How The AirPods Actually Work

by Seth Millstein

On Wednesday, Apple unveiled the newest iPhone, and it has one very big change that'll affect just about everyone who uses the device. Unlike previous versions, the iPhone 7 doesn't have a regular headphone jack. The familiar 3.5mm jack that's been standard for almost every music-listening device of the past thirty years is gone from the newest iPhone, replaced with the single Lightning connector input (the one normally used to charge and sync the phone). This is a monumental change, and raises a big question for consumers: How do the new Apple headphones work?

The 3.5mm headphone jack is one of the few pieces of technology that hasn't changed over three-plus decades of portable music devices, as Phil Schiller noted in his keynote address. Despite their other differences, the Walkman, Discman, MiniDisc Player, Zune, iPod and countless other precursors to the iPhone all used the same input for headphones and external audio; conveniently, this meant that listeners could use the same headphones across multiple devices over the years. Apple has put an abrupt end to that on Wednesday by eliminating the 3.5mm jack from the iPhone 7.

Instead, listeners will have several other ways to listen to music on the newest iPhone. One is Bluetooth: The new iPhone will come with a pair of earbuds that connect wirelessly to the device, and other Bluetooth-enabled headphones will work as well.

Another option is to use headphones that have a Lighting input instead of a 3.5mm jack. Headphones like this aren't very common yet, largely because there hasn't been much of a need for them. But you can expect a flood of new Lightning-enabled headphones to hit the market in coming weeks and months as manufacturers cater to owners of the new iPhone.


Lastly, Apple will include a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter with the new iPhone, so those who don't want to buy a new pair of headphones can use their old ones with only minimal extra effort.

So, is the decision to do away with 3.5mm jacks a good one? That's a controversial question, and it depends on who you ask. Schiller certainly thinks so, describing the team's decision as being full of "courage." There are some big upsides to switching over to Lightning ports. For one, 3.5mm is outdated technology with fidelity limitations; Lightning will allow for better sound quality, and because Apple is adopting it, many other manufacturers will likely follow suit. Moreover, the Lightning port is also a charging port, so noise-canceling headphones that require batteries will be able to operate without them. This is significant, as it eliminates one of the major hassles of noise-canceling headphones.

But killing the 3.5mm jack has some downsides as well. The Lightning connector is also used to charge the phone, which means you won't be able to charge an iPhone 7 while using headphones with it. Bluetooth is a good alternative, but it can suffer from connectivity problems, while Bluetooth-enabled earbuds are susceptible to being lost, thanks to how tiny they are.