For as different as smartphones can be, we all expect them to provide certain basics: you start with a touchscreen, add a couple cameras, and toss in a bunch of standard wireless connectivity options. For the better part of forever, that list has also included an analog 3.5mm headphone jack, making connecting headphones or external speakers a snap. But lately it’s felt like the tide is turning away from the classic port, buoyed by rumors that Apple could drop the headphone jack entirely for its next iPhone, pushing wired audio output over to the digital Lightning connector. While Apple may indeed go in that direction, it doesn’t look like it’s the only company getting ready to embrace a headphone-jack-less future, as Intel shares its own plans for the rising dominance of digital audio interfaces.
Intel’s not so much interested in Lightning as it is audio over USB type-C, and is working now to develop an advanced specification, backwards compatible with existing USB audio-delivery standards while adding support for new formats.
While USB type-C will allow for high-quality digital audio transmission (just like Lightning), it could even support a fall-back analog mode, using a pair of sideband pins to deliver a signal all ready to be used with low-cost 3.5mm-breakout adapters. But one way or another, Intel wants to see manufacturers dropping those old 3.5mm ports from hardware and moving to a USB-only future.
Will phone makers follow Intel’s lead here? That’s far from a certainty, and Intel itself seems to acknowledge that work needs to be done in order to convince consumers this move is also for their benefit; in particular, Intel points to how an emphasis on better value in terms of high-end audio could help drive adoption. That’s a start, but we also wonder how easily success might come at the lower end, especially as headphones start getting more expensive across the board thanks to these changes.