Remember the headphone jack? That little port that Apple got rid of on the iPhone 7 that made all of the internet phone reviewers seethe with anger at the audacity of Apple to remove something that was a standard issue on all phones forever. Like most things that Apple does though, the competition went ahead and followed the lead of the company and slowly removed the port from their high end phones as well. Really the only company that seems to be left fighting the good fight to keep the headphone jack is LG in the flagship space. It has become something of a foregone conclusion that the port is soon to become extinct. But there seems to be something of a shift.
It has long been acknowledged that the high end smartphone market in the United States is a two horse race. Samsung and Apple are the only players in this game, and everyone else is basically fighting for crumbs. The pressure is on the lower players in the space to make impactful design and pricing decisions to stay relevant as a viable alternative to the two giants of the industry. For a few years this has meant messing with aspect ratios, quirky design features, and the like. It would appear that the new feature for differentiation is the return of the headphone jack as phones such as the LG V60, Sony Xperia 1 Mark 2, and now the Motorola Edge+ all have the iconic port. Could the headphone jack be experiencing something of a revival?
How the Icon Faded
Apple was the first truly mainstream company to remove the headphone jack, as mentioned above. But why did the company do this? At the time, it was described as courage. To veer away from such a staple in phones was considered incredibly dangerous and potentially polarizing. Some have also theorized that in the race for smartphone thinness the port had to be sacrificed. But the real reality here is accessories, more specifically Bluetooth audio accessories. More and more over the past few years there has been an emphasis placed on cultivating an ecosystem by smartphone manufacturers.
The term ecosystem in a tech space, is one laced in abstracts. An ecosystem can be something like Google’s smart home ecosystem with Google Assistant at its core. Motorola created an ecosystem based on the Mods accessories for their Moto Z phone. The core principle is primarily to generate added sales and revenue from supplementary products to support the primary purchase. In other words, buying an iPhone and then adding to the purchase by adding on a case and a car charger for instance. It is only natural that a company that makes the primary hardware would want to also be able to get a piece of the supplemental purchase. We have seen this in the realm of cases, as companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Google have offered official cases for their phones for years.
The next frontier on this front was bound to be audio, most people used headphones and there was a burgeoning market for wireless headphones already in place from companies such as LG and Jabra. There was a growing sentiment that the future of audio and mobile technology as a whole was to be wireless. Apple, by removing the jack on the iPhone 7 in a way forced this organic progress on the mass market. Where the company had a stroke of brilliance in this strategy by making an effort to replicate the feel of their own wired headphones in a wireless solution with the first AirPods. Where Apple really made this unique was really through the software pairing of AirPods with Apple devices, the setup was seamless and the connection was quick, one that rivaled the effort of plugging in headphones to the 3.5 mm jack.
By doing this, Apple has normalized the idea of ditching the headphone jack on iPhones since the pairing process with AirPods has been so effortless. The real innovation of this product has not been in the way of audio quality or build quality, but rather with the speed of pairing and the ability to pick up and use. The experience was effortless, and the profitability was tremendous as the markup for wireless headphones has always been higher than those of wired solutions. Apple immediately saw an increase in profitability with AirPods, as they instantly became the best selling wireless headphones. The mystique of Apple is that they make a transition like this seem so effortless, yet when another company attempts it the results tend to be less than favorable.
And this is what has happened to many players in the Android space when they have removed the headphone jack. Companies like Samsung, HTC, and Google have faced negative consumer backlash from its removal especially since there has not been a proper replacement solution in place. The realm of USB C enabled audio has been a mess with so many proprietary solutions from almost every company. In addition to this, the quick pairing of Bluetooth headphones to Android is not nearly as advanced as it is on iOS with AirPods. All this makes for an impression that these Android OEMs were just copying Apple to copy Apple.
Along the way to this conclusion, there became a consensus that the lack of a headphone jack on a phone was an indication of it being high end. But as so many companies were looking to challenge Apple and Samsung in the high end there became a bit of a sea of redundancy, Every phone was basically the same and there was no real way to differentiate your phone if you are a less successful manufacturer such as Sony. It would appear that bringing the headphone jack back to these phones is now seen as that differentiation.
