Why are USB-C headphones bad?

Credit: Belkin

While the inconvenience of losing the headphone jack itself is pretty self-evident, many major smartphone manufacturers have tried to bridge the gap for users by bundling in a set of USB Type-C headphones.

Here’s why the experience of using these headphones usually sucks.

You still can’t charge your phone while listening to music simultaneously

Though obvious but practical drawback was raised by consumer advocates from pretty much the moment that Apple tried to rebrand the 3.5mm headphone jack archaic. It remains true today. 

Unless you’re using a wireless charger, Bluetooth headphones or one of those monstrous splitter dongles you can find on Amazon, you can’t charge your phone while listening to music at the same time. In terms of the consumer experience, this is a big step backwards. It turns something that was previously assumed into something compromised. 

usb-type-c-100658283-orig.jpgCredit: Supplied
usb-type-c-100658283-orig.jpg

Not standardized

If you’ve had technical problems trying to use a set of USB Type-C headphones in the past, this is probably the reason why. 

Where the previous 3.5mm headphone jack thrived on simplicity, the USB Type-C connector leans into the complex for both better and worse. 

Simply put: not all USB Type-C cables are born equal. Some are graded for Lightning fast transfer speeds. Others include a built-in DAC to better facilitate audio playback. Grab a handful of seemingly-identical cables at JB Hi-Fi and you’ll likely end up with a mix of transfer protocols that range from USB 3.1 to USB 3.0 to USB 3.1 Gen 2. 

However, for the most part, all that juicey spec info isn’t really communicated to customers. The only way to know if your set of USB-C headphones will play nice with whatever USB Type-C port you want to use them with is to test it and find out - which isn’t great. It’s the same story for adapters. This is why a set of bundled USB Type-C headphones from one handset might not work for another. 

Spicier still is the risk of using a non-compliant USB Type-C cable from a brand you don’t recognise. 

usb-c-cable-orange-100789529-orig.jpgCredit: Agam Shah/IDG
usb-c-cable-orange-100789529-orig.jpg

One Google engineer has made it a personal mission to name and shame companies selling USB Type-C cables that cut corners and don’t stick to the relevant standards. Using a sketchy or non-compliant USB Type-C cable with your devices can result in damage or even outright failure on the part of the device - so it’s not worth the risk. 

The last thing a good set of headphones need to be is inconsistent when it comes to what devices they will and won’t work with.

Apple still uses Lightning 

While both USB Type-C and traditional 3.5mm audio cables are able to compete when it comes to delivering lossless audio, the quality of the DACs found in the former can vary wildly. In addition, the USB Type-C headphones are almost always the more expensive option of the two.

One of the biggest reasons why is that, for the most part, Apple still hasn't really adopted the cable type. Instead, the company’s iPhones and most iPads continue to rely on the Lightning connector.

With one of the biggest tech brands in the world yet to fully embrace the standard, it becomes harder for audio manufacturers and consumers to get behind the idea that USB Type-C headphones are a satisfactory alternative to the previous ubiquity of the headphone jack.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem but, make no mistake, it is a problem. 

There might be plenty of consumers out there who are willing to invest in a better set of USB Type-C headphones but, so long as that audience precludes any iPhone users, the category is going to get the investment it needs to evolve and become comparable to traditional 3.5mm headphones when it comes to price. 

Credit: Velvetwire

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Fergus Halliday
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