Not long ago the biggest debate shaping the future of audio technology, like that of consumer headphones, was the old “cable or wireless” debate.
Bluetooth technology has been dominating industry forecast, product development and advertising in the headphone market for years. Well, today Bluetooth has firmly established itself as a audio solution for active individuals, as being cord-free is perfectly suited for athletes or travelers on the move.
Meanwhile, cords have stayed and continued to dominate market share because of they’re reliability and power-saving advantages compared to rechargeable Bluetooth tech. Now however, there is a truly disruptive technology beginning to trend, one which will create a third segment in this ever evolving market space. The vertical is “interchangeable ports”.
What Are Interchangeable Ports?
Interchangeable ports are simply ports, or connector types, that can use multiple connectors and cables. Traditionally, smartphones, MP3 players and laptops have featured 3.5mm mini stereo jack ports. These port types only fit a male-end 3.5mm plug type. Now however, with the industry adopting Lightning ports and cables and USB-C ports, the 3.5mm connector type is being marginalized. Headphones are now coming out fully ready to connect to Lightning connectors directly from the manufacturer.
Lightning and USB-C ports are considered “interchangeable” as they can run out to many other connector types. There are Lightning-to-USB cables, Lighting-to-3.5mm cables, Lighting-to-Firewire cables, on and on. Likewise USB-C can morph into many other connector types as well.
This means the variety of connector types and ports, particularly universal types (Lightning and USB-C) are becoming the new “norm” for headphone tech. Publishers like CNET have even predicted that new connectors like USB-C will completely kill off the 3.5mm jack in the future.
It’s not just the end connector that’s getting “mixed up” recently. Now the headphone units themselves, i.e the “cans” or driver units, are integrating removable cables. Companies like Shure have done this with their IEM’s for years. They have a massive collection of interchangeable cables for their units.
Some makers like Sony have been integrating cords that detach at the cans/drivers themselves simply out of convenience.. making travel and packing easier, and if the cables just plug in, safer because if you walk away from your power supply or yank on the cord unexpectedly, it can simply unplug itself from the headphone driver unit without damaging the cable. This concept is very similar to Mag-safe connector types for popular Apple laptops.
The Future of Audio Cables
With a mix of 3.5mm, USB-C and Lightning connector types, consumers won’t be expected to own 3 separate headphones for use in each situation. Instead it is likely the market will continue to evolve as manufacturers embrace the flexibility that universal/interchangable ports and cables offer.
One maker who is already capitalizing on the ability to swap cables to connect to any type of audio device or port, is Sony. With their MDR1-ADAC they’ve created a sleek headphone with both USB and 3.5mm connectivity features as well as built-in USB ports for powering an integrated DAC and amplifier.
With more and more consumers adopting devices that don’t support old 3.5mm cable technology, we will only see a proliferation of both Bluetooth wireless models as well as universal connector type headphones like the Sony featured above.
The Wireless Vs. Wired Debate
No matter what direction the market takes, it will surely be a win-win outcome for the consumer, as variety always benefits the end user and pushes manufacturers to develop new and innovative technology.
Some add all of this up to conclude the the future belongs to Bluetooth. However, Bluetooth still has two massive obstacles to overcome should it want to become “mainstream”. First is the audio quality, as it is notoriously poor compared to wired headphones. Secondly, battery technology has not evolved in the past 10 years, and lithium ion batteries simply don’t currently last long enough to make Bluetooth a consistently reliable alternative.
Stay tuned for more updates from Fastupwards as we continue to explore this advancement in audio technology and all the interesting twists and turns along the way!