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Apple’s Biggest Mistake: Bring Back the Headphone Jack

Two headphone jacks on an iPhone 4S and an iPod Touch
Danny Chadwick / Review Geek

Apple is famous for calling an early end to useful tech in its devices. Floppy disks, optical drives, USB-A ports, and more were given the boot years before users were ready. However, the company has a unique opportunity to reverse one of its worst decisions and bring back the headphone jack.

Why Did Apple Get Rid of the Headphone Jack?

To understand why Apple should bring back the 3.5mm headphone jack, it’s necessary to know why the company got rid of them in the iPhone in the first place. When long-time Apple exec Phill Schiller announced that iPhone 7 would be the first Apple device to do away with the ubiquitous audio port, he cited three reasons he brought under the unifying banner of “courage,” which he defined as “the courage to move on, do something new that betters all of us.”

The first of the three courageous reasons Schiller listed included that the still-new Lightning connector could handle audio signals and that an included adapter would allow legacy audio devices to connect to the iPhone 7. The second reason was that the 3.5mm headphone jack was taking up space in the iPhone that could be better used by other features such as stereo speakers, Taptic Engines, and larger batteries. And the third is that Apple had a vision for wireless audio experiences on its devices—Schiller introduced the AirPods seconds later.

Two of Schiller’s three reasons for getting rid of the headphone jack were explicitly targeted at promoting two new Apple technologies with which the ever-reliable 3.5mm port was competing: Lightning and the AirPods. Many viewed this as an obvious corporate profit-seeking move to force Apple customers to embrace technology they may otherwise reject if given the option to retain what was working just fine before—although Apple would never openly admit to such a thing.

And it worked—iPhones remained the powerhouse in the smartphone market, even after the legacy port was removed. Apple customers dutifully adopted Lightning as their primary connector for charging, and many got right on board with AirPods and other wireless earbuds and headphones. Other smartphone manufacturers also followed suit, and there’s nary a high-end smartphone on the market these days with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Implementing USB-C Mandates is the Perfect Time

Fast forward to 2023, and times have changed for Apple. Following a lengthy battle with European Union regulators, the company faces the reality of ditching its proprietary Lightning cable for USB-C. Apple has already signaled that it intends to comply with EU regulations and is expected to introduce the iPhone 15 with a USB-C charging port later this year.

With the first of its stated reasons for eliminating the headphone jack gone from the equation, Apple has the opportunity to shock the world again by reversing course and reintroducing the headphone jack in the iPhone 15. Everybody is expecting the redesign, the headphone jack is still a feature many users still want in their smartphones

The reason, again, could be courage–the courage to extend the life of the billions of devices that still use the 3.5mm port, the courage to restore convenience to the iPhone, and the courage to embrace proven technology even if it is old.

Breathe New Life Into Aging Headphones

A pair of wired headphones sitting on a counter top
Danny Chadwick / Review Geek

Despite what some technology developers in Silicon Valley may wish, introducing new technology doesn’t make the old disappear. Unsurprisingly, the 3.5mm headphone connector remains a dominant force in the world of audio technology. Not even the introduction of USB-C-connected headphones has budged the 3.5mm standard out of its place. And given its prevalence, it likely won’t for a long time to come.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many devices still use the 3.5.mm port, but given its ubiquity over the decades, it’s likely in the millions or more. Everybody has their favorite pair of headphones. And if they’re more than five or six years old, it’s almost guaranteed that they connect by the 3.5mm port. Apple could make a huge play for those devices’ compatibility by restoring the headphone jack. The decision between a new iPhone and an Android device could be swayed by a user’s desire to use their favorite wired headphones.

Wired Audio Sounds Better than Wireless

Pairing the Apple AirPods Pro 2
Kris Wouk / Review Geek

Don’t get me wrong about this. You can buy a great pair of wireless earbuds that produce fantastic sound. However, as my colleague Andrew Heinzman points out, wireless headphones and speakers don’t deliver the best audio quality for the price. When you compare wired to wireless headsets and earbuds at similar prices, the wired option will always have better sound.

