BEST USB

The venerable 3.5mm audio jaông xã is in danger of being phased out. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, & the future of what USB Type-C audio is going lớn mean for điện thoại thông minh & music enthusiasts.

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For the better part of a decade, Robert has been writing about technology & trying not to lớn ignore his various unfinished gadget projects. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Sound Engineering but also considers himself a self-taught boffin in displays, processors, wireless networking, và pretty much any other hardware that's crammed inlớn smartphones.

There’s a growing trover among mỏi smartphone manufacturers to bởi away with the 3.5milimet audio jachồng that has long been the standard connector for a huge range of audio equipment over the past century. Motorola’s new Moto lớn Z doesn’t feature a 3.5milimet audio connector, neither does LeEco’s lathử nghiệm range of smartphones, & Apple has long been rumored khổng lồ vì chưng away with the socket this year too.


While some audio enthusiasts are reluctant khổng lồ see the death of a long running và highly successful standard, others are ready to lớn embrace new công nghệ và some of the benefits that are being promised along with it. So let’s take a look at the good, the bad & the future of what USB Type-C audio is going to lớn mean for smartphone & music enthusiasts.


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What’s this all about?

To start, let’s go into lớn a little bit of background about the old 3.5milimet jachồng socket and the new proposals being put forward by USB Type-C. The major difference is that the 3.5milimet connector transfers stereo analog audio out of the socket, meaning that all of the digital conversion và tai nghe driving components are housed in the smartphone.


The new USB Type-C standard is proposing a different take on this old formula, opting to lớn transmit digital audio data over the connection instead. This will then leave sầu the headphones or other connected devices lớn convert this data inlớn an analog signal and lớn drive the speakers themselves. This of course requires power, but that can also be sent over the same USB port. Interestingly, the USB Type-C socket is still capable of transferring analog audio too, but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.


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The Good

One of the benefits being touted about the move sầu over to USB Type-C “digital” audio is that it will improve sầu music chất lượng. While this may be true to lớn some small extent, it’s not necessarily going lớn be the case automatically và there’s going to be a lot of marketing nonsense to lớn navigate.


As we said, the big change with USB Type-C audio is that rather than sending analog signals over the wires to lớn the headphones, only a digital signal will be sent. The digital-to-analog converter, filtering circuits, & tai nghe amplifier will then all be housed in the headset near the headphones. Moving this circuitry slightly closer to lớn the final headphone output might help remove sầu some noise that’s picked up by long tai nghe cables và will keep important audio circuitry further away from noisy processing and radio hardware found inside phones.


Good tai nghe manufacturers may also be able khổng lồ produce superior circuit board layouts lớn those in today’s smartphones, which could produce better noise and lower cross-talk characteristics. Not only that, but headmix manufacturers will be không tính phí khổng lồ piông chồng top unique DAC and amplifier components, và custom design & tune these circuits for their speakers. This would không lấy phí consumers from being tied to lớn whatever their handset manufacturers decide to lớn include. This isn’t khổng lồ say OEMs are picking notably poor unique audio parts for their smartphones these days, so this would probably only be useful in lower cost smartphones (which likely won’t see USB Type-C tư vấn for a while yet). Cheaper headsets might opt for inferior DACs to lớn save on costs, as well. 


Of course, USB can transfer more than just digital audio. This also opens the door for advanced communication between hardware, so high-over headphones may be packed with additional hardware và software features. The volume, play, pause, & skip functions that are included in some smartphone headphones could be made more reliably compatible, & could also be augmented with shuffle, navigation, and even EQ options. Furthermore, digital processing options included in headphones could be accompanied & controlled by dedicated điện thoại thông minh apps, giving users control over the sound of their headsets from the palm of their h&.


Noise cancelling is another feature being touted as one of the big benefits of moving over lớn digital audio, as the signals can be processed inside the headphones. You can already piông xã up very good battery powered noise cancelling headphones that sport a 3.5milimet audio connector, so really, USB Type-C is only offering a more reliable power supply & perhaps a slimmer size factor for noise cancelling headphones.


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Speaking of slimmer size factors, one of the other potential benefits by removing the 3.5mm jaông xã is that this will save a small amount of space. Manufacturers could make their smartphones slightly thinner, or use this space saving to lớn include a marginally larger battery. We’re clearly not talking about a major space saving, but every millimeter helps when it comes to lớn smartphones.