For The Sake of Competition
There is a dilemma for a company like Sony or Motorola. They want to compete with Samsung at the high end but it is becoming increasingly difficult to combat the media marketing machine that the company has become. There has to be something that these companies offer that can draw attention away from the Galaxy juggernaut. Reintroducing the headphone jack is the way to do this. The port was beloved and a mass reintroduction of it to the flagship space would definitely review very favorably in the tech community.
What Sony and Motorola can do by bringing this port back is send a message to the consumers that are in the market for a high end smartphone. The message is simple, the larger companies like Samsung and Apple do not listen to the wants and needs of the consumer. That these companies can indeed be the bringers of functional changes that benefit the consumer on a day to day basis. The marketing would be quite simple, to cross compare with the newest Galaxy or iPhone and show that the new Xperia, V series phone, etc. can do everything the same thing with added functionality.
Now the counter argument here is that LG has been putting out phones with headphone jacks and that hasn’t resulted in much success. While this is true, there are negative reputations around software quality control that LG has had to combat (rather unsuccessfully). And the headphone jack and its performance are always highlights of any LG flagship phone. By having Sony and Motorola join in on this is an indication of the port being revived and a showcase that perhaps Apple and Samsung were wrong in killing off the port.
They perhaps were wrong because of a shift that we have seen since 2016. Back then, there was a silent race for thinness that companies were engaging. A race for slim and sleek was en vogue and the first thing to be sacrificed for this was battery life. By extension, a built in excuse was made for companies to remove the headphone jack. By trying to achieve a thinner form factor it was argued that there was simply no room for the headphone jack and it had to be removed to reach this level of design thinness. Eventually, consumers rejected this by proclaiming that they would sacrifice some thinness for better battery life.
Better battery life in the current state of smartphones has a very simple and brute force to being achieved. When in doubt, simply add a larger battery. Doing this requires a thicker chassis to house a larger battery. By normalizing this across the industry, the opportunity for a return of the headphone jack was given a boost. It seems that Motorola and Sony are following LG’s lead and having the jack make its triumphant return.
Doing it the Right Way
For true differentiation to happen by these companies there has to be more done than just inserting a headphone jack and stopping there. After all, this is the situation with most mid range phones on the market these days. In order to have the return of the headphone jack in the flagship space really matter there needs to be some level of audio quality optimization to make this a true hallmark feature.
This is something that LG has done for years, and something that helped to differentiate the HTC audio experience until they dropped headphone jack support with the much maligned U Ultra. These experiences were reasons to buy the phone as opposed to merely a footnote on a spec sheet. When positioning a flagship phone, it is important to remember that you are operating at the very top of the market. People expect these phones to do everything for them. High quality audio is frequently a usage case that is neglected, but it is a very important aspect of the smartphone experience for many people.
If you are a company like Sony, you want to be able to justify your new Xperia and prove why it is worth $1,000. By including a high end headphone jack, Sony can legitimately highlight screen, audio, and camera performance as advantages of using their new phone. This messaging creates a meaningful advantage versus a Samsung or Apple device.
Ironically, the headphone jack has been positioned as a niche differentiator as opposed to a standard issue connector on smartphones. In many ways, it is the equivalent to what has become of vinyl records. Years ago, they were the standard way of listening to music. Eventually, they were replaced by CD’s and digital content. But they have seen a bit of a renaissance in recent years for people that craved the higher quality of audio played through vinyl.
In many ways, this is the path forward for the headphone jack as a standard port for those looking for a more dynamic and rich media listening experience. For a couple of years, LG was fighting this battle alone but now with the inclusion of Motorola and Sony into the mix the losing battle has turned into a resistance to an accepted norm. As a lover of higher end audio I can only hope that more companies such as OnePlus and Google eventually jump on this trend with these companies. For now, it is great that us headphone jack lovers have more options than simply LG. Long live the headphone jack and wired audio.