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Opinion: Apple's missed audio opportunity

By Julio Franco
Sep 13, 2016
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  1. Apple has a long, rich history in the fields of music and audio and its complex and highly influential relationship with those fields was on display once again at the company’s recent iPhone 7 launch event.

    The biggest audio-related news of the event was, of course, the removal of the traditional 3.5 mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. The impact of that one decision will be rippling through the audio industry for years to come. Why? Because of the level of influence Apple and the iPhone have, both with other smartphone makers and with audio accessory and component makers.

    The problem is the implications of the move on audio quality are not likely to be good for most people. For all of its convenience, wireless audio connections are generally lower quality than wired connections because of the need to compress the file over the available wireless bandwidth. Given most people are starting with highly compressed MP3 or AAC-encoded music files to begin with, that essentially means you’re degrading an already degraded signal. Not good.

    Now, admittedly, there is debate on how much of a difference many people can hear across different levels of audio encoding algorithms as well as wireless transmission compression methods, but common sense tells you mixing the two together can’t be good. (And to be clear, yes, I think most everyone would be able to hear the difference between a wired connection of an uncompressed file and a wireless connection of a compressed file.)

    Plus, you don’t see anyone saying, “Oh well, HD video is good enough because that’s the maximum resolution of the iPhone’s screen, so why bother with 4K video? Why should audio be treated differently?” The ability to deliver the highest possible raw media quality—regardless of the device upon which it is played back—should be the goal of any media playback device, but particularly one that’s so incredibly influential.

    Of course, some of this harkens back to Apple’s largest impact on music: the creation of the iPod/iTunes combination that completely rewrote the rules on music distribution. The iPod created an amazing level of convenience, flexibility and portability for music that is hard to imagine not having on all our devices today.

    However, the iPod also sacrificed audio quality for convenience and the implications of its focus on highly compressed music extend to today. The big problem in the early days of digital music was sound files were very large and took up too much storage capacity in uncompressed, CD-quality form. Audio encoding techniques like MP3 and AAC offered 10x reductions in file size, while leveraging a variety of psychoacoustic techniques to keep the music still sounding reasonably good. It was just too tempting a tradeoff to pass up.

    Today, however, storage costs are significantly lower and network bandwidth speeds are significantly higher, so there’s no longer a really viable technical reason to stick with compressed audio. Yet, compressed audio still dominates the landscape, primarily because of Apple’s initial and ongoing influence.

    With the company’s efforts and investments in growing their Apple Music service—which they mentioned has now reached 17 million subscribers at the beginning of the iPhone 7 launch event—there is a clear opportunity to once again set a new standard for audio file formats. By choosing to offer uncompressed CD-quality (16-bit, 44 kHz) digital audio files—or even better, high-resolution 24-bit, 96 or 192 kHz—as standard, they could single-handedly and dramatically improve the state of digital audio quality around the world. Now, that would take courage.

    Of course, there’s also the possibility that the rumors of Apple purchasing Tidal—a music streaming service that offers uncompressed and high-res audio streaming—could come to pass and Apple would “inherit” the capability.

    Image credit: Mashable

    In addition to improving the quality of the audio files, Apple could have used the announcement of the headphone jack removal to highlight the second part of the audio quality equation—the quality of the connection to headphones and speakers.

    Though few know it, Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector supports the ability to transmit uncompressed and even high-resolution audio in digital format to external devices. Essentially, it provides raw access to the files before they’re converted from digital into audible analog format. In addition, Lightning can provide power for enabling features like noise cancellation without a battery in connected headphones, and access to additional controls, such as triggering Siri. Frankly, it’s a powerful though underutilized interface. Part of the problem is using Lightning requires paying a royalty to Apple, whereas using the 3.5mm audio jack never did.

    For a company that talks a lot about how much they love music, Apple sure doesn’t seem to care that much about audio quality, and that’s frustrating.

    When Apple removes the headphone jack, they will also, by default, remove the audio DAC (digital-to-analog convertor) from the iPhone because it’s no longer necessary. Instead, with Lightning-based headphones, that digital-to-analog conversion needs to be done by headphones or other speakers directly connected to the Lightning jack.

    While that does add costs to these devices, the good news is this allows peripheral companies like Sony, Philips, JBL, Audeze and others to build headphones that leverage high-quality DACs and produce really great sound—depending, of course, on the original resolution of the file being converted—hence my earlier comments. Though details remain unclear, the new Apple Lightning-based earbuds included with the iPhone 7s have none of these extended features and likely use the same more generic-quality DAC that Apple used to include in the iPhone.

