6 standards headphone makers can adopt to make us love a 3.5mm-less iPhone 7

iPhone Lightning Jack

Another day, another iPhone 7 headphone jack leak.

Although we won't see an official confirmation until the phone's announcement on September 7, it's looking more and more likely that Apple are set to ditch the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of a single lightning jack, upsetting the millions of sound-minded individuals who use wired headphones.

At first glance Apple's removal of the traditional headphone jack would appear to be bad news for anyone who's invested in a decent pair of headphones that use the 3.5mm connector but, after some thought, the switch to the more versatile lightning connector could potentially allow for some interesting new features.

It's something we've given a lot of thought to over the past few weeks and without wasting another minute mourning the loss of ye old audio standard, we decided to sit down and draw up a wish-list for all the features we want to see in a pair of headphones designed with the new iPhone in mind.

Philips Fidelio X2

Wishlist item #1: Detachable cables

Our number one requirement out of any lighting cable-equipped pair of headphones is that this cable should be detachable so that we can use a standard 3.5mm cable if required – after all, most of us don't use our headphones with a single device. We might plug them into our laptops at work, or maybe into a gaming PC at home in the evenings, and if we're stuck with a lightning connector then that's going to massively reduce their functionality.

And that's not to mention that most people end up using a pair of headphones for far longer than they own a single mobile handset. Knowing that your headphones will work with your next phone is a key consideration for most people, especially if you're dropping a fair part of your paycheck on your next set of cans.

Of course, in this increasingly-wireless world detachable cables is only one half of the equation…

P5 Wireless

Wishlist item #2: AptX-HD Bluetooth

This might be considered controversial in audiophile circles, but I've recently come around to wireless headphones.

When I first tried them a number of years ago the battery life was awful, and the sound was lifeless and dull.

Thankfully however, battery quality has improved a great deal, and modern Bluetooth standards, like AptX on Android, mean that audio quality over wireless connections is almost the same as through a cable.

So how could Apple leverage this innovation in wireless technology? The recently announced AptX HD supports up to 24-bit/48kHz files, which we think is more than enough for portable listening – an ideal fit for a high-end pair of headphones to go along with that high-end smart phone.

Not only would the move be beneficial for Apple, but the adoption of Bluetooth would also be a massive help towards keeping the headphones compatible with both operating systems, which should be helpful if you decide to make the switch over to Android in the future.

The problem with Bluetooth however is that Apple has so far not supported the new Bluetooth standards such as AptX or AptX-HD – and that might not be a stance they're willing to change with iPhone 7.

However, even if Apple does decide to jump on-board the high-resolution audio bandwagon, we'd also need a hypothetical headphone manufacturer – like, say, Beyerdynamic, Bose or Shure – to support the standard, too.

LM Cable

Wishlist item #3: Noise-cancellation

Active noise-cancellation is where we could really start to see the lightning port start to shine.

As it currently stands, noise-cancellation requires power, which the standard 3.5mm audio jack is unable to provide.

To get around this problem, most noise-cancelling headphones are forced to support a separate micro-USB jack which is used to recharge their internal batteries.

But moving towards a lightning connector means that the noise-cancelling headphones of the future won't need separate ports for audio and power; they can both be provided over a single cable.

I know it's hard to imagine now, but the next set of headphones might actually never run out of juice. You'd expect to use them in a wireless configuration most of the time, and then when they need to be charged you could simply plug them into your phone to top them off until you make your way to a power outlet.

Admit it, the prospect of a lightning adaptor-equipped pair of headphones is starting to look a lot more tempting now isn't it?

QuietComfort 35

Wishlist item #4: Death to touch controls

The last couple of points on our wishlist are more to do with usability than features, but when a pair of headphones costs as much as some small TVs, the usability becomes very important indeed.

Our first requirement for our dream drivers is for buttons – rather than touch-controls – to raise and lower volume and play, pause and skip tracks.

Sure, touch-controls can be done well, but in the majority of cases a simple trio of buttons are a heck of a lot more capable at controlling your music playback. That's because often-iffy touch-controls which can confuse an instruction to skip a track with one to raise the volume, blowing out your ears in the process.

So when it comes to our ideal pair of headphones, we want them to K.I.S.S (keep it simple, stupid) with a nice, responsive trio of buttons for volume and playback control.

PXC 550

Wishlist item #5: More usability features

We might not have been thrilled with the Sennheiser PXC 550's touch controls, but one feature we really enjoyed was the way you could wear them around your neck to turn them off.

The feature works by swiveling the earcups on your headphones to turn them off quickly and easily. It's simple, intuitive and saves battery – a win-win-win scenario.

We're big fans of a feature like this, because it encourages you to turn your headphones off as soon as you're not using them, allowing you to make the most of their battery life over the course of a day.

It's a small feature, but if Apple and Co. want to convince us that dropping the headphone jack was worth us ditching our old audio equipment it's one that we'd expect to be there on future 'phones.

QuietComfort 35

Wishlist item #6: Battery notifications

Running out of battery is never fun. It's right up there with going to the dentist and sitting in traffic. Recent advancements in Lithium-Ion technology have helped some but, considering that most noise-cancelling headphones can barely make it through a flight across the Atlantic, there's still plenty of work to be done here.

Now, hopefully with the ability to charge these headphones from your lightning port it might not be as much of an issue, but we'd still rather not be caught unawares by a dead battery.

One place that Apple and other headphone manufacturers could turn to – and the best solution for battery notifications we've experienced – is the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones.

The QC35s give you a status update on their battery levels every time you put them on. It only takes a moment, and the notification is uber helpful when strategizing the next place you can charge your cans.

The other option is to provide visual alerts on the phone when the headphone's battery is running low, but far too often these come too late to put them on a charger.

The potential in a lightning-only future

Make no mistake, the loss of the headphone jack has the potential to be very frustrating for those of us with a pre-existing favorite pair of headphones.

Although adaptors will almost certainly be available from third-party providers (and almost definitely by Apple itself to the tune of $20/£10), an adaptor is never going to feel as neat or convenient as plugging directly into your phone.

That said, if you're in the market for a new pair of headphones anyways then the prospect of a lightning-only future has a great deal of potential – from better battery notifications to high-res audio quality.

Whether we like to admit it or not, Apple holds a vast majority of the audio market in its hands, and we're hoping all the power hasn't gone to its head. But while there's a swath of naysayers out there already, there's a fair chance that Apple's schism from the headphone jack is the kick in the pants the audio industry desperately needs.

What do you want from a lightning connector-only pair of headphones? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Alternatively, if you're looking for an adaptor for your existing headphones, check out these iPhone-compatible DACs.
Jon Porter

Jon Porter is the ex-Home Technology Writer for TechRadar. He has also previously written for Practical Photoshop, Trusted Reviews, Inside Higher Ed, Al Bawaba, Gizmodo UK, Genetic Literacy Project, Via Satellite, Real Homes and Plant Services Magazine, and you can now find him writing for The Verge.