Cheap Third-Party ‘Lightning’ Headphones Are Often Cheap Bluetooth Headphones

Wild story from Josh Whiton, who bought a cheap pair of wired Lightning-connector headphones in Chile, but couldn’t get them to work unless he enabled Bluetooth on his iPhone:

A scourge of cheap “lightning” headphones and lightning accessories is flooding certain markets, unleashed by unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers who have discovered an unholy recipe:

True Apple lightning devices are more expensive to make. So instead of conforming to the Apple standard, these companies have made headphones that receive audio via bluetooth — avoiding the Apple specification — while powering the bluetooth chip via a wired cable, thereby avoiding any need for a battery.

They have even made lightning adapters using the same recipe: plug-in power a fake lightning dongle that uses bluetooth to transmit the audio signal literally 1.5 inches from the phone to the other end of the adapter.

Commenters on the thread on X are blaming the supposedly high licensing fees Apple charges for Lightning peripherals, but I don’t think that’s it exactly. I wrote about this back in 2021 — there’s a baseline assumption that Apple kept the iPhone on Lightning as long as it did because (a) it made a lot of money selling its own Lightning cables; and (b) by requiring certified third-party Lightning products to pay a stiff licensing fee.

But go search for “Lightning cables” on Amazon. You can buy Lightning USB cables for $1 apiece in bulk. Temu sells them for under $1. These cheap cables probably aren’t up to spec or officially licensed. But they are cheap. It doesn’t really matter what the actual licensing fees from Apple are, because these knockoff cable makers wouldn’t pay them anyway.

I think the problem these cheap manufacturers are solving isn’t that Lightning is expensive to license, but that it’s difficult to implement for audio. Actual Lightning headphones and headphone adapters have a tiny little digital-to-analog converter (DAC) inside the Lightning plug. It’s like a little computer. Doing it with Bluetooth and using the Lightning plug only for power is surely easier. It’s just lazy. But it’s kind of wild that the laziest, cheapest way to make unofficial “Lightning” headphones is with Bluetooth.

This makes me wonder though: do dirt-cheap USB-C headphones work the same way, or do they tend to include a DAC for actual wired playback?

Friday, 31 May 2024