July 23, 2016

AirPlay Audio

Life After Headphone Jacks

Apple wouldn’t be the first company to remove headphone jacks from its phones. If the rumours are to be believed, the next generation of iPhone coming this fall will be missing the ubiquitous 3.5mm port.

The Internet is furious.

But amid all the think pieces and speculation, I noticed something. Most people are discussing the idea as if the alternatives are just a dongle adapter or Bluetooth.

I think there’s another option, and it’s already with us: AirPlay.

Wireless Audio

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether or not there will be Lightning headphones (I don’t see Apple replacing one cable solution with a different one in this day and age, but who knows), or an adapter in the box so you can use your existing headphones.

The more interesting side of the equation is the wireless angle.

Today, wireless audio is mostly handled over Bluetooth. This is because Bluetooth is cross-platform, and comparatively simple to support. But it’s a deeply flawed system for lovers of digital audio.

Bluetooth’s default encoding for audio is a (very) lossy one, which means whatever signal you feed it is degraded before it reaches your headphones. We’re past the time where signal strength and connection stability are a big problem, but even recent advances in Bluetooth’s handling of audio (via specialized codecs like AptX and A2DP) leave a lot to be desired when it comes to maintaining audio fidelity.

At best, Bluetooth is capable of shuttling your music from device to device at about 320kbps. That’s the bit rate of the average well-encoded MP3 file. And that’s assuming the setup you’re using supports those fancy protocols (iPhones don’t support AptX).

That being said, it’s well known that most people can’t tell the difference between a properly encoded MP3 and a lossless audio file. More importantly, consumer-grade audio devices that use Bluetooth simply aren’t good enough to reproduce the nuances that set lossless audio apart from its compressed cousin.

It’s just good business on the part of the manufacturers: why bother building expensive, audiophile-grade headphones when you’re feeding them compressed audio? To be clear, lossy compressed audio is what the vast majority of people are feeding into their headphones to begin with, whether from a streaming service or their own collection of MP3s.

Those of us that appreciate lossless audio look at the situation with a lot of apprehension: today, we can choose to listen to lossless audio using normal headphones via the 3.5mm jack, but if that goes away, what are we left with?

Apple has already shown that it’s willing to make professionals and connoisseurs suffer in exchange for a better experience for general consumers, but in this particular case I think there’s a better way.

Enter AirPlay

Compared to Bluetooth, the AirPlay protocol has a few distinct advantages:

  • It uses lossless audio compression (ALAC at 44.1KHz, in stereo)
  • Its range isn’t limited to physical proximity since it works over a network
  • AirPlay can stream to multiple devices simultaneously (with independent volume control per destination) whereas Bluetooth only allows for a 1:1 connection
  • AirPlay streams are AES encrypted

In the past, it would have seemed impractical to manufacture something like a headphone with the networking capabilities required to make use of AirPlay, but now that even lightbulbs have WiFi the landscape seems different.

By removing the headphone jack, Apple has to offer an alternative that isn’t just newer, but is demonstrably better than what’s come before. Regardless of protocol, wireless audio carries with it a convenience advantage: no more wires for listening (you probably still need them for charging though).

As many have pointed out though, that isn’t enough. It still leaves tons of people with very expensive headphones that no longer work with their phones, or require a separate adaptor to work.

To balance the scales a bit, I think Apple needs to push AirPlay audio as the actual wireless alternative. Perhaps this comes in the form of partnerships with major headphone manufacturers to create a new line of AirPlay-compatible wireless headphones.

Pushing AirPlay would allow them to claim several very marketing-friendly advantages:

  • Higher quality wireless audio than the competition (suddenly that Tidal purchase rumour seems more interesting…)
  • Easier sharing of music and simultaneous listening thanks to AirPlay’s multiple stream capabilities
  • Privacy: no more unencrypted audio floating around (not important for music, but what about voice calls?)

How exactly it would work is something we can only speculate about.

Assuming it works like today’s AirPlay, in a home environment the network is already there, but on the go you have to create a network for AirPlay to work. Will they do it with the phone via a similar technology to Personal Hotspot? Will the network be generated by the headphones and have more limited range, similar to Bluetooth? What are the battery implications? What happens on flights/in airplane mode?

The idea has challenges, but I believe the merits are sufficiently compelling to make those problems worth solving.

Life After Headphone Jacks

For me, the discussion is important only because of the audio fidelity angle.

I’m already convinced of the convenience of wireless audio, but I don’t want to be stuck with Bluetooth as my only wireless audio option because, quite frankly, it sucks. Generally speaking though, as annoying as it might be to have to replace some wired headphones or use an adapter, it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over.

I’ve already given up disk drives and Flash for Apple, and I miss neither.

Should we have to give things up though? Perhaps not, but I don’t think anyone expects headphones jacks to be on devices forever, so the real question is when it’s reasonable to say farewell. Now seems as good a time as any to push things forward.

It’ll always be too soon for someone.


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