Phone connector, audio jack, TRS, mini, 1/4 inch or 1/8th inch jack. There are a lot of names for the port you use to plug in your headphones. There are many variations and different sizes, but the audio jack has been around in more or less the same form since 1878. The electronics that drive it have also remained largely unchanged. However, with digital audio quality getting better and portable devices getting thinner, the port is overdue for an update.
So, how do you build a new standard that competes against something that has survived for over 130 years and continued to thrive in the Digital Age? The answer will likely be a new audio standard by Intel using USB Type-C.
Wait, what’s “USB Type-C”?
The quick, non-technical explanation is that USB Type-C is a new type of data plug for USB devices. It’s backwards-compatible with other USB devices using an adaptor, and it adds new features that you will love. First of all, like Apple’s Lightning connector, it’s reversible. No more trying to plug in your USB cable, flipping it over and trying again. Second it’s more compact, just a bit larger than the MicroUSB port found on most Android devices today.
There are more features (like extremely high transfer speeds), but for the purposes of this article we’ll be focusing on the features applicable to audio headphones.
Let’s get your biggest fear out of the way first. Those headphones you spent a week’s wages on isn’t going to be obsolete. At least, not yet.
As explained above, the plug for USB Type-C was designed with a variety of new features. Most people rightly focused on the fact you can plug it in right side up or upside down. However, one more new feature is what are called Sideband Unit (SBU) pins. It’s an ugly, technical name. All you have to know is that there are two of them, and they’re each capable of carrying a channel of analog audio.
For you, this means simple adaptor could make its way to market that takes the analog signals from a USB Type-C port and delivers stereo audio so you can still plug into your old, trusty ?Sennheisers.
The move from standard definition to HD has treated our eyes, but most people are still listening to their music on headphones that only barely match the limit of human perception. Audiophiles look to expensive audio systems with tubes and braided cables to create the fullest sound reproduction, but they are not very portable.
The audio you listen to is probably 16-bit 44 KHz stereo. High Definition audio can raise those numbers to 24-bit 96 KHz multi-channel digital audio. All of this can be pushed over a cable no bigger than the one you use now. The work is done by Digital Analog Chips (DACs). The chips receive high-resolution digital audio data and convert it so the sound can be recreated by your headphone speakers
Simply put, higher resolution means sharper reproduction. You thought you had it pretty sweet with that DVD player in your living room until you saw what HDTV can do for your favourite movie. Imagine that experience with your favorite album.
DAC chips and electronics would need to be built into the headphones, but wouldn’t add much to the overall cost as compared to quality speaker parts. The cost will also come down as production increases when USB Type-C headphones become more ubiquitous. $15 USB Type-C earbuds should be a thing you can buy before the end of the decade.
When created, phone connectors were originally made for monaural sound. A modification to the plug made it capable of transmitting stereo yet still usable for mono audio purposes. Like the USB ports before it, USB Type-C ports will be compatible with future versions of USB. Features we haven’t yet imagined could be presented. The next version could add more data throughput, or wireless capabilities, or blinky lights. Who knows?
What can be said is that it will align to a universal standard. When the current audio jack was expanded to allow microphone, video, and even data transfer capabilities, there was no standard maintained for the third channel. USB Type-C is designed and maintained by patent holders who will decide how the port’s features are expanded.
When HDMI cables became the audio-video standard for HDTV, there were many significant advantages. In my opinion, the greatest was taking as many as nine cables for high-definition video and surround sound audio and cramming it down into one digital cable. One plug in the TV, one plug in the Blu-ray player.
While USB Type-C headphones only have one plug on either end, they can carry a lot more than just audio. Headphones can have a thermometer, a heart rate monitor, or advanced play controls built in and share that data with your device. Many analog headphones have minimal controls like volume, pause/play, or even next track. Digital headphones can do much, much more.
Imagine your headphones detect that your heart rate is a bit low for a good workout, so your device starts playing a higher beats-per-minute song impressing on you to pick up the pace. If it detects that you’re overheating, an audio cue reminds you to pause for a drink. If you’re not the active type, motion detection can turn your head bobs into a boxing game. Move too slow, and you take a virtual punch to the jaw.
There’s power in that cable too. If you can’t get stand your commute without some quality noise-canceling, you won’t have to worry about replacing dead batteries on oversized headphones. JBL just announced a USB Type-C version of their active noise-canceling Reflect Aware earbuds. Your smartphone provides all the power they need to nullify environmental distractions.
The selection of compatible headphones right now is as slim as the connector. Once a universal audio standard is finalized by Intel, then USB Type-C headphones should flood the market.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Maurizio Pesce.
Three of the top four Android manufacturers have started using USB Type-C ports on their flagship phones (Motorola’s the one hold-out, but the year is young). However, Apple still owns about 40% of the smartphone market, and that’s not even counting their dominance in portable music players and tablets. Right now, Apple’s lineup has been plugging in with Lightning connectors for more than three years. While there are headphones on the market with Lightning connectors, they aren’t compatible with any non-Apple devices.
Apple has been looking for a solution to the size of the audio jack for years, but rumors that the next iPhone will do away with the 1/8th inch connector have never been stronger. If Apple moves to a USB Type-C connector, they can retain compatibility with analog headphones, while opening the field to a wider market of digital headphones. The new USB connector’s spec isn’t waterproof by design (like Lightning is), but it can be more easily waterproofed than the existing audio jacks. Apple could finally put out a certified, waterproof smartphone.
There are already a few Lightning-equipped headphones on the market, but that’s not the real roadblock. Apple doesn’t like relinquishing control of their ecosystem. They may be able to maintain their “Made for iPhone” seal of approval by managing the software that drives the digital audio, but it may be too easy for poor quality hardware on an open architecture to degrade the experience for iPhone users.
Macbooks are already using USB Type-C connectors to both connect and power the device, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Apple is looking for a solution to the century-old connector that won’t go away, and the perfect mix of backwards compatibility and future-proof could lay in Intel’s new digital audio standard.