Edge of Innovation

Could USB-C audio replace the old 3.5mm headphone socket?

In the never-ending push to make devices smaller, lighter, thinner, there are always a few technology casualties suffered along the way. That’s progress for you. Before USB came along, we lived in a world of serial and parallel ports. Before cloud storage, we relied on floppy disks, ZIP drives and USB sticks.

But one tiny connection has stood the test of time — the 3.5mm audio jack.

This connection, used to connect headphones and speakers, dates back to the 1960s. But it can trace its lineage to the huge telephone switchboards of the late 1800s. Check your computer, smartphone, tablet, DAB digital radio, monitor and HDTV. They all have the little round socket. The 3.5mm connector has been a global standard for decades.

Until now.

It seems this audio jack is ripe for replacement and there are already signs that its days are numbered. Why? For a start, it takes up a lot of space. Look at any recent smartphone and there’s barely a sliver of casing above and below the socket. A traditional phono connector is also steadfastly single-purpose — a legacy analogue port in a new age of multi-functional digital connections.

USB-C on the ASUS Transformer Book T100HA
The lightweight ASUS Transformer Book T100HA features a new USB-C port for charging and connectivity.

The question being asked is this: why not use USB-C audio instead? The new port is perfect for the job. It’s not only small and reversible, but it delivers high-speed USB connectivity, allowing you to plug in all manner of external devices. On newer devices, it’s also replacing mini-USB as a charging solution.

USB-C also provides a way for the host device to communicate with smart headphones, providing lossless high-resolution audio, audio processing, amplification and active noise cancellation. The two-way nature of the digital connection means that headphones with sensors could send information back to the host device. On a phone, this might include data such as your heart rate and body temperature, while motion sensors could alter the music in response to your workout.

The possibilities for USB-C audio are truly exciting, and as one of the last vestiges of the analogue world, it feels like only a matter of time before the 3.5mm jack joins the 8-track, cassettes and Mini Disc on the audio scrapheap.

JBL Reflect Aware USB-C earphones
JBL’s Reflect Aware C earphones forgo a 3.5mm connector in favour of USB-C.

We’re already starting to see devices dropping the old connector. The Moto Z, for example, doesn’t have a 3.5mm jack and neither do China’s 2016 LeEco smartphone line-up. JBL’s new Reflect Aware C Earphones are also designed for USB-C audio.

But given its simplicity, reliability and sheer ubiquity, does the 3.5mm jack actually need replacing? Yes, digital audio is certainly a draw, but removing the old socket might immediately render millions of headphones obsolete, forcing users to buy new ones or to use fiddly, bulky adaptors.

But like Super 8 and airships, the 3.5mm audio jack might be one ageing technology that doesn’t give in so easily.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/Tatiana Michurina

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