***Updated March 2018: There is now video evidence supporting the technical claims made in this article where average listeners did a blind test of regular headphones and Lightning powered headphones. Scroll to the bottom for the video update.
There are a lot of positives about the ditching of the analog headphone jack, first of which is just that, because it is A-N-A-L-O-G. For nostalgia analog is fun, but for daily use in our fast paced and interconnected globalized world digital is always going to be the way of the future.
People bemoaned the transition from vinyl to CD’s then again from CD’s to MP3s. Apple’s decision to go “all lightning” is very similar. Sometimes people need a little nudge in the right direction.
Still, there’s not point jumping into the future if it’s not better than what you’re leaving behind in the past. In regards to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 headphones, there are many improvements but the one concerning music lovers like ourselves the most is whether or not our new lightning connected headphones produce better sounding music than the analog versions we’re giving up.
What Can the Lightning Cable Transmit Anyways?
Yeah, let’s face it, we only used the Lightning cable in the past to charge our iPhones and iPads. We updated wirelessly and listened to music via 3.5mm jacks even though Lightning headphones have been on the market for some time now.
In a way then, the cable we’ve been using so frequently over the last couple years is still kind of a mystery to us. What is this little white thing capable of?
The Lightning cable was introduced almost exactly four years ago on September 12th, 2012. Time flies doesn’t it! The smaller 8-pin design was created to replace the old and error prone 30-pin connector of previous generation iPhones/iPods/iPads. Not only was the new cable smaller but it was also more flexible as it can be inserted face up or down without issue.
The cable carries both charge and digital signal, making it kind of like a double-decker highway. It can transfer electricity to charge while simultaneously transmitting digital signal; data that is usually transmitted via a multitude of different connectors like USB, HDMI, VGA, and mini SD cards. The Lightning cable also contains an authentication chip inside to prevent piracy and to control quality.
So How Is The Audio Quality?
Well besides the fact that A. Lightning cables are universal amongst Apple devices making them super flexible and B. they are about half the thickness of 3.5mm jacks allowing for thinner devices, the actual AUDIO quality for Lightning connected headphones/earbuds is superior to what you usually get with standard 3.5mm jacks. Why?
Analog vs Digital Signal
Standard headphones using a 3.5mm jack run a standard analog signal. This means devices have to turn the digital files like MP3’s into analog internally, this is done with a digital-to-analog converter. Most companies use really cheap ones since most people aren’t audiophiles. This equates to lackluster audio quality in many smartphones, laptops and MP3 players.
The Lightning port however is 100% digital, meaning audio is sent to the headphones in pure digital form. This is referred to as “lossless 48kHz digital output”. For people who don’t care about audio quality they can use super cheap earphones and not care about the super cheap digital-to-analog converter in the earphones themselves.
However, if you spend more than $100 for example, the more premium headphones will contain a high end digital-to-analog converter built in, delivering superior quality audio.
Built in Amplifiers
Like we’ve seen with the high-end over-ear headphones from Audeze and their EL-8 Titanium and Sine models, companies will be including amplifiers and high-end digital-to-analog converters built into the cables and headphones themselves, resulting in a sublime listening experience that would require a bulky and cumbersome external amplifier if you were to use the old-fashioned 3.5mm jack setup.
Built in amplifiers ultimately equate to more options for more types of people. Low end earphones will have cheaper low end amplifiers and converters and super expensive headsets will have super premium amplifiers and converters.
An analogy would be cars. Imagine if every car had the same V-6 engine…from Toyota Camry’s to the latest Ferrari sports cars. You would look different and there would be subtle differences like interior quality, handling etc, but overall not much of a PERFORMANCE difference.
Putting the amplifiers and converters in each unit results in much more variety.. it allows you to downsize to a more economical four cylinder engine in your daily commuter Toyota but allow you to put a beast of a V12 engine in your Ferrari. Everything will vary depending on your taste and budget, and this type of variety is something everyone can get excited about.
For example, we typed this article from a desktop computer, a Apple Mini to be precise. Sure, the Mac Mini has 3.5 audio output, but it doesn’t have any HiFi components, so music coming out of the little computer is less than impressive. However, when paired with an self-amplified HiFi desktop speakers, like the Optima NuForce S1 for example, the sound becomes amazing, allowing us to type happily for hours.
Sometimes your components need a little help to reach their full potential. Like the S1 speakers augment our desktop experience, lightning-powered headphones augment the mobile listening experience and bring the analog into the digital world of HiFi.
Besides allowing for manufacturers to develop their own in-unit amplified headsets, the adoption of the Lightning connector for audio also means that you can get more powerful and louder sound than ever before. Using your phone battery a Lightning powered device get’s extra juice that just isn’t available via a 3.5mm cable connected unit.
Additionally, because the Lightning can transmit data you can use all sorts of fine-tuning equalizer apps to match your headset to help you fine tune your listening experience. Before this could only be done via Bluethooth but now you’ll have the option of turning of your Bluetooth but retaining the customization all because of the new Lightning cable.
Active Noise Cancelling Without Batteries
As mentioned above Lightning represents not just quick data transfer but also POWER! Power runs amplifiers, power creates louder sound and power can also run active noise cancellation! If you’ve ever tried a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort headphones then you know how amazing active noise cancellation is. If you haven’t, well, you have to try.
Essentially what it does is use a microphone to listen to noises around you then use the headphones speakers to produce a opposite sound to balance out the external sound. The result is almost eery how quiet things can be.
Previously this magic act could only be performed with a headset with an internal lithium ion battery that had to be charged every 8 hours or so via a micro USB cable OR you would have to insert old-fashioned AAA batteries into the ear cups to power the noise cancelling. Some units had you put the batteries in a little box attached to the 3.5mm cable.
Either way, who the heck wants to carry around AAA batteries, let alone buy them for life to power your high end headphones?
Well, anything that is Lightning connected will be able to draw power from the phone itself. This means no more recharging your headset separately and no more buying packs of AAA batteries.
Also, because you don’t need these secondary batteries that means smaller and lighter noise cancelling headsets. Now even tiny units like earbuds can have active noise cancelling built in because they don’t have to worry about the bulk of a rechargeable battery.
Active noise cancelling is an amazing technology and the ability to have it on virtually all headsets of all shapes and sizes is nothing short of revolutionary.
So Is Lightning Better than Regular 3.5mm Jack Audio?
So we’ve explained all the technical and practical benefits that come with new tech like Lightning, but at the end of the day, it’s all mumbo jumbo if regular people with flesh and blood ears can’t hear a difference. After all, who would spend money, and we’re talking hundreds of dollars in some cases, on a new tech that is indistinguishable from old tech?
Well, thankfully Andru Edwards is here to save the day. He sat down with three separate women and played the exact same song, at the exact same volume, first on a pair of regular 3.5mm connected headphones, then on a pair of Audeze Sines, which have a Lightning cable with built in DAC and Amplifier. He then asked them which the preferred. The results, at least for us, were to be expected. But for the lay person, it may be more of a shock.
Check out the whole review below:
Do you own Lightning headphones? If so, let us know how they stack up against your old cans in the comments below!