Why Hasn’t Samsung Ditched the Headphone Jack Yet?

Speaking of Samsung following Apple’s lead, now seems like a good time revisit the removal of headphone jacks. Back in 2016, SamMobile ran a piece headlined “Galaxy S8 Is Not Going to Feature a Headphone Jack”. That report was wrong — and not only did the Galaxy S8 retain a standard headphone jack, the new Galaxy S9 does too. (Badly misaligned with the other outputs on the bottom of the phone, natch.)

But I was wrong too. I read the SamMobile report and predicted it was correct, simply on the grounds that Samsung inevitably follows Apple’s lead on initially contentious design decisions. Remember removable batteries? Samsung was still touting them as an advantage as recently as 2015.

I remain convinced that traditional headphone jacks are going the way of the floppy drive, and that sooner or later, they’ll be gone from all new phones. But maybe that’ll be a bit later rather than sooner.

I think there are two factors in Apple’s advantage here: Apple’s W1 chip and Lightning.

The real future of consumer headphones is wireless. There are plenty of standard Bluetooth headphones on the market, and they are getting better every year. I recently bought a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones for use on airplanes, and I like them a lot — they sound good, the noise cancellation is excellent, battery life is good, and latency is negligible. The pairing process is OK, but still lags far behind the ease of pairing AirPods with an iOS device. But good Bluetooth headphones are expensive — my QuietComfort 35s cost $350. (Beats makes noise-cancelling headphones with the W1 chip at pretty much the same prices as Bose, but head-to-head reviews suggest the QuietComforts are more comfortable and Bose’s noise cancellation remains noticeably superior. For use on an airplane, comfort and noise cancellation are paramount.)

Bottom line, there’s nothing quite like AirPods for Android devices, and that matters. It’s no coincidence that Apple didn’t remove the headphone jack from the iPhone until they had the AirPods to announce together.

But I think the bigger factor is that Lightning makes for a better wired headphone jack than USB-C. The future is wireless, but the present remains tethered. Ever since the iPhone 7, Apple has shipped a pair of Lightning EarPods in the box, along with a 3.5mm to Lightning adapter. Apple’s Lightning EarPods cost $29, just like Apple’s EarPods with a standard headphone plug. They’re cheap enough for Apple to include in the box with every iPhone, and no more expensive than previously for customers to replace.

USB-C headphones, on the other hand, seem to be a mess. Helen Havlak wrote a piece for The Verge a few months ago titled “Buying USB-C Earbuds for My Pixel 2 Was Incredibly Annoying and Expensive”:

Two weeks after starting my cheap Pixel 2 earbud search, I finally have a working pair — but they cost almost twice the amount I wanted to spend, and don’t feel very premium. If I lose or break them, it’ll cost me almost $50 and another 10-day wait. The next time I upgrade my phone, they may not be compatible. Even the Apple Store sells $29 Lightning EarPods. Google needs to do a lot better by its Pixel owners than a single $149 USB-C option. Even better, just give us back the damn headphone jack.

The headphone situation with Google’s Pixel 2 is more confusing than I expected. Nicholas Deleon, writing for Consumer Reports, explains:

In an online post, Google noted that only headphones compatible with USB Type-C Digital Audio will work with the Pixel 2. [...] Analog Type-C headphones won’t produce any sound, Google says. Instead they will prompt a smartphone notification informing you that you need different headphones. [...]

How do I know whether my headphones are compatible?

For now, Google recommends that you purchase headphones certified as “Made for Google.” This program, similar to Apple’s “Made for iPhone” program, confirms that the hardware is fully compatible with the Pixel 2. As of now, only three manufacturers offer headphones that have earned that distinction: AiAiAi, Master & Dynamic, and Libratone.

Not exactly the three biggest brand names in the audio world.

So the gist of it is that it’s not enough to have USB-C headphones. Pixel owners need the right kind of USB-C headphones — only those that support digital audio, and they seem to be far from common today. And the ones that do exist seem to be quite expensive. The cheapest Pixel-compatible USB-C headphones in Google’s store are the Libratone Q Adapt earphones, and they cost $149. That’s a lot more than $29, and a lot of money for headphones from a brand I’ve never heard of. They’re also the only earbud-style USB-C headphones Google offers. The even more goofily-named Aiaiai TMA-2 MFG4 on-ear headphones cost $180.

So with the Pixel, the recommended options start at $149, and the unrecommended options — as explored by Havlak in her aforelinked Verge piece — cost about $50 and are of questionable quality. No wonder Google didn’t include earbuds in the box with the Pixel 2. (Essential doesn’t either, and they charge $99 for their earbuds.)

Samsung is more of a “do what the customer is asking for” company; Apple is a “figure out what they’re going to want” company. Samsung’s customers aren’t asking for the headphone jack to be dropped, so the path of least resistance is to just keep the jack. But looking at what’s available on the market, a big problem facing Samsung (and the rest of the Android world) is that the USB-C headphone market is a mess — and expensive to boot. “No-name brand headphones at high prices” is a hard sell.

As much as AirPods are better (and cheaper) than standard Bluetooth earbuds, there is seemingly nothing close to Lightning EarPods on the market for USB-C. AirPods get all the attention, but Lightning EarPods are even further ahead of their USB-C competition. The proprietary nature of Lightning allowed Apple to make sure it was ready to serve as the wired audio connector for iPhones when Apple wanted it to be. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder why Apple doesn’t drop Lightning for USB-C.