that it works out overall, but it’s at least a thought.

The new AirPods look stupid/are too expensive/some other gripe

Okay, you’re entitled to your opinion, but that’s got nothing to do with the headphone socket. Apple aren’t forcing you to buy them. You’ve got, like, 5 different options for headphones from Apple and 3 major categories of headphone from anyone else:

  • AirPods wireless headphones
  • Beats X wireless headphones
  • Beats Solo 3 wireless headphones
  • Powerbeats 3 wireless headphones
  • Apple Lightning wired headphones
  • Any Bluetooth wireless headphones
  • Any Lightning wired headphones
  • Any standard wired headphones via free adaptor

I hate you and everything you stand for!

Okay. If I’ve made any factual errors, please let me know. If I’ve missed any valid, truthful problems created by Apple’s changes, please let me know. My intention isn’t to deny there are any problems, and I’ve repeatedly flagged up those I’m aware of. I’m simply tired of the internet’s tendency to spin up conspiracy theories, rumours, and falsehoods about anything even remotely controversial in an attempt to create outrage or cultural tribalism.

Something something Courage!

Zzz.

So what do you get out of this?

Nothing. I don’t have Apple stock, I don’t have any Amazon Associates links so I don’t get anything if you go out and buy some new headphones. Anyone coming here is probably pissed off about the headphone situation so I don’t expect to get any new sales. Mainly I’m just writing it down once so there’s a single place to refute it all in one go and I don’t keep typing bits of it in.


In conclusion: If the changes that Apple have made piss you off, that’s your call — I don’t seek to dismiss your feelings on the matter, or tell you that you’re wrong, or tell you not to complain about it on social media. Go right ahead!

But if you’re pissed off about things that they haven’t actually done (but someone on the internet incorrectly told you they did, or is “warning” they “might do in the future”), or otherwise need to cook up a reason why the change is not merely not to your liking, but actually morally wrong, please realise you’re just discrediting yourself.

Apple are not forcing you to stop using your old headphones. Apple are not forcing you to buy or use their new headphones. Apple are not forcing you to stop buying new headphones from someone else. Apple are not forcing you to use Apple Pay. Apple are not blocking you from switching to a different phone. Apple are not doing this to DRM your music. Removing the headphone socket doesn’t lock down the other ports. Removing the headphone socket does not block other non-audio peripherals. Apple headphones do not block you from switching to Android in future. Apple are not creating mountains of additional landfill. Apple are not dicking over users who have accessibility needs (in fact, their work on accessibility is super strong). Apple are not rounding up your gear to put into FEMA audiophile internment camps.

Apple are moving a socket from the base of the phone, to an external adaptor, which you may find inconvenient or distasteful.

If you do, I hope you find the battery life, camera, haptics and waterproofing advantages outweigh it. If not, please accept my sympathies!