Samsung May Retaliate With Its Own Proprietary Headphone Jack, Sources Say

Samsung Exploring Its Own Proprietary Headphone Jack
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In response to the iPhone 7’s proprietary Lightning jack, Samsung — with early support from Android — has been ‘exploring’ development on its own proprietary headphone port.

Update 1: Samsung has declined to comment to DMN; more information concerning USB-C now included.

Samsung is now ‘actively and aggressively’ exploring the possibility of releasing a proprietary headphone jack of its own, one that would be largely incompatible with newer iPhone devices, according to details shared confidentially with Digital Music News.  Taking matters a step further, Samsung — alongside manufacturers developing Android products — could block Apple from licensing their proprietary jack, similar to the stance that Apple has adopted towards the Android community and other competitors.

The resulting ‘jack warfare’ would severely impact the future of headphones and earphones, with the standard 3.5mm jack potentially pushed out by a collection of competing, often-incompatible jacks and ports.

News of Samsung’s strategic planning was supplied to Digital Music News this week from a pair of sources operating out of South Korea, both of whom are involved in the broader supply chain of Samsung’s smartphones.  Both requested total confidentiality and limited identifying information, fearing sharp reprisals from Samsung, whose power within the South Korea technology and broader community is considerable and widely feared.

The sources also declined to offer details on the actual proprietary ports and jacks under consideration, noting that it could be traced back to a smaller subset of participants.  Already, it appears that the Android community of developers, including Samsung, may be rallying around the USB-C jack, which is already present on Motorola’s Moto Z and Moto Z Force devices, not to mention Chinese devices like LeEco.  Those devices do not have a 3.5mm jack, and are far thinner (with greater battery power) as a result.

Either way, Samsung’s proprietary jack would be designed with all Android manufacturers in mind, with easy and cost-free (or extremely low-cost) licensing to encourage adoption.  That could be complemented by a broader Android OS, though sources had little knowledge on the software integration.  Currently, Android operates on the ‘Marshmallow’ release, put into operation roughy one year ago.

‘Death strike’ against Apple’s iPhone.

Strategically, Samsung’s move is being considered a potential ‘death strike’ against Apple, with the entire ecosystem of headphone manufacturers suddenly faced with a choice.  Using the numbers game, Samsung and its army of Android allies hope that headphone manufacturers will prioritize their proprietary jack first, leaving Apple deprived of newer, more interesting models.

Other smartphone manufacturers using the Android OS include HTC, Huawang, and LG, all part of the Open Handset Alliance.  Google can be considered the Android mothership, though sources had no knowledge of Google’s response to the idea of a separate jack.

Newer ports could be tested on upcoming devices, though with enough momentum, a ‘hard-switch’ would be required to seriously compete against Apple’s upcoming Lightning+wireless delivery ecosystem.

‘Burying Beats by Dre’

More importantly, Samsung is aiming to severely marginalize Beats by Dre headphones, acquired recently by Apple in a deal valued at more than $3.1 billion.  Already, Beats is preparing a new line of headphones equipped with Lightning jacks, along with W1 wireless delivery chips to facilitate higher-quality, over-the-air transmission of sound over short distances.  Those will be complemented by wireless AirPods, though serious design flaws could stymie the next-generation white buds.

Other headphone manufacturers are suddenly standing in line behind Beats, but could rally behind the competing Samsung jack to effectively marginalize Beats.

The Adapter Problem.

And what about the role of adapters in all of this?  One potentially easy solution to headphone port chaos is the adapter, which can theoretically convert any proprietary jack to fit any proprietary port.  Indeed, Apple will be including Lightning port adapters in all of its upcoming iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus packages, a critical bridge during a mass transition away from 3.5mm jacks (or, at least that’s what Apple hopes).

Unfortunately, adapters introduce a number of gigantic headaches for users.  For starters, it’s easy to forget an adapter, or worse, bring the wrong adapter (or not have the right adapter).  Beyond that, joggling adapters can be more stressful for the phone port itself, potentially damaging a port on an $800 phone.

Resistance to Proprietary Development.

In that soup, it could be difficult to get Android competitors to switch away from such a long-term standard, with irate consumers almost a guaranteed result.  According to one of the sources, engineers inside of Samsung are pushing to boost the overall sound quality of any updated jack, but few really believe that a fidelity boost will be realized (or noticeable).  More importantly, consumers may view the shift cynically, as a ploy to boost sales while doing little for the overall ease and enjoyment of audio.

Of course, at present, all Android devices (and all previously-released iPhones) support the standard, 3.5mm headphone jack found on nearly every headphone used throughout the world.

Reaction of Headphone Manufacturers

At present, the sources didn’t have much to share about the reactions of headphone manufacturers.  For starters, the entire headphone industry has revolved around a simple standard for decades.  Indeed, it can be argued that the entire history of portable headphone and earphone listening has always involved the 3.5mm jack, so shifting away from that creates a lot of uncertainty.

One immediate shift would be cost: smaller manufacturers would be forced to develop multiple jacks and connectors.  But that could present opportunity for certain manufacturers, especially those willing to specialize in newer jacks and wireless technologies.  Of which, there may be several ahead.

What About W1 Wireless?

