Apple introduced the new iPhone 7 last week and perhaps for the first time the resonating news from an annual #AppleEvent is headphones — or Apple's new wireless AirPods, to be exact.
While the company has staked a big claim in the music landscape with iTunes and Apple Music, the iPhone has not exactly been a paragon of high fidelity. Noisy preamps, poorly compressed audio and its tinny-sounding white EarPods have not exactly endeared the handsets to audiophiles. But now that Apple's getting rid of the old headphone jack on the iPhone 7, will the sound quality of the music improve or decline?
When the new phone comes out later this week (Sept. 16 starting at $649), it will not have a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Instead, headphones will have to connect to the phone using its Lightning port. Apple will include a set of wired EarPods that will have a Lightning connector — and there will be a mini-jack-to-Lightning adapter in the box so that you can use your old headphones.
Meet digital-to-analog (DAC) conversion
Eliminating the headphone jack means that Apple is also eliminating the analog audio output. Music coming out of the iPhone 7's Lightning jack will be in digital form, so theoretically it should be cleaner than the old analog output. However, it also means that instead of the iPhone, whatever you plug into the Lightning jack will now be responsible for making the digital-to-analog conversion, whether you're listening to Nick Cave or Nick Catchdubs.
How good that digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is will profoundly effect the quality of the music you hear. High-res audio enthusiasts have been big on using outboard or external DACs like Audioengine's $149 D3 24-bit DAC/Headphone Amp and Cambridge Audio's $300 DACMagic 100 for some time, primarily because they circumvent the nasty electronics in PCs and laptops and thus avoid the associated sonic interference.
But not all DACs are created equal. For example, some DACs can handle high-bit-rate files, some cannot. How the iPhone 7's AirPods will fair in this regard — or that little adapter Apple is tossing into the package — remains to be heard. But there are already other Lightning compatible options, ranging from inexpensive earbuds like Brightech's $49 Pure Lightning to high-end models like Sony's $230 MDR-1ADAC headphones. Auditioning the Sony MDR-1ADAC in Berlin at the IFA consumer electronics show, for example, I found the headphones were a terrific improvement over similarly priced analog cans — but I was also testing the headphones using high-res audio files.
Bluetooth also means compressed audio
In the meantime, many iPhone fans are thinking they'll go the wireless route. Apple's $159 wireless AirPods are truly wireless: there's not only no cable tied to the phone, there's also no wire connecting the left and right earbuds. The AirPods won't ship until October, but we already know this: The audio has to be compressed to make the wireless Bluetooth connection, which ultimately effects the sound — and not in a good way.
So more than ever, the earbuds or headphones you choose are going to effect the sound now that those headphones are going to be responsible for doing the digital-to-analog work. It also means that headphone makers aren't upset by Apple killing the mini jack: They're looking forward to selling us a whole new type of headphones with external DACs.