Opinion: Losing the 3.5mm Connector Is A Step Too Far

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The Future. It's constantly on the approach, constantly evolving and depending on who or what you follow is coming our way via different means. In the technology space, "the Future" is currently USB Type-C, Virtual Reality, 5G, Artificial Intelligence and a whole lot more besides. When the Future comes along, there are always casualties, the Type-C port is out for the microUSB port's blood and its winning an inevitable battle that will see the microUSB port fade away into obscurity along with SCSI, FireWire and the VGA port. Connectors and ports come and go, but one of them has been around since it was first invented, albeit in its smaller form, back in the late 19th Century; the humble headphone connector.

Whether or not getting rid of the port on new hardware is "right" or "wrong" is wholly irrelevant, it's near impossible to stop the ongoing march of technology, and there are few valid arguments of why we should even try. Instead, the 3.5mm connector and its perhaps-inevitable demise is a sad, sad state of affairs of something standing the test of time of and only now finding itself struggling. The connector has been on handheld devices for years and years now, decades since it was first introduced with the original Sony Walkman, and popularized by the iPod and now smartphones in pockets all over the world. Billions of people are dependent on this little connector, and many – such as myself – see no reason why it needs to go. I'm a bit of an audio nerd, with a special place in my heart for headphones. I could wax lyrical about headphones for hours on end, but in a nutshell I love headphones because I love music and the way it can take you to a different place altogether. Headphones help people forget themselves, and when that perfect song you love, or that new melody you just discovered from a friend piques your interest, headphones can make it all go away, they're an immersive distraction that makes the world a little better at the end of a long day. That's just me however, and headphones are used for running, for working out at the gym, for communicating, for listening to your favorite book eyes-free, listening to free and accessible knowledge from a podcast. The list is endless, and it's all made possible by the humble 3.5mm connector we know and love at the top or bottom of our smartphones.

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Many will argue that getting rid of the connector will usher in a new era of personal listening, one that's better and delivers better sound quality and convenience. That's debatable and even if it were 100 percent true, it would lead to its own set of problems. Let's say you have a USB Type-C device with no headphone connector, a pair of Type-C headphones and no Bluetooth headphones with you. Now imagine your device is out of battery, you could just charge it and keep listening, right? Well, only if you have the right adapter to pass power through to the phone and still connect your Type-C headphones. This is the sort of thing that approaches the crazy problems the new MacBook still offers users. Now, if I had two ports, I could just plug a cable in to charge and a cable to listen to music. It's a small and perhaps petty case to argue, but a valid one nonetheless.

Then there's the whole issues of sound being analog and its current delivery being digital. When you load up your favorite tracks from Spotify and hit play, you're not streaming music, you're streaming ones and zeroes; you're streaming data. This data is then converted – using your device's digital-to-analog converter, otherwise known as a DAC – which then spits out the sound as signals via the 3.5mm connector. Regardless of whether or not you're using a Type-C pair of "digital" headphones or a pair of wireless headphones or whatever, this conversion still needs to happen; it's undeniable. Sound is analog, it's signals that produce waves, a pair of headphones that use the Type-C port will just take the ones and zeroes a little further and convert them later, which means that you're then relying on the DAC chip and setup the headphone manufacturer put in your headphones, rather than that which is probably of higher-quality which is already in your phone.

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Then there's the argument about power, quality headphones do sound better with more power, it's a fact. A pair of fancy, expensive headphones with a Type-C connection could draw more power from your device to sound better, but then you'd run out of battery faster, right? Well, yes. Perhaps not noticeably, but it's another drain on your already-weary battery. On top of this "digital" headphones have more to go wrong, a loose wire in a pair of headphones is easily-fixed, in some cases by yourself if you have basic soldering knowledge, but a broken DAC chip or Type-C connector? Not so simple.

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I'm playing Devil's Advocate here of course, championing the headphone connector, but it just doesn't make all that much sense. Device manufacturers would save very, very little from not having to include the connector and it's by the far the port that's keeping our devices from being any thinner. Devices have become so thin that our cameras need to protrude out the back of them, batteries aren't big enough as it is, so why do we even need thinner phones? It's a moot point anyway, the 3.5mm connector is not holding back the continuous shrinking of our devices.

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Music is all about choice, there's so much to choose from and we have never, ever had as much choice at our fingertips. SoundCloud, Spotify, Google Play Music, Apple Music, YouTube, TIDAL, Deezer, the list goes on and on and on. We can get our music from wherever we want these days, and finding new music with services like Spotify has never been as much fun as it is today. Choice is what we currently have in the headphone market, take the V-Moda Zns we recently reviewed, they're a pricey pair, but there are so many other choices out there to suit anyone and everyone from different styles, different fits and of course different price tags as well. Taking away the 3.5mm connector would limit this choice, it would make it more difficult to find a great pair that you love, and while it's only a matter of time before USB headphones become commonplace just as 3.5mm ones are today, it needn't be that way. The answer here can and should be; both. Type-C is coming, and it will offer more connectivity and expansion options, but we don't have to get rid of the other port we already have; we should keep it, if only because it's cheap enough and simple enough to work for decades to come. Choice is powerful, and there's little reason that this one should be taken from us.

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Former Editor-in-Chief

For years now I've had a heavy interest in technology, growing up with 8-bit computers and gaming consoles has fed into an addiction to everything that beeps. Android saved me from the boredom of iOS years ago and I love watching the platform grow. As an avid reader and writer nothing pleases me more than to write about the exciting world of Android, Google and mobile technology as a whole.

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