Since the release of the iPhone 7 in 2016, the mini-jack port has been completely abandoned on the Cupertino company’s smartphones and tablets, a practice that caused a good deal of commotion at the time and was widely criticized by competing brands. However, it is now commonplace to remove this mini-jack output. The latest Android smartphones from Samsung and Sony are no exception to the rule and the jack connector is now replaced with a single USB-C connector for charging and audio. At the current rate, all smartphones and tablets on the market will soon come without a mini-jack output. So why are manufacturers leaving this universal connector behind in favor of a single lightning or USB-C port? What are the solutions to continue listening to music on your smartphone or tablet? Here are some answers.
The jack connector: 150 years of history
The 3.5mm mini-jack connector made its debut in the 60s as a direct derivative of the 6.35mm jack connector created at the end of the 19th century for telephone switchboards. Sony was the first brand to use this connector on a consumer device with the Sony EFM-117J portable radio in 1964. This new format wasn’t widely used until 1979, the year Sony revolutionized listening on-the-go with its first Walkman, the Sony TPS-L2. From then on, the 3.5mm mini-jack connector became the new standard for earphones, headphones and portable devices. Naturally, this connector was then used by different smartphone and tablet manufacturers. So why did brands suddenly begin to get rid of this universal connector? How can one use wired headphones with a smartphone that doesn’t have a jack port? This is what we’re going to find out in this article.
Why is the mini-jack being removed from smartphones?
According to manufacturers, the main incentives for removing the mini-jack headphone output are better waterproofing, better touch control and the ability to make thinner smartphones. These reasons are somewhat questionable. It should be noted that even though the iPhone7 didn’t feature a mini-jack output, it was 0.2mm thicker than the iPhone 6. In reality, one of the main reasons for removing this connector is to prioritize the development of wireless technologies. Bluetooth headphones and earphones are now highly sophisticated and are rapidly evolving, so it makes sense for high-tech products such as smartphones to adapt to the latest trends. For the most part, this is why the removal of the 3.5mm mini-jack port on the iPhone was accompanied by the release of the Apple Airpods true wireless earphones. At Sony, the recent elimination of the mini-jack headphone output on the Xperia 1 was also foreseeable due to the rapid expansion of the Japanese manufacturer’s range of Bluetooth earphones, true wireless earphones and Bluetooth headphones.
Bluetooth headphones and earphones to replace the mini-jack
Given the fact that current smartphones and tablets systematically feature Bluetooth audio transmission, it was only logical that it would eventually supersede the mini-jack. However, one could think that abandoning an analog connector in favor of wireless technology could represent a restriction in sound quality. This isn’t really the case, as the stability of Bluetooth transmission has greatly improved over time and the latest modules are both energy efficient and able to handle high dataflows. Therefore, it is possible to enjoy all of the advantages of wireless systems whilst maintaining excellent sound quality. However, this requires that you choose a pair of headphones and a smartphone compatible with a high Bluetooth transmission rate which can be easily identified thanks to the Bluetooth codecs used. The main codecs are LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and SBC.
Currently, the highest quality Bluetooth codec is Sony’s LDAC. It uses the Bluetooth 4.0 standard to transmit music wirelessly in CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz). It is even possible to transmit files up to 24-bit/96kHz with minor compression and, consequently, very limited loss. For a long time, the technology remained exclusive to the Japanese brand, but other brands have been able to integrate this codec for a few years now. As a result it can be found on many headphones, such as the Technics F70, Technics F50 and Sony WH-1000XM3, as well as certain earphones, like the Sony WI-H700 and Sony WI-1000X neckbands.
Note: as with any other Bluetooth codec, in order to benefit from LDAC audio transmission the receiver (headphones, earphones, speakers, etc.) and the emitter (smartphone, tablet) must both be compatible with LDAC.
Just below LDAC are the aptX and aptX HD codecs. They provide a bitrate of around 576 kb/s for aptX HD and 350 kb/s for aptX. The method used to compress sound is lossy (information is erased), but the restitution is still very good and provides a sound close to that of a CD for aptX HD. These codecs are now integrated into most Android smartphones, as well as many portable systems. This is notably the case for the Klipsch T5 True Wireless and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earphones, the Focal Sphear Wireless, RHA MA650 Wireless and KEF Motion One earphones, as well as the Focal Listen Wireless, Sony WH-1000XM3 and Grado GW100 headphones.
Unfortunately, if you own an iPhone or an iPad you won’t be able to benefit from the LDAC and aptX codecs. Apple has opted for AAC audio compression, which is also the format used for Apple Music. Most manufacturers of Bluetooth headphones and earphones integrate AAC. If this isn’t the case, communication is carried out in SBC. All manufacturers have to integrate this codec.
Cables and adaptors to replace the mini-jack
A handful of headphone and earphone manufacturers quickly adapted to the removal of the mini-jack connector by modifying their cables for the Lightning and USB-C formats. This is especially true for all Shure headphones that feature a removable MMCX cable (Shure SE215, Shure SE425, Shure SE535 and Shure SE846). The American manufacturer provides an MMCX to Lightning cable (Shure RMCE-LTG), MMCX to USB-C cable (Shure RMCE-USB-C) and even a Bluetooth MMCX adaptor (Shure RMCE-BT2). Therefore, owners of older earphones can continue to use them via a wired or Bluetooth connection with a smartphone that doesn’t feature a jack output.
However, manufacturers offering Lightning and USB-C cables are still few and far between. So how can you use a pair of hi-fi headphones or wired earphones with a smartphone that doesn’t feature a jack connector? Several solutions exist. The first consists in using a simple Lightning mini-jack or USB-C mini-jack adaptor. Up until recently these adaptors were included with smartphones and tablets, but unfortunately this has become a rare occurrence. Moreover, the quality of the conductive materials used is rarely optimal. It is best, therefore, to use this type of adaptor for entry-level headphones and earphones.
Portable DACs to replace the mini-jack
If you own a pair of headphones or earphones and want to enjoy audiophile-quality sound, the most effective way to connect your headphones to a device without a mini-jack output is to use a portable DAC. These little devices can be connected to the smartphone’s USB-C or Lightning port in order to convert the audio signal. Many different models of portable DACs exist. Some feature an integrated battery or a USB port so that they can be connected to a computer, and some are no bigger than a simple adaptor.
Using a DAC as an alternative to the jack output is also a way to improve audio quality. As the convertors used by external DACs are much more powerful than the models used in smartphones, assigning the decoding of an audio file or a music stream to an external DAC transforms the listening experience. It is therefore possible to listen to FLAC and PCM files with a very high sampling rate on any iOS or Android smartphone. Without this DAC, it would be impossible to play these formats on the vast majority of smartphones.
The headphone outputs on smartphones and tablets are often combined with low-quality amplifiers that generate a considerable amount of distortion, especially in the lows. Consequently, using a portable DAC has a second advantage: that of bypassing the smartphone’s amplifier. All portable DACs feature a headphone amplifier with at least one 3.5mm mini-jack output. These amplifiers usually have a very high-quality output stage, for a more balanced and intense sound. The output power is also more generous, making it possible to connect a pair of hi-fi headphones with a high impedance or a low sensitivity rating to your smartphone. Lastly, some portable DACs also provide a balanced output. The portable DAC is therefore the most efficient solution for connecting a pair of wired headphones or earbuds to a smartphone that doesn’t feature a jack output.