    What’s odd, and perhaps telling, about Apple’s commitment to higher-quality audio is they now own one of the best-selling headphone makers in the world in Beats and yet, they don’t currently offer a single set of Beats headphones with a Lightning connector and external DAC. Even if Apple wanted to somehow keep the removal of the headphone jack a secret from Beats staffers, there’s no reason they couldn’t have encouraged the development of a set of high-quality, Lightning-based Beats headphones. Yet none exist, nor did Apple even announce one.

    Instead, they focused their efforts on announcing wireless Beats headphones based on Bluetooth and some proprietary extensions enabled by their new W1 chip. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with that, the new Solo3 and other Beats headphones seem once again to be focused on convenience over audio quality. In theory, later versions of Bluetooth could support wireless transmission of uncompressed audio, which takes 1.41 Mbits per second, but most Bluetooth audio leverages 128K-256 kbits per second compressed audio. Apple also chose not to support Qualcomm’s AptX technology (originally developed by Bluetooth silicon maker CSR that Qualcomm acquired), which offers support for high-quality audio streamed over Bluetooth.

    The new Apple AirPods offer similar capabilities, limitations, and likely, audio quality (though much shorter battery life). Again, the focus is on convenience over quality. If Apple had developed some new higher-quality, lossless methods of transmitting audio to these W1-equipped devices, they clearly would have touted it, yet they didn’t. Instead, much of the focus and concerns around the AirPods were on the possibility of losing them. For the record, I believe this is a big issue but not as much of one when you’re wearing them as when you’re not. Just ask anyone who’s ever misplaced a Bluetooth headset. It happens all the time.

    Given how much time Apple spent justifying the removal of the headphone jack at their event, they’re clearly cognizant of what a momentous impact their decision represented and how poorly some might perceive the move. Yet, instead of turning that negative into a positive—as they clearly could have done—they added insult to injury by calling the development courageous. Frankly, it was a missed opportunity of potentially enormous proportions.

    The bottom line is, for a company that talks a lot about how much they love music, Apple sure doesn’t seem to care that much about audio quality, and that’s frustrating.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

    Permalink to story.

     
  2. Puiu

    Puiu TS Evangelist Posts: 1,902   +528

    "The ability to deliver the highest possible raw media quality—regardless of the device upon which it is played back—should be the goal of any media playback device, but particularly one that’s so incredibly influential."
    Well said!
     
    Raoul Duke likes this.
  3. Kibaruk

    Kibaruk TechSpot Paladin Posts: 2,508   +499

    Have to admit I didn't finish reading this opinion... couldn't.

    Most people can't hear the difference because compression and bandwidth over bluetooth has come a long way, also the way that phones can be tuned up to your hearing and earplugs/headphones and so on. Also you are not taking into consideration music streaming and the already traded in quality per data on MOST of users with services like google play, amazon prime's, spotify and apple music or however it's called.

    My opinion to yours, is that you are preaching to the wrong crowd and staying on unbelievable old standards that are no long applying to the average user and technologies.

    I can't keep this from comming up (and as a disclaimer, I have no shares on soundpeats lol) but it's been more hard to get good headsets for my computer usage than earplugs or headphones for my phone/audio device, and after doing so I bought the soundpeats for something particular, and I can't for the life of me feel any difference after tuning it up with Audio Adapt to my old sony wired headset.
     
  4. Panda218

    Panda218 TS Maniac Posts: 288   +105

    I hate that everyone knows about "Beats by dre" but no one knows Audio-Technica or Sennheiser...
     
    Phr3d, Raoul Duke, LenovoX and 4 others like this.
  5. RustyTech

    RustyTech TS Guru Posts: 865   +434

    wait wait..I know both! what is beats by dre?? :p
     
    CortyDK, Phr3d, Darth Shiv and 5 others like this.
  6. wiyosaya

    wiyosaya TS Evangelist Posts: 1,038   +269

    The only thing that crApple likes about music is how much money they are making from it. Most people that are "serious" about listening to music will buy a portable DAC and not an iCrappyMusicDevice. I did. Fiio makes some pretty nice ones that start at about $100 - the X1 which offers playback of many hi-res audio formats. The X3 (and no, I do not work for Fiio) adds DSD playback. Both of these support at least 128 GB micro sdxc cards.

    I do agree that many people cannot tell the difference. Some can, and those that can, will almost certainly know that crApple != high quality music.

    crApple probably only bought Beats because they were selling. From what I have heard, they are not that good.

