For some reason, last week brought the revival of a months old rumour that the upcoming iPhone models will not have a 3.5 millimetre headphone jack. This, naturally, brought out everyone’s outrage that they’ll have to run out and buy either a dongle (a la Game Boy Advance SP), to convert their existing headphones to a Lightning audio device or new Lightning headphones altogether. The Verge got their hands on some models of existing Lightning headphones and attempted to hype them up.
There is, of course, another option that very few people seem to be taking seriously, and that is Bluetooth.
I switched to Bluetooth earbuds last fall because all of my existing earbuds and headphones had crapped out on me, and I figured that if I got Bluetooth earbuds, I could also use them directly with the Apple Watch in situations when I don’t have my phone on me (which are unsurprisingly pretty rare). For general usage, there is not much to complain about, but I feel like the fact it doesn’t have a cable is a bigger deal than many suspect.
I burn through traditional earbuds pretty quickly, because living in Canada, we get some pretty crazy weather sometimes. Winter is really rough on earbuds, as the change in temperature between indoor and outdoor environments causes the cable’s stiffness to change, and the cable wears much more easily. An average pair of earbuds never makes it through the winter for me, because I go out on walks often while listening to music, and inevitably, the cable craps out. This makes me incredibly wary of spending a lot of money on a pair of earbuds, because its days are numbered anyway, and no one reviewing earbuds seems to even consider this as a possible angle. (Perhaps this is my cue to start writing winter-proof earbud reviews.)
My wariness to spend more than maybe $30 on a pair of earbuds is what makes me incredibly skeptical about Lightning as the primary audio port on upcoming iPhones. While I love the Lightning connector in theory, in practice, its cables are incredibly flaky. The thirty-pin connector was a train wreck, but in the over ten years it served us in the Apple ecosystem, I only had one cable break on me out of maybe two dozen cables. So far I’ve had to replace more than half of the Lightning cables I own, so it’s not off to a great start. It’s also more demanding on the phone’s battery, which has gotten considerably worse ever since Apple totally screwed the pooch in iOS 9 with regards to battery life.
Bluetooth earbuds have none of these issues that Lightning earbuds would have, with the added benefits of increased mobility and compatibility with a much wider range of devices than just those released by Apple. It does however introduce its own tradeoffs. Audio sync with video largely isn’t an issue if you’re on iOS and the developers of the apps you rely on use the correct APIs. Any music-based games or Djing software that depend on real time interactions that can’t be buffered ahead of time will see issues though (however, given how Lightning video adapters work, this may also be an issue for Lightning audio devices). Reliability is a big one. Audio will temporary it drop for a couple seconds about once a day. This isn’t enough for me to drop them entirely, but it would be nice if these got more reliable over time.
The last one is the big one, and that’s having another thing you need to charge. My current Bluetooth earbuds last me about ten hours, which is about a day and a half at work for me. Charge times are about two hours which is longer than I would like, and my specific model doesn’t let you continue to listen to audio while they are charging which is a bummer. But ultimately, it kinda just works out for me, because I’ll charge the earbuds during lunch and last the rest of the work day, and then bring them home and charge them for the next day. There is not much I can say to convince you that it’s not a huge deal, because this will vary a ton based on your personal usage.
But ultimately I find that all of the tradeoffs of Bluetooth earbuds work out for me in general usage. When playing music games or DJing, I’m more likely to resort to full on headphones than earbuds, and for those, I’m definitely going to want a 3.5mm plug, but the cases when I want that on my phone are rather limited.
What I don’t understand is why anyone is surprised that Apple would do this. It was recently the anniversary of the iMac’s announcement, and if the iMac taught Apple anything, it’s that they are generally more right about what direction we’re headed in in the future than people who bitch and moan about legacy technologies. The MacBook Air, Final Cut Pro X, and one-port MacBook are all products that were released along that idea. What those products have in common is that you’ve probably never cared about any of them unless you’re a Mac user. It’s finally time for iOS users to get a first taste of classic Apple product decisions, and I’m curious to see how that turns out.