Why USB Audio Isn’t Music to Consumer Ears
When LeEco launched its first phones to drop the 3.5mm jack, I was a little skeptical and wrote about how it’s not acceptable for phones to drop the 3.5mm jack, and even after using the USB headphones, I still stand by my words, because anything that limits consumer choice is no good.
The biggest advantage that USB offers over 3.5mm is the increased power that can go to headphones. Ordinary 3.5mm jacks can only take enough power to power the headset, but using USB Type-C as an input means that enough power can also be sent for other purposes, such as than the power supply of a DAC (digital-to-analog converter, which transforms the 0s and 1s that your phone processes, into a signal that you can hear in your headphones). The increased power also enables active noise cancellation without the need for external batteries, as is the case with the JBL Reflect Aware C.
The helmet industry seems to be aware and ready for any change. We spoke to Andreas Sennheiser, CEO of headphone manufacturer Sennheiser, who said: “There is a definite shift in trends, and the 3.5mm jack will likely give way to different forms of audio transmission in the years to come. come, especially USB Type-C, Lightning and Bluetooth. Whatever the case, Sennheiser is ready, and integrating the necessary hardware into our line of headphones won’t be difficult at all.
Andreas Sennheiser, CEO of Sennheiser
While LeEco’s decision to drop the connector is certainly a bold one, it’s unlikely to have much influence on the industry. But one company that is being closely watched and potentially influencing usage patterns is Apple, which is expected to drop the 3.5mm jack with the upcoming iPhone 7.
I recently had the opportunity to try out a pair of USB Type-C headphones, the LeEco CDLA Type-C headphones. These are currently bundled with the Chinese company’s Le 2 (Review) and are touted as the future of personal audio. It’s worth pointing out that the phone also comes with an adapter to plug into the USB Type-C port that lets you use 3.5mm headphones if you want.
During my testing, I found that while the CDLA (Continuous Digital Lossless Audio) in-ear headphones sound great on the LeEco Le 2, the sound is nothing out of the ordinary on other Type-C phones such as than the OnePlus 3 (Review). It turns out that these headphones are tuned to improve detail on the Le 2 and Le Max 2, but offer nothing great when used with other devices.
However, from a sound perspective, there really isn’t much improvement to offer, as much of the work is done by the DAC on your source device. Provided your device has a good DAC, you don’t lose much by continuing to use regular 3.5mm headphones. And the current lack of options when it comes to Type-C headphones and Lightning Connector means you’re still going to be dependent on good 3.5mm headphones for some time to come.
Proponents of switching to USB audio also claim that the Type-C port allows larger amounts of data to be transferred, allowing you to get the most out of high-resolution audio formats that contain more data in files. This brings me back to the argument that on a mobile device and with basic headphones, you’re unlikely to notice the small difference in quality offered by Hi-Res Audio. Due to limited storage on mobile phones, mp3 remains the most popular audio file format. And provided you’re using high-bitrate mp3s, you’re unlikely to find any fault in sound quality, and a 3.5mm headset is more than enough.
(Also see: Hey audiophiles, listen to the music for a change!)
We asked Andreas Sennheiser what he uses to listen to. He said: “When it comes to headphones, I’m the head tester for the company and most new products are tested by me before they’re released, so I always have something new with me. As far as source equipment goes, I use CDs at home, but when I’m on the go I use my iPhone with 256kbps mp3s.” If the CEO of one of the world’s biggest headphone manufacturers is okay with mp3, why not you?
So while USB and Lightning audio may be the future, they’re not quite ready to replace existing standards yet and offer no tangible benefits yet. But the potential is limitless, and the use of Type-C will likely open up a whole new set of possibilities for the audio industry.