    Unfortunately, my impression about the removal of the 1/8" headphone jack is that it is totally about reducing product cost and pushing that cost onto other manufacturers. Perhaps crApple has become aware that not many iWhatevers are being used to play back music purchased through iToones, and thus thought it was not worth the money.

    crApple has always charged royalties for using their hardware interfaces. IMHO, that right there says what crApple is all about.
     
    Nathan Sokalski likes this.
  7. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 1,323   +710

    That was quite a bit of dancing around the fact that removing that 3.5mm jack has only one goal: to once again make you buy new peripherals that rely on proprietary standards. Apple will get a percentage from every piece of hardware that employs their tech. Its all about maintaining profit levels in a mature, saturated market. This is especially true of Apple since they have virtually stopped innovating.
     
    CortyDK, Godel, Raoul Duke and 4 others like this.
  8. VitalyT

    VitalyT Russ-Puss Posts: 3,149   +1,424

    Apple just killed a huge market for themselves, consisting of people who share the following sentiment...

    ---------

    I would by the new iPhone 7, because the quality of both hardware and software remains higher than that on Android, but I wouldn't do it to support Apple, because I don't really care about them.

    In the past I could buy an iPhone, use their regular headphones, and nobody could tell whether I got the latest iPhone or still rocking an iPhone 4, or even a different brand altogether.

    But now If I buy it, the new headphones are like an advertisement, being instantly recognizable - here walks a stupid Apple fan, and I'm not cool with that. I'd rather go for an Android than let everybody see that I got the latest iPhone, screw that!

    ---------

    I believe a lot of people share this type of reasoning :)
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2016
  9. m4a4

    m4a4 TS Guru Posts: 752   +272

    They stopped "loving" music ages ago when they started to only care about profits. I don't remember the last thing they did to show love to music (before the iPod touch came out, because a fullscreen touchscreen on a music device was a step back).
     
  10. Levi Sterling

    Levi Sterling TS Enthusiast Posts: 67   +21

    Have you seen the newest accessory for the ear pods? It's a ****ing wire to hold it onto your head.
     
  11. Evernessince

    Evernessince TS Evangelist Posts: 1,177   +578

    "When Apple removes the headphone jack, they will also, by default, remove the audio DAC (digital-to-analog convertor) from the iPhone because it’s no longer necessary. Instead, with Lightning-based headphones, that digital-to-analog conversion needs to be done by headphones or other speakers directly connected to the Lightning jack.
    While that does add costs to these devices, the good news is this allows peripheral companies like Sony, Philips, JBL, Audeze and others to build headphones that leverage high-quality DACs and produce really great sound—depending, of course, on the original resolution of the file being converted—hence my earlier comments. Though details remain unclear, the new Apple Lightning-based earbuds included with the iPhone 7s have none of these extended features and likely use the same more generic-quality DAC that Apple used to include in the iPhone."

    DACs integrated into the headphones are always going to be limited by weight, size, and cost. Now budget headphones are required to add yet another piece of equipment. They are going to have to increase the prices of their bottom end designs to keep their slim margin and you can be sure that it is going to be a very poor quality DAC. On the high-end of the spectrum, there is no point to integrate a DAC. Headphones 200+ are targeted at people who have high quality external DACs, some of which like tube amps will never fit into a headphone. Don't see any segment of the market benefiting from this.

    Your opinion is based on the cynicism that people don't care / notice degradations in their audio quality. You are probably right for the majority of Apple users but I'm also sure that a significant chunk can and does notice. Those people leave the Apple ecosystem and they attract the swing buyers, people who decide what they buy based on the decision of others. These people see the problems with Apple devices and the lack of the 3.5mm jack and they go and buy an droid. This is an exponential effect.

    Also, care to explain what "tuning" means? Do you mean equalizing?
     
  12. Bigtruckseries

    Bigtruckseries TS Maniac Posts: 406   +217

    #1 I will not miss the 3.5mm jack.

    a) the adapter adds length to my PS VITA HEADPHONES which I actually would need since the cable is short

    b) I prefer Bluetooth Headphones (LG TONE PRO).

    And before some ***** tells me about quality loss or some nonsense...I LOVE THEM and they are perfect during workouts.

    Most Nurses and staff agree - they have no idea what quality decline there is and that's why the LG models SELL SO WELL.

    #2 AIR PODS WILL SELL. Maybe not in extremely high numbers, but AIR PODS are going to be an EXCLUSIVE FASHION ACCESSORY.

    NO ONE is going to add clip-on cables to them.

    they will wear them in public because they want you to know exactly how much they spent. Kinda like a COACH bag.

    We are talking about people who spent $300+ on Beats Headphones.

