Audio: The Lightning Era Begins

There are three aspects to consider with smartphone audio: earpiece (and mic) quality for phone calls, external speaker quality, and headphone audio. The last item on that list is the most controversial aspect of this new iPhone design, and I’ll cover it first.

The omission of a standard headphone jack has been met with scorn from Apple fans and detractors alike. I think it’s easy to miss the fact that Apple includes an adapter to allow the use of all the headphones you could use before, but the fact that it isn’t built into the body of the phone has rankled many. I can see both sides, and I have my own impressions as a heavy headphone user with all of my smartphones.

In truth, Apple has always done things like this; eliminating standards in favor of new solutions.. Consider the original Macintosh, which (way back in 1984) was equipped with a then-new 3.5-inch floppy drive, instead of the standard 5.25-inch drive. In 1998 the first iMac omitted the 3.5-inch floppy drive in favor of CD-ROM (and dropped serial ports in favor of USB). And who can forget the MacBook Air launch, which made waves for offering no external drive at all, in the time before Ultrabooks made this standard for thin-and-light laptops?

A pair of Lightning-connected EarPods is in the box

Change isn't always for the better, but it is important to be objective about this headphone jack topic. Remember, there is a 3.5 mm adapter in every box, which means the iPhone does in fact support all current headphones. Needing an adapter is an annoyance if you never needed it before, of course. I don’t like instinctively reaching to plug in a favorite pair of headphones, only to remember I need to find that adapter. The need for an adapter is a weird thing in a world where Lightning headphones are obviously not the norm. Still, if you are a user that doesn’t go any further than the included earbuds, the included Lightning-connected EarPods makes this issue moot.

My final thoughts on the missing jack concern what I envision as the near-future of iPhone accessories. Do you suppose that opportunistic manufacturers from all corners of the globe won’t be working overtime to come out with special Lightning-connected versions of everything from $19 earbuds to $1500 ‘audiophile’ headphones? Of course they will! There are eventually going to be millions of these 3.5mm jack-less iPhones out there, and it’s too lucrative a market not to exploit. Still, if you’re adopting the new iPhone 7 at launch, your options are very limited (unless you remember your adapter).

3.5 mm compatible – if you remember this

Bluetooth is an option, of course, and there are many people who already preferred wireless headphones and earbuds before the iPhone 7 launch (our esteemed EiC is among them). If you have a favorite pair of Bluetooth headphones you have nothing to worry about anyway. I don't have a pair of Apple's new "AirPods" to test, and I don't care for wireless headphones anyway (audio purist, here – sorry).

External Speakers

New for 2016 is the addition of a second speaker for the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The earpeice now doubles as a speaker, giving you real stereo sound in conjunction with the speaker on the bottom edge of the phone. I’ve used phones from Motorola (Nexus 6, Moto G) with stereo sound from a second, earpiece speaker – and it works well. You might notice that the earpiece opening is wider with the new phones, and this speaker double-duty is the reason.

Don’t expect to hear a deep, dynamic sound from the built-in speakers; but it’s very clear and gets loud enough to share videos and make Facetime/speakerphone calls without issue.

Call Quality

Hardly deserving of a footnote, phone calls are obviously a vital part of the experience. Call quality is typically excellent with iPhones, and the 7 provides the same experience I had previously with the iPhone 6s (and 6, and 5s, etc.). The earpiece speaker, which now doubles as one half of the stereo speaker output as mentioned above, provided clear sound. Using T-Mobile's "HD Voice" (which is simply Voice over LTE, or VoLTE) during my testing I found call quality to be outstanding – though subjectively just a bit lower than with my Nexus 6 on the same network (audio from the Nexus 6's earpiece speaker was particularly bright and clear – up there with the Huawei Mate 8 for the best I've heard).

Microphones are also seemingly unchanged from last year, with Apple's active noise cancellation doing an excellent job of reducing ambient noise. Calls from a car, for example, require careful listening to discern road noise, and Apple has also been using noise cancellation for the earpiece speaker for a few years now, which does help reduce ambient noise from incoming calls.

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