Looking further into lớn the future, USB Type-C isn’t just about transferring files và audio, the specification is also looking to lớn replace HDXiaoMI as a display cable. In the future, products with USB Type-C ports could be everywhere, allowing for straight forward connections between devices for additional functionality. Home cinema setups, speaker systems, & other trang chính gadgets could all connect up to your headphones & smartphones via USB. Today’s early manufactures are just getting there ahead of the curve.

The Bad


While a universal connector for everything sounds really good on paper, the idea isn’t without some practical compromises và drawbacks. First up, the move over lớn “digital” audio doesn’t present a big boost to audio quality that you can’t already accomplish with existing hardware. I did mention that perhaps there could be some every so slight benefits to noise performance and the option khổng lồ miễn phí ourselves from smartphone DACs, but this will very much depkết thúc on the headphối manufacturer. The (highly dubious) improvements boasted by 24-bit, 96kHz or above sầu audio are already available inside some of today’s smartphones. All that’s happening is that digital-to-analogue hardware is being moved from phone to lớn tai nghe, but I’m sure we’re going to hear manufacturers big up nonsense claims about new HD và digital audio format. Please ignore it.


While we’re talking about the less than pearly white side of USB audio, it’s also worth mentioning clochồng jitter. I’ll spare you most of the technical jargon, but frame overrun & data transfer errors are an issue, albeit a small one, when using USB rather than sending data straight to lớn the DAC. Jitter isn’t usually a commonly noticeable problem, but hastily implemented USB circuits aren’t without their own issues.


A bigger downside, though, is throwing away easy compatibility not only with existing high quality 3.5mm headphones, but also with Hi-Fi and other top & and even professional grade audio gear. While eventually more and more audio manufacturers may get around to lớn including USB Type-C interfaces, in the short và medium terms there’s going lớn be a laông xã of direct cross compatibility between some phones & other pieces of audio gear.


Device A: Typical low-cost smartphone cài đặt. Device B: External USB audio devices require many more stages and components


To be fair, the USB Type-C standard is capable of transmitting analogue audio through the interface’s Sideband Unit (SBU) pins. This means that customers will be able khổng lồ use adapters to lớn connect up USB-only phones khổng lồ their existing headphones, but carrying one around is not really convenient. While smartphones may be thinner, having to lớn stick an adapter in the cable line will just make them longer.

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We should also be aware that backwards compatibility with 3.5milimet headphones is completely up lớn the handphối manufacturer at this point, even though they will need to provide a DAC và speaker amplifier inside their phone. This should be provided as part of the CODEC package that is also used khổng lồ power a phone’s speakers, but we may eventually see companies drop support lớn save on costs. Furthermore, while you may be able to use 3.5milimet headphones with your phone, what if you want to lớn use some active sầu USB Type-C headphones with your older trang chính Hi-Fi?


The other big question that has some people concerned: how vị you charge your phone while listening to music? There is a provision in the USB specification for a power loop through, which could be supported directly by headphones or third buổi tiệc nhỏ adapters. However, there’s a little bit of ambiguity in the specification about how well this will work with digital headphones that require external power & if it supports Quick Charging technologies. There isn’t an official digital audio specification for USB Type-C connectors yet either, meaning that we could see several slightly different manufacturer implementations in the near future.


There is already an example design for a 3.5mm to lớn USB Type-C adapter that supports through charging. However, it's only limited khổng lồ 500mA of current, far below today's Quiông xã Charge ratings.
There is already an example kiến thiết for a 3.5milimet to lớn USB Type-C adapter that supports through charging. However, it’s only limited lớn 500mA of current, far below today’s Quiông chồng Charge ratings.


The specification allows devices khổng lồ source power from either of the VBUS or VCONN pins, và there’s the option for developers to use the more complicated Power Delivery 2.0 specification as well. Until the digital audio specification is complete, this may cause some confusion.


“While all USB Type-C ports are required lớn source VCONN lớn active sầu cables, active cables are permitted to lớn source power from either VCONN or VBUS.” – Microchip

We’ve sầu already seen the mess that USB Type-C cable & even device manufacturers have gotten inkhổng lồ with powering the first wave sầu of USB Type-C equipped devices. This could lead to products that won’t work as intended when connected up to different devices or power supplies, as they’re running from VBUS rather than VCONN or vice versa. Here’s hoping that this won’t be a problem.