Unclear is how Samsung and its Android competitors are strategizing around wireless, short-range audio delivery.  Apple is touting its revolutionary W1 Wireless chip technology, a major focus for an upcoming line of Beats headphones.  Suddenly, this game is less about the jack and more about the air, with consumers ultimately ditching the cable in favor of an untethered, high-quality listening experience.

Unfortunately, that carefree future could hit a snag, with competing wireless technologies potentially killing the fun.  And, in some situations, adding to the already dense patchwork of wave transmissions flying around.  The result could be sub-optimal listening experiences, especially in crowded areas.  Currently, Bluetooth is the default standard for short range, over-the-air transmissions, though the technology is often prone to cut-outs and other issues.

It’s enough to make anyone hold on to the good ol’ days, when a headphone jack was a headphone jack, and the music just played.

When I was a kid…  


Samsung’s media representative, Edelman PR, has not yet responded to an inquiry.

More details ahead.  Top image is a broken 3.5mm headphone jack by Freshly Diced, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.  Written while listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto on Plantronics headphones (with a 3.5mm jack!)


12 Responses

  1. Seoul man

    It’s not just Samsung LG is also part of this initiative. Looks like your sources don’t have the whole picture

  2. asdf

    Or, you know, headphone manufacturers could just focus on Bluetooth wireless headphones/earbuds – which, work with all smartphones on the market.

    There’s no mountain here. Just a molehill. A very tiny one, at that.

    • asdf

      To clarify, Apple’s forthcoming “AirPods” are bluetooth – not some proprietary tech, and will work with Samsung devices too. No giant conspiracy or tech war going on, just Apple making unnecessary tech obsolete before people are psychologically ready – like prying a safety-blanky away from a kid who’s way too old for it.

  3. Ben

    Why can’t they just stick with the 3.5mm jack and call it a night? Whilst Apple is touting the W1 chip as the solution to the low quality over-the-air problem, I highly doubt it’ll solve anything, because Wired has and will continue to be superior in terms of quality compared to Wireless, and the W1 enabled headphones still use Bluetooth – in fact I’m willing to hedge my bets that W1 is just a proprietary Bluetooth receiver that Apple is calling “Magic”. Given they’re no bigger than the current inner-ear headphones that come with the present iPhone 6S, its pretty clear that in order to make room for all the techno gubbins inside the AirPods, they’ve made the actual speakers smaller, meaning they’ll sound even worse than they already do.

    There are audio manufacturers that make headphone and amplifier systems that cost thousands of dollars – if the future was wireless and “digital connections”, these manufacturers would’ve made the jump by now. The fact is, they haven’t. Now, with Apple’s ridiculous axing of the 3.5mm jack, headphones will either have to go up in price to license the lightening cable whilst simultaneously putting a DAC, CPU, RAM and AMP inside the headphones themselves – OR, everything will go wireless Bluetooth and see a sharp drop in audio quality (or a steep increase in price if you want the quality of a wired set of headphones), OR, you’ll have to carry around a stupid adapter that may not work with a new device in one or two years time.

    This entire thing is ridiculous and, just like the single port MacBook and the Zero PCI Slot MacPro, it’ll bite them and they’ll come crawling back. I mean hell, there’s already code in builds of macOS that show the inclusion of new PCI slots.

    • Steven Klein

      “headphones will either have to go up in price to license the lightening cable…”

      Last time I checked, Apple charged only $4 per device. Even if manufacturers mark that up 100%, it will only add $8 onto the cost. But I doubt they’ll mark it up, because competition will force prices down for all but premium models.

      “hell, there’s already code in builds of macOS that show the inclusion of new PCI slots…”

      There’s code for PCI, but not PCI slots. Apple has never removed the PCI bus from Macs — it’s used internally (by the SSD, for example). Also, don’t forget that the PCI bus runs on Thunderbolt. Devices that plug into Thunderbolt are actually PCI devices.

  4. @michaelq

    The W1 chip is more about better pairing across multiple devices and automatically switching when placed in the ear. It still uses Bluetooth 4.2.

    So any Bluetooth headset will still work with the new iPhones, and the new AirPods can work with any phone etc.

    If Samsung etc make their own jack, the EU will make them make an adaptor anyway.

  5. TC

    “Using the numbers game, Samsung and its army of Android allies hope that headphone manufacturers will prioritize their proprietary jack first”

    – so headphone manufacturers are going to prioritize a standard that doesn’t exist, over one (lightning) which has been on the market for years?

    Anyway, nice to see Samsung innovating in its traditional way – lots of new ideas the week after an Apple keynote.

  6. Anonymous

    If they do this I’m never buying a Samsung phone again. This is stupid and nobody realizes that analog audio connections are necessary in things like this. It’s not innovating, it’s DUMB.

  7. catfood

    “Those will be complemented by wireless AirPods, though serious design flaws could stymie the next-generation white buds.”

    That’s like saying “Hawaii is a lovely place to visit, though being struck in the head by an asteroid while staying there could negatively impact your vacation.”

    Do you have any indication of “serious design flaws,” or did you just pull that non-sequitur out of your butt?

  8. wale

    i am left scratching my head. if this article was food, it is calorie and fat free.