This is the product of technological and economic realities that won’t be overcome any time soon. Bluetooth connections transfer less data than wired analog counterparts, forcing them to compress audio to make the most of the limited bandwidth. The resulting loss of quality isn’t a deal breaker for most. But for audiophiles who hang on every note, it’s quite noticeable.

The economic reason for high-quality wireless audio being more expensive is that it’s far more complicated and costly to manufacture wireless headphones than the wired variety. Technology such as Bluetooth antennas, batteries, and other intricacies make wireless headphones and earbuds much more expensive to produce. Plus, companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung add a premium markup to the price of their branded devices.

As a company that sells music, Apple would be well served to give its customers a cheap and easy way to enjoy the music they’re paying for on the device they’re paying for without having to use an adapter or pay for expensive wireless devices.

Make the iPhone Backwards Compatible

Outside of corporate profit-seeking, it seems that much of the motive behind Apple’s forced upgrade marches is a desire by the company to move us into the future. Leaving the old behind in favor of what’s next does have a certain appeal. The problem is that we don’t live in the future, and we never will.

Instead, we live in a world that’s made of the past. And despite Apple’s attempts to move beyond things like optical drives, wired audio connections, and USB-A, those are far from obsolete. Apple would do well to recognize this fact and lean into use cases that make the iPhone compatible with the world we live in today while continuing to spearhead new technologies.

For example, millions of cars are still out there on the road have no digital interface whatsoever. They’re older and getting harder to find, but they exist. If someone has an iPhone and drives such a car can’t use it to its fullest capabilities. And despite not having any digital connections, many have a 3.5mm port that connects to the stereo. If Apple reintroduced the headphone jack into the iPhone 15, those car owners could connect their devices to them with a simple male-to-male AUX cable.

The 3.5mm AUX connection is also commonplace in many home and studio-based audio media setups. Many of which don’t use wireless technology because it often produces lag. Putting the headphone jack back into the iPhone would make the device much more useful in those environments.

Please, no more adapters!

A man holding three cables: Lightning, AUX, and USB-C
Danny Chadwick / Review Geek

Many of the points I’ve made above can be countered by “but you can use the adapter.” I know. But I hate adapters. And I don’t think I’m alone among those in the Apple ecosystem when I say, “please don’t make us use any more adapters.”

I’ve spent the last few years using the 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter for my iPhones. And because Apple will almost certainly ditch Lightning for USBC later this year, the next time I upgrade my phone, those Lightning adapters will be nearly useless—just another bit of wire to go in my cable/adapter tote I keep under my bed. And that’s not to mention the inevitable Lightning to USB-C adapters we’ll probably have to buy to keep our other Lightning devices like keyboards, mice, and AirPods going long-term.

Adapters are one of the most annoying things about being an Apple user. It would be a welcome respite if the company could spare us the torture of a 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter.

Final Thoughts

I understand the chances of Apple reversing course on a big decision like the headphone jack is essentially zero. There’s far too much money to be made in selling wireless hardware and too much prestige to be given up by going back on a big move. However, if I’m out here thinking about this sort of thing, it’s a pretty good bet that someone at Apple knows that the headphone jack is a feature many of its customers want.

If that person happens to be reading this, I would say to them that they have a unique opportunity to re-embrace a technology that’s proven, reliable, and in demand. USB-C and Wireless are indeed the future, but that doesn’t mean the past can live alongside it for a while longer.

Danny Chadwick Danny Chadwick
Danny has been a technology journalist since 2008. He served as senior writer, as well as multimedia and home improvement editor at Top Ten Reviews until 2019. Since then, he has been a freelance contributor to Lifewire and ghostwriter for Fit Small Business. His work has also appeared on Laptop Mag, Tom’s Guide, and business.com. Read Full Bio »