While we’re on the subject of electronics, there’s going khổng lồ be a lot more going on inside a USB Type-C headmix, all of which is going to lớn require extra power và cost more to develop and manufacture. High unique DAC và amplifier IC’s aren’t particularly expensive sầu, but these extra few dollars will add up when combined with a microprocessor lớn handle USB Type-C port-to-port communications and power management ICs. We are certainly looking at higher costs for these active headphones in the near future.


Of course, it’s not only the headphones that will be more expensive, but the USB connector & the cables too. Going from a simple 3-pin jack lớn the 24-pin behemoth that is USB Type-C will certainly increase the cost of third buổi tiệc nhỏ audio adapters, as well as making cable và headphối repairs much more difficult.


One final concern about USB Type-C headphones is that of consumer confusion and market fragmentation
One final concern about USB Type-C headphones is that of consumer confusion and market fragmentation. While USB Type-C headphones should play nicely with the Android specification, companies may also try lớn introduce their own proprietary formats & features.


Android USB Audio only supports a subset of the USB audio class 1 specification, meaning that data must be sent in adaptive or asynchronous PCM packet formats. So MP3 or FLAC decoding still has khổng lồ be done on the điện thoại thông minh. The connected USB device, such as an external DAC or tai nghe, is then responsible for sorting out this packet data inkhổng lồ a real-time stream. Even so, this isn’t going lớn stop companies from attempting khổng lồ introduce their own proprietary data formats, and there’s no mix specification for how volume or playbaông chồng controls should function over USB Type-C yet. Extra features that works on one handset might nor work on another.


For example, LeEteo announced its own CDLA (Continuous Digital Lossless Audio) format with the launch of its latest smartphones, which boasts superior sound but in reality only transfers data in a slightly different format. Press material mentions in-headphone decoding, making this quite different from regular USB transmission, & so will likely limit support of this particular feature khổng lồ LeEco’s own devices và software platforms. Apple may also bởi vì something similar if it abandons the 3.5mm jaông chồng, và the lack of an official digital specification means that the company’s headphones might not tư vấn the same audio formats as Android devices.


Moreover, not every future headset with a USB Type-C connector will necessarily even feature a built-in DAC or work using digital audio transmission. Some cheap models may simply work using the analog SBU pins, leaving audio exposed to noisy nearby power supply circuits. Confusing, I know.


The verdict

Right now, it’s unclear whether or not USB will fully be able khổng lồ replace the 3.5mm jachồng in the điện thoại thông minh market. It’s also unclear as khổng lồ whether or not this is just a phase, or if the two will remain active sầu side by side going forward. Companies like Hãng Intel are still looking lớn develop a USB Type-C audio standard khổng lồ ensure a similar feature set và compatibility across these type of headphones.


LeEteo has introduced its own proprietary CDLA công nghệ for its USB Type-C headsets and smartphones, & with Apple potentially working on its own specification, there’s a fragmentation risk that may confuse & annoy consumers. I know that it wasn’t that long ago that Samsung, Nocơ, & other early smartphone manufacturers all had their own proprietary tai nghe connectors. However, customers may not be so willing to lớn give up the recently won convenience of the 3.5milimet jack.


The alternative khổng lồ both the 3.5milimet and USB audio connections is khổng lồ make the move sầu over to wireless. Công nghệ Bluetooth headphones are reasonably priced these days và sidestep some of the compatibility issues that will likely face USB Type-C headphones. A further drive towards USB Type-C headphones might makes these products more popular. However, the lossy compression formats used lớn transmit wireless Bluetooth audio won’t appeal the pickiest audiophiles out there.


Personally, I’m not yet convinced of the need to abandon a perfectly suitable connector for very few, if any real benefits from an audio perspective sầu. I’m certainly not looking forward lớn a lot of the sale nonsense that will be thrown before consumers either. For smartphones, the prospect of slimmer devices and some new tai nghe features might be worth switching jacks for, but I’ll be waiting khổng lồ see what’s on offer once the USB digital audio specification is complete and the market has a few more players in it.


Overall, I expect that both options will sit side by side in the market for the foreseeable future, and it’s going lớn take a major handset manufacturer (Apple or Samsung) lớn abandon the 3.5milimet jaông chồng for USB Type-C audio to lớn gain any real traction in the điện thoại thông minh space. The broader audio industry will probably be even more reluctant khổng lồ make the full transition. There’s a reason that the 3.5mm jachồng has remained in use since its invention in 1910. It’s simple, & I think it’s going to lớn be a tough sell to replace it.