From wired to wireless - what you need to know

By Mike Atherton 07 Mar 2018
Wired to wireless

Back in the good old days, the only way to connect your headphones was to physically plug them into whatever kit you were using, and you could plug any pair of headphones into pretty much anything. These days there are a few different ways of connecting your headphones to your kit, so here we'll take a look. 

Phone manufacturers like Apple, Google, and now Sony have started to remove the headphone jack from their flagship phones, meaning you’ll either need to use Bluetooth, or a special adapter that lets you plug your headphones in. Some manufacturers have claimed that this is so they can make their phones thinner, but it also means they can offer headphones that will only work with their phones. If you buy a pair of 3rd party headphones for one of these phones though, you might not be able to use all of the headphone’s features. It's a tough call to make. 

So let’s take a look at the different types of technology that’s available for connecting your headphones, and what the pros and cons are.

3.5mm audio jack (or AUX)

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These have been around since the mid 20th century, and the reason they’ve stuck around for so long is because they just work. The 3.5mm jack is actually a minaturised version of the older quarter inch jack, which any guitarist, or 1920s switchboard operator, will be familiar with.

Almost all headphones still come with a 3.5mm connector, even the high-end Bluetooth ones usually have a cable that can be connected to the headphones. This isn’t likely to change any time soon because manufacturers know that their customers will sometimes want to plug their headphones into something. But as we start to move away from wired connections in favour of Bluetooth, it'll become less likely that manufacturers will continue to include cables with their kit.

Bluetooth

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By now, most of us have become familiar with Bluetooth technology. It’s probably the most convenient way to connect your headphones to your phone, tablet, or computer, and a lack of wires makes it great when you’re out and about or at the gym - but when it comes to headphones, not all Bluetooth is equal.

Bluetooth technology has made some huge leaps forward in the last few years, but it still has its drawbacks. Range is one of the biggest issues - it’d be great if you could leave your phone in your gym locker and finish your workout without any interruption to your music, but unless your gym is the size of a shoebox, this probably isn’t going to work.

The other main issue is sound quality because Bluetooth just isn’t able to carry as much data as a cable. That doesn’t mean the sound quality isn’t good, it is, and it’s actually quite difficult to tell the difference. But most devices currently use Bluetooth 4.0 or 4.2, which just isn’t as good as what you get with a wired connection. Which is where Bluetooth 5 comes in. This is the latest step forward in Bluetooth technology - and it’s actually more of a leap than a step. Bluetooth 5 promises to be able to transmit data at 4 times the range of 4.2, and at double the speed - so you might actually be able to connect to your Bluetooth speaker, and walk around your house with your phone without the music cutting out.

The only problem is that there aren’t many devices available that support Bluetooth 5 yet. It can already be found in a few high-end phones, so we don’t expect that it’ll be long before we start seeing it in headphones and speakers too. Don’t worry though if you’ve just bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones, your new smartphone will still connect. Bluetooth is backwards-compatible, so a Bluetooth 5 phone will work with a Bluetooth 4 speaker, you just won’t get the extra Bluetooth 5 boost.

Apple's Lightning connector

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In 2016, Apple revealed their iPhone 7, which brought a lot of controversy with it because they did the unthinkable and removed the headphone jack. You can still use Bluetooth to connect, but if you want to connect to anything using a 3.5mm audio cable, you’ll need to plug the Lightning adapter into the charging port, then plug your audio cable into the adapter. This does mean that you can’t charge the phone at the same time - unless you buy a different type of adapter (which costs £29.95).

iPhone headphones now come with a Lightning connector instead of a 3.5mm headphone jack - fine for connecting to your Apple devices, but unfortunately, they can’t be used with anything else.

USB-C

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USB-C is basically the same concept as Apple’s Lightning connector, except it’s widely available across thousands of devices, and supports all sorts of kit. If you’re using a phone that doesn’t have a headphone jack (like the Google Pixel 2), you’ll still need to plug an adapter into the USB-C charging port on the phone, then plug the 3.5mm headphone jack into the adapter. But the difference with the USB-C is that it’s specifically designed to be future-proof with almost all new smartphones and tablet manufacturers (apart from Apple) adopting the new USB design.

USB-C adapters do come with the same drawback as the Lighnling cable, in that you can't charge your phone and listen to music at the same time - but because USB-C is universal, you can pick up an adapter to fix this for lest than £10.

So it seems that all this new technology has made connecting your headphones way more complicated, at least in the short term. There’s often a tricky transition period when new technologies are introduced, so until we have a standardised way of connecting everything, we’ll just have to put up with all the connectors and adapters that we need to be able to connect our stuff.

Hopefully, that’s made the confusing world of audio cables and adapters a little clearer. If you need help with anything else, you can contact one of our Team Knowhow experts here.

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