    They don't know JACK about audio quality. It's a fashion game.

    Don't overthink these people. They aren't "audio enthusiasts".

    They buy apple cause it's exclusive and luxurious. Not so they can debug some goddamned kernel or watch their hand set on fire by an exploding Note 7 battery.
     
  13. Evernessince

    Evernessince TS Evangelist Posts: 1,177   +578

    Of course, it's kinda of hard to notice a quality difference between headphones when you are working in a noisy environment like a gym or a hospital. Not to mention, the music is only background noise, not your focus. It's like saying you don't notice the difference between meatloaf and hamburgers with a stuffy nose.

    The problem with the air pods is that they aren't even very fashionable. I've seen very few positive comments on the way they look. There have always been street headphones and they command a larger price due to their size and features. $150 earbuds is a very tough sell, especially considering earbuds and not meant to be very visible.
     
  14. Bigtruckseries

    Bigtruckseries TS Maniac Posts: 406   +217

    [QUOTE="

    The problem with the air pods is that they aren't even very fashionable. [/QUOTE]

    JUST WATCH

    Sales figures don't lie.

    Between release and February
     
  15. Evernessince

    Evernessince TS Evangelist Posts: 1,177   +578

    Dead on

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war#2010s

    Dynamic range is poor on much of today's music. Few people actually listen to it, relegating it to mere background noise as evidenced in part by the previous commentor.

    Even if one could discern the difference in audio quality most would be hard pressed to have music able to coax that potential out.
     
    Spike666 likes this.
  16. enemys

    enemys TS Booster Posts: 47   +22

    No jack means no DAC inside the phone? So where does the analog signal in phone's speakers come from? There has to be a kind of converter, even if it's only build into the speaker itself. Though I agree that that makes high quality DACs in mobiles redundant. Phone's speakers are just to small and simple to utilize one properly and without a jack there will be no other analog output available.

    I personally use BT headphones, because they are used only for listening on the go, where higher quality is often hard to notice (at least for me), but hey, lack of jack is still uncool. What if I wanted to connect my phone to a set of speakers? Or an amplifier? That's not so rare, especially during parties.
     
    Darth Shiv likes this.
  17. Bigtruckseries

    Bigtruckseries TS Maniac Posts: 406   +217


    Trust Apple. They'll figure it out.

    It must work after all. they already demonstrated it.
     
  18. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,693   +1,880

    It won't be quite as easy now that they don't have Steve Jobs to hypnotize their crowds.
     
    SirChocula likes this.
  19. Kenrick

    Kenrick TS Booster Posts: 187   +88

    I will wait until a knowledgeable person will dissect the new airpods and the W1 chip.

    Who in the right mind to get a cellphone for high fidelity sound reproduction.
     
  20. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,693   +1,880

    First of all, manufacturers are completely shameless about whatever piece of crap they're willing to write "high fidelity" on, both product and packaging.

    In the second place, if you don't know what, "high fidelity's" criterion are, how can you say something isn't hi-fi? You need a point of reference.
     
  21. Kenrick

    Kenrick TS Booster Posts: 187   +88

    The author is complaining about highly compressed MP3 or AAC-encoded music.
     
  22. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,693   +1,880

    And depending on who's telling the story, those are allegedly, or perceived as being, "high fidelity". To somebodt else, only 24 bit FLAC might be acceptable as such.

    Beauty is, after all, in the ear of the beholder.

    Which brings us to the fact, (IIRC), Amazon has changed all, (or all it could ?), Mp.3 downloads to 256kbs. Not great obviously, but double what they were.
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2016
  23. winjay

    winjay TS Rookie Posts: 16

    Most of the problems mentioned by the author will be solved once Bluetooth 5 hits next year.

    Then this whole page rant will seem irrelevant.
     
  24. captaincranky

    captaincranky TechSpot Addict Posts: 11,693   +1,880

    Then why bother to respond to it now?

    Music is at its best delivered through the air by enormous loudspeakers with horn coupled mid-ranges and tweeters. The only thing all of this rinky dink garbage you have to listen with a phone and tiny earbuds is proves is, that that planet is too crowded with humans, and you have to cower in a four square foot space, to pretend you're enjoying yourself.
     
  25. Badvok

    Badvok TS Booster Posts: 121   +50

    "... Apple’s commitment to higher-quality audio is they now own one of the best-selling headphone makers in the world in Beats ..."

    LOL, someone actually put "higher-quality audio" and "Beats" in the same sentence.
     
    Phr3d, LenovoX, enemys and 3 others like this.

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