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Don’t Bother With USB-C Headphones (For Now)

The headphone jack is fast disappearing from high-end phones and even bigger devices like the new iPad Pro. So it’s time to head out and get a decent pair of USB-C headphones, right? Not so fast.

Unlike the accommodating analog port that’s been around for decades, getting audio out of a USB-C port alone requires a little digital finagling. And that’s a problem, because digital formats are more complex, and all too often incompatible.

While there are a few sets of headphones on the market with a USB-C port, they’re generally of pretty middling to poor quality, unlike some of the options available for Apple’s similar Lightning port. Between a poor selection and poor compatibility, they’re just not worth bothering with, at least until the market settles on a more reliable standard.

The Selection Sucks

Your fancy new phone might come with a pair of USB-C headphones as a sort of apology for being incompatible with all the other ones you already have. If it does, hang on to them. Odds are that you’re not going to find a better pair any time soon.

While there are a handful of vendors of USB-C headphones on Amazon on the like, there are precious few options from reliable manufacturers… most of whom seem more interested in selling Lightning-equipped headphones, if they want to go for a non-analog option at all. Google sells a set of wired Pixel buds for its phones and Chromebook laptops, and they’re reasonable at $30. Ditto for HTC, OnePlus, and Xiaomi. But beyond that, your choices get progressively slimmer, especially if you don’t care for in-ear buds.

Razer sells a pair of USB-C “Hammerhead” buds, which are poorly-reviewed even if you do like the lime green color and gamer branding. JBL makes a set of buds called the Reflect Aware C, but they’re not even being sold anymore—and perhaps that’s for the best, since users say they had a nasty habit of simply dying. The best choice for a premium set of USB-C buds appears to be the Libratone Q Adapt, which sport hardware noise cancellation in multiple levels. But $120 is a lot to pay for a pair of wired headphones that only work with one of your gadgets.

There are a few other products that are technically compatible with USB-C, or at least some phones that use it, like the AiAiAi headphones Google features on its online store. But that set merely uses a USB-C header on an analog cable, so it’s not really worth looking at over the adapter that probably came with your phone.

In short, your choices are basically “cheap” or “nothing.” And if you’re going cheap, why not just suck it up and use an adapter anyway?

The Standards Aren’t Standardized

In theory, a pair of USB-C headphones could be quite good. Unlike an analog set, the digital hardware needs an integrated DAC (digital-to-analog converter), which has the potential to deliver more full and reliable sound quality.

If you must buy USB-C headphones, the OnePlus Bullets are probably the ones to get.

But that potential is so far unfulfilled. A few of the USB-C headphones on the market claim the trick of cramming a miniature DAC into their cables, like the OnePlus Bullets. (And tangentially: “Bullets” is a horrible, horrible brand name for any product you literally stick into your head.) But initial reviews say they merely sound decent, so the tiny DAC isn’t anything to get excited about. They’re probably the best pick of the current market at $20, assuming your phone doesn’t have any broader compatibility issues. 

And that’s just it: a bigger problem with the digital-analog split is its potential for compatibility headaches. To put it simply, there’s more than one way to get audio across the USB-C port and into your ears, and not every manufacturer or accessory maker agrees. For example, users report that HTC’s freebie headphones don’t work on competing devices because HTC uses a different USB-C audio system. The Libratone Q Adapt, marketed for the Pixel phones and Pixelbook laptops, can’t use its in-line microphone for phone calls on any other device.

The mic in Libratone’s USB-C buds don’t work with non-Pixel devices.

It’s a mess. While it’s possible that the industry will settle on a more reliable standard in the future, right now you’re better off avoiding all of this and just using a USB-C-to-headphone jack adapter cable, so you know the analog audio will work. If at all possible use the one that came with your phone, or a replacement made for the same model.

Just Use Wireless Already

Audiophiles will tell you that wireless headphones will never sound as good as a wired set (preferably with a tiny amp and DAC). And technically, they’re correct. But ever since Apple included the most flimsy, most stylish set of white earbuds in the box with the original iPod, it’s been clear that manufacturers and the largest portion of consumers aren’t really interested in high-fidelity audio from mobile tech.

So Apple’s now made it clear that it wants people to use wireless, and as is their wont, Android manufacturers have followed suit. Samsung seems to be the last major holdout, but the march towards ever-thinner phones seems to indicate that even Samsung’s flagships won’t hang on to the headphone jack for long. Sure, you could try to follow the new port standards. That worked out really well for Apple customers who bought Lightning jack headphones that never worked with MacBooks and now won’t work with the latest iPads, either. In a few years Apple might decide that since all of its devices can charge wirelessly, they don’t need any ports at all, and then even USB and Lightning cables themselves will be obsolete. It would be a very Apple move.

Pictured: the future. The laggy, low-fi, gotta-recharge-every-other-day, stupid, stupid future.

Wireless headphone audio over Bluetooth is improving, with newer standards like aptX and W1. And they’re getting cheaper, too: you can find a set of Bluetooth buds or cans for under $20 now. They won’t be very good, but it’s not as if $20 wired headphones will blow you away, either.

Wired headphones are simpler and don’t need to be charged. But now that phone makers have decided that the headphone jack belongs in the dust bin of history next to floppy disks and 8-tracks, they’ve become just as much of a hassle to use as Bluetooth headphones, without the freedom. Unless you simply cannot be bothered to periodically charge up an extra gadget, or you’ve already invested in extremely high-end wired headphones, it’s time to make the switch.

Phone manufacturers could make a huge, consumer-focused shift in their design in the next few years—but that’s really not in their best interests. It’s more likely that they’ll continue to push for high-quality wireless audio, and perhaps if we’re lucky, settle on a more universal standard for direct audio over USB-C. In the meantime, it’s a really bad time to go shopping for a pair of USB-C headphones—make do with an adapter for now, or grit your teeth and go for Bluetooth. 

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »