The headphone jack is becoming outdated technology in smartphones — that’s what many manufacturers would have you believe. For the convenience of the audiophiles out there, we recently published our list of all phones that have removed the 3.5 mm jack. But what did each company gain inside their flagship phones by removing this supposedly antiquated port?
Starting in early 2016, we’ve seen a trend of removing the 3.5 mm headphone jack in flagship phones, both on Android and iOS. Each company attempted to provide a compelling reason for the removal during their launch events. We wondered, what exactly were the reasons for the removal in each major flagship? Are there any similarities across all OEMs? Perhaps most importantly, do any of these reasons justify the removal of a ubiquitous standard from the phones we use every day?
You may not know much about LeEco as a company or a brand, but this Chinese conglomerate manufacturers everything from smartphones to TVs. Back in April 2016, LeEco introduced the Le 2, Le 2 Pro and Le Max 2 — the first smartphones to feature USB-C audio instead of the traditional 3.5 mm jack. At the time, Liang Jun, president of R&D at LeEco, gave a statement as to why they made the decision:
We chose to discontinue the 3.5 mm audio jack in our second-gen phones to create a better quality audio experience for everyone to enjoy. With the 3.5 mm audio jack, the stereo sound was compromised due to poor sound channel separation and the sound quality was compromised due to a mismatch between phone and headphones.
Poor channel separation and sound quality of traditional headphones is a relatively weak excuse in my opinion. While there are certainly technical limitations for 3.5 mm headphones over an all-digital solution, the overall lack of good USB-C headphones is the real problem. The fix for LeEco was to sell a line of their own USB-C enabled headphones — very convenient for them, of course.
Bluetooth is another proposed solution. However, the lack of uniformity in Bluetooth protocols, pairing procedures, and security concerns make it unacceptable as a total replacement at this time. The reasoning used by LeEco in their first phone launch without the headphone jack would become a common mantra by companies abandoning it in the future.
Motorola: Thinner Phones
The second Android manufacturer to jump on the bandwagon was Motorola, freshly revamping their smartphone lineup after being acquired by Lenovo. In June of 2016, Motorola took to the stage to unveil the new Moto Z and Moto Z Force DROID branded phones. These phones launched as a Verizon exclusive initially and mark the first major US flagship without a 3.5 mm jack.
While Motorola didn’t give a statement as to why they removed the headphone jack, the Moto Z launch event provides pretty solid insight. At that event, Motorola extensively detailed the steps taken to slim down the overall thickness of the phone. The slimmer chassis was necessary to accommodate the new Moto Mods attachments on the back. From this, we can infer that the removal of the headphone jack can be at least partially attributed to a need for a slimmer body.
Compared to LeEco, I find Motorola’s decision to remove the headphone jack more tolerable. In addition to better quality audio, Motorola also innovated on their phone’s design and usability with the advent of Moto Mods.
Many have argued that Motorola took value out of the phone only to sell consumer add-ons that increase the overall cost of ownership. While I can’t fully dispute this claim, Moto Mods are the best implementation of modularity in smartphones to date. Considering the innovation their modularity platform brought about with third-party developers, Motorola’s argument seems reasonable.
Note: We reached out to Motorola for a comment on why the headphone jack was removed and continues to be absent in their Moto Z line. We haven’t heard back yet.
Most of the posturing from LeEco and Motorola in early 2016 stemmed from rumors that Apple would remove the 3.5 mm headphone jack from their iPhone 7 and 7 Plus flagships in the fall. In September of 2016, the news became official, as Phil Schiller famously quipped that Apple was “courageous” in their removal of the 3.5 mm jack. While Schiller’s humorous remark at the event stood out, Dan Riccio (Apple’s senior VP of hardware engineering) later offered a more serious explanation:
It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone. It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there’s a better, modern solution available, it’s crazy to keep it around.
The statement regarding battery life here is particularly interesting. Apple actually decreased the 2,915 mAh battery capacity in the iPhone 6 Plus to a 2,900 mAh cell in the iPhone 7 Plus after they removed the headphone jack. Perhaps the justification centered more on making room for more efficient processors, which would in turn improve battery life. This reasoning combined with the need for improved camera technology makes a compelling argument, but wasn’t quite realized until the iPhone X one year later.
Much like other companies, Apple also offered the audio argument during their keynote for the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The crux of their claim centered around the idea of a wireless future, which they believed necessitated the removal of the 3.5 mm jack. In addition, they also offered a futuristic audio solution for early adopters in the form of AirPods.
Once again, we see here an example of a company offering new audio accessories that pad their bottom line at the expense of the familiar 3.5 mm standard. Over the past year, AirPods have proven to be an excellent product. But we must pause to ask, would they have taken off in the same way if Apple kept the traditional headphone jack around?
After Apple pulled the headphone jack on their signature iPhone lineup, a barrage of Android OEMs followed suit. HTC kicked off 2017 by announcing their U Ultra flagship. This oversized phone had huge bezels, a relatively small battery, and no headphone jack. Many pundits lambasted HTC for the waste of space inside the phone, which seemed an accurate description. When the dust settled around the launch, HTC provided a statement to The Verge about their choice:
We removed the headphone jack because we believe the audio experience on the phone can be so much more than just the simple transmission of sound. The sonar-like capabilities of USonic wouldn’t be possible with a 3.5mm headphone jack. We have microphones built into both earbuds that “listen” for sonic pulses, which can then adjust your audio to match your ears’ unique architecture. We believe the market is ready to push audio into new innovations that benefit consumers’ listening experience.
Notice a familiar pattern? HTC claims they removed the headphone jack for alleged audio shortcomings in the 3.5 mm standard. Conveniently enough, they also had the perfect product on hand to address these issues. The main difference in this case is that HTC included their USB-C headphones in the box for free with the U Ultra.
The U Ultra was particularly annoying for consumers due to wasted interior space and a relatively small battery when compared to the overall body size. A few months later, HTC followed this up with the HTC U11. For the most part, the U11 was much better received by fans and critics alike. The main improvements inside the U11 included a much larger battery-to-body ratio, better form factor, and inclusion of HTC Edge Sense.
These additional improvements make it easier to justify removal of the headphone jack, and HTC has continued this trend with their recent U11+ flagship here at the end of 2017. As long as HTC continues to include their excellent USonic headphones in the box with each phone, I’m mostly unbothered by their decision to axe the jack.
Essential: Saving Space
With the father of Android at the helm, Essential promised to deliver a phone for lovers of “pure Android.” They also promised to deliver on all the essential elements in a modern smartphone. When enthusiasts found out that this did not include a 3.5 mm headphone jack, there were plenty of essentially funny jokes to go around.
Andy Rubin and company sat down for a Reddit AMA in September and fielded the question about why the headphone jack was removed:
Headphone jacks are pretty big components and they don’t play nice with all-screen Phone architectures. We studied it very seriously, but fitting a headphone jack into our Phone required tradeoffs we were uncomfortable with. We’d have [to] grow a huge “chin” in the display and reduce the battery capacity by 10%, or we’d need a huge headphone bump! We decided it was more important to have a beautiful full-screen display in a thin device with solid battery life. Then we made sure we to build ya’ll a high-quality DAC in a tiny adapter that can elegantly live on your headphones
This explanation seems reasonable enough. The overall build of the Essential phone is very compact, even with an impressive amount of screen real estate. Given that battery capacity and the principal design would be compromised, I can see why Essential made the choice to eschew the headphone bump.
The audio argument also returns here, but Essential included the improvements in a free adapter inside the box. Since then, Essential also announced they would release an optional clip-on accessory that includes a 3.5 mm headphone jack. This will come as a welcome addition for audiophiles looking to charge and listen at the same time, but the asking price is still unknown.
Google: Future-Proofing Design
In 2016, Google took every opportunity to mock Apple’s removal of the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 series. What a difference a year makes — the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, announced in October 2017, both cut the headphone jack.
While the decision seemed reasonable for the newly-designed Pixel 2 XL, the removal of the jack on the relatively traditional Pixel 2 was surprising to most. As it turns out, Google’s decision to remove the jack was future-focused. Google’s product chief Mario Queiroz shared the reasoning with TechCrunch:
The primary reason for dropping the jack is establishing a mechanical design path for the future. We want the display to go closer and closer to the edge. Our team said, ‘if we’re going to make the shift, let’s make it sooner, rather than later.’ Last year may have been too early. Now there are more phones on the market.
This sounds very similar to the concern Andy Rubin expressed in the Essential AMA — full screen displays don’t play well with headphone jacks. Google also wanted to maintain a uniform product identity, hence the removal from both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Not to be outdone, Google also chimed in on the audio argument:
Moving to the USB-C audio port with Pixel 2 allows us to provide a better audio and digital experience, as we move towards a bezel-less future.
Google also introduced their own Bluetooth audio solution, the new Pixel Buds. In many ways, the Pixel Buds are Google’s answer to Apple’s own AirPods, yet they haven’t been received nearly as well by critics.
Luckily, if Bluetooth isn’t your thing, the Pixel 2 lineup also includes a 3.5 mm headphone adapter as many other OEMs have done. One thing Google didn’t mention here is whether or not the adapter contains a high-quality DAC. Many other manufacturers have emphasized this point, and at least to me it makes a pretty big difference in evaluating the tradeoffs.
Overall, I find Google’s reasoning weaker than most other companies on this list. There was no compelling reason to remove the headphone jack this year, it simply set the expectation for future generations. While they did include an adapter in the box, there aren’t any free USB-C headphones or extra features enabled by removing the jack. But hey, you can always buy some awesome Pixel Buds for $159!
Razer: More Space for Battery
Leaks of a smartphone from PC gaming giant Razer emerged in the second half of 2017. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the company acquired hardware startup Nextbit back in 2016. Unsurprisingly, when the Razer Phone was announced in November, it looked very similar to the Nextbit Robin.
The relatively thick candy bar design with larger bezels and stereo speakers contradicted all of the 2017 design trends. For this reason, it was incredibly surprising to see Razer remove the headphone jack from their phone. After all, a phone designed for gaming and media consumption should naturally have a 3.5 mm jack. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan filled us in on the details behind the decision:
By removing the headphone jack – we were able to increase the battery size significantly (I estimate we added 500maH more), improve thermals for performance and a whole lot more.
The trade off was not having the jack – but what sealed it for me was that we were able to get audiophile quality sound with the dedicated 24-Bit THX Certified DAC adapter – and I made sure we included that with every phone. Which basically means we give even better quality headphone audio for those who want to hold on to their analog headphones.
Considering that gamers drain smartphone batteries faster than anyone else, this makes sense to me. Including an additional 500 mAh of battery capacity while improving thermals for gaming performance is a key choice for the target demographic of this phone.
Once again, higher quality audio sneaks in to the explanation as well. Razer added value for their customers by including a high quality DAC in the box, very similar to the approach taken by Essential. A few weeks later, Razer introduced the Hammerhead USB-C earbuds. The headphones are quite reasonably priced at $79.99 and offer another solid alternative for audio on the Razer Phone. Weighing the pros and cons here, it seems Razer made the right choice for their primary user base.
Removing the headphone jack in a flagship device is obviously a big decision for any company. Each OEM on this list meticulously thought through the trade-offs required to get rid of the long-time audio standard. At the end of the day, it comes to down to whether you agree that the improvements gained outweigh the use of a 3.5 mm port.
For me, it comes down to making a determination about the true motives for removing the jack. Is the trade-off in audio quality improvement the main motive? Or is the company simply making a cash grab to sell more Bluetooth, USB-C, or Lightning accessories?
For several companies, we see a clear benefit. In the case of HTC, Essential, and Razer, the tangible benefits of removing the jack are clear in the end product. For HTC, we get the excellent USonic headphones in the box with the phone, in addition to the Edge Sense technology. Essential made one of the most beautiful Android handsets we’ve ever seen, and packed a sizable screen and battery into a tiny body. Razer served their core gaming audience with a bigger battery and improved in-game performance. Others like Apple and Google haven’t quite convinced me that their decision is paying off yet.
What do you think about phone manufacturers removing the 3.5 mm headphone jack? Is it advancing technology forward, or just a pointless move to sell more accessories to the end consumer? Let us know in the comments where you stand!