Recent announcements by both Apple for it’s iOS8 and Google’s Android 5.0 hints clearly at the possible demise of the humble 3.5mm audio jack and that’s troubling
Both operating systems feature a new API that allows for audio to be passed through digitally thereby bypassing the Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) found on current handsets. The reason? Better sound quality they say.
This might sound like an audiophile’s dream but trust me, it’s not good news for you and me. First let me clarify that I am very fond of the 3.5mm audio jack. Back in the days of the Sony Walkman craze, I have found that the jack delivers and depending on how your file was digitally encoded, it was nothing short of marvelous.
I had for a brief period flirted with the MiniDisc system from Sony and loved it. The ATRACC encoding was nothing short of excellent and it delivered the quality I expected from the humble 3.5mm audio jack—the quality is far better than the highest MP3 encoding found today.
To say that smartphones can do better by going all digital with a digital output is nothing short of a political travesty.
Android’s USB Audio
Google announced the USB Audio API for handset makers to dabble in and in doing so, has opened up a can of worms. I remember once I had a Sony Ericsson P1i and it didn’t have a dedicated 3.5mm stereo jack. Instead, what they gave you was a proprietary adapter and with it an external cable that housed the 3.5mm jack socket. It was a nuisance to use, fell out when you least expected it and flimsy in construction.
Here, I am reminded of this same possibility, that people from Samsung, HTC to Motorola will start to implement their own proprietary socket to get you to buy into their digital audio accessories. Digital files, especially those MP3 files aren’t necessarily better in quality. You could have FLAC based files which are excellent for audiophile use but take up a warehouse of storage. Handsets are not made to handle audiophile quality digital files so it will not satisfy the purist.
Audio accessories that plays digital music must have a built-in DAC. The DAC has to convert incoming music data before you hear anything that remotely sounds like music. This also means that headsets would need to have their own power source to drive the DAC process. Siphoning power from a cable plugged to your smart device could work but this will affect your battery life, which at best is just enough for a 12 hour day.
And because the audio data is totally digital, your headphone or audio device must provide for the DAC process. So speakers which worked on the traditional analogue audio input will be made obsolete. That Altec Lansing speaker system you got for last Christmas is now a massive door stopper. We have all seen how that happened when audio devices which pandered to the iOS socket of old were beaten out with a new lightning connector. The same is going to happen once the 3.5mm audio jack is tossed out with the bath water.
March with the Beat
Well know you know why Apple bought out BEATS audio for a song. It’s not just for the streaming music service alone but for the hardware technology behind it. Beats headphones (yes those all too popular headgear worn by sports stars) has its own power source in the form of a battery to give you those great sounding bass beats. These headphones can be transformed to carry and process digital signals without relying on the iPhone or iPad for power.
Lightning connectors used on Apple’s iOS devices will be the future digital audio source and by saving on the DAC chipset, Apple has effectively made it impossible for you to downgrade to analog earphones or headphones.
Why Digital will be more Expensive
It is an ecosystem that is suppose to bind you in, and not let you out. Analog in this case is an open system, digital however makes more money. Apple can license the lightning connectors to third parties and make a killing from it. You as a user would have to buy only those products that interfaces with your iOS device. Apple hopes to enslave you with their paper thin logic for better sound as long as you ante up to a digital listening apparatus.
Google’s USB Audio API also does the same thing but Google themselves are not in the accessories business. Instead, they have given out a blank cheque to handset manufacturers to create their own audio ecosystem.
I want to be using my favorite headphones for many years to come but with such a possibility looming on the horizon, your headphones could be toss onto a dung heap at your next hardware upgrade.
The only other way to interface your old world analog audio device is to get an external DAC unit that pushes analog signals thru a 3.5mm headphone jack…but why in the world would I do that? This would mean carrying another accessory just to listen to music. Sounds like a bummer doesn’t it?
Handsets will continue to have a DAC but you may not access it
As much as handset manufacturers would want it, it is virtually impossible to remove the use of a DAC in the first place. Games, movie playback and streaming audio data has to be processed and output via a device speakers. The initial fear here is that the DAC will coexist with your device but there is no way to output analog sound via a 3.5mm jack. This rather inconvenient way will mean that you have no other choice but to ante up on a digital accessories or a Bluetooth speaker that works wirelessly. Now that’s a scary thought if I may add.