Apple’s Headphone Plans

John Gruber, commenting on the recent Lightning to headphone adapter “leak”:

It looks exactly like what I’d expect it to look like. The question is, what will Apple ship in the box with the new iPhones?[…]

The bottom line: this move should be about moving away from wired headphones period, not moving from one wired jack to another. The best way to achieve that is for Apple to ship wireless ear buds in the box.

I agree with John’s piece. I think the best way for Apple to achieve their presumed goal — fully transitioning to wireless — would be to ship a pair of wireless ear buds in-box. And I really hope that’s what they do, but I’m not optimistic about it.

Call it a hunch, but I think Apple’s going to ship the initial sans-headphone-jack iPhone with a pair of Lightning EarPods. This will offer a simple solution to users who don’t want to worry about charging their headphones or fiddle around with Bluetooth pairing. The impression I get online is that most users who would be excited by wireless EarPods (or AirPods) don’t use the headphones that come with their iPhone anyway.

So for those audio quality-enthusiasts out there, Apple will sell a Lightning to headphone jack adapter, separately, for $19. I suppose there’s the possibility they could charge more for it — maybe $29. But with all the outcry regarding this transition that’s already taken place — without it even beginning yet — I think Apple would be foolish to charge the higher price for this adapter.

Now what about using these new Lightning-based EarPods with your MacBook? I think most of us have come to terms with the idea of switching to Lightning headphones, using an adapter, or going wireless on our iPhones, but there hasn’t been too much discussion about what this will mean for audio on our traditional computers. Unfortunately, I believe Apple’s solution isn’t going to be popular — they’ll sell you an adapter or push you toward a pair of wireless headphones.

I’m not entirely sure what this adapter would look like, certainly a Lightning port on one end that you can plug your headphones into, but the other end is a bit of a mystery to me. I’d assume it to be a headphone jack that you could plug into your Mac. USB could also be a possibility, but that would pose a problem for MacBook owners that don’t have a standard USB port available to them. One thing I’m fairly certain about with this adapter, though, is that, whatever form it takes, it’ll cost $29.

But what about these wireless AirPods that everyone’s speculating about? I think they’ll be sold separately, feature Bluetooth, have a quick pairing process that utilizes the iPhone’s Lightning port, and cost either $99, $129, or $149.

I expect they’ll feature Bluetooth in order to offer compatibility with as many devices as possible. Bluetooth is kind of a pain in the ass, but it works with every device Apple has shipped in the past decade or so. Apple isn’t typically the kind of company that would care much about backwards compatibility, but they’re attempting to replace a port that’s been widely used for the past several decades — widespread compatibility matters.

The quick pairing process is the feature that will help set Apple’s offering apart from other Bluetooth headphones. I imagine the pairing process will work similarly to how Apple’s old Bluetooth Headset did — plug the AirPods into your iOS device’s Lightning port and they’re instantly paired. This will make switching between devices with the same wireless headphones a breeze compared to other competitors’ offerings.

My pricing predictions are quite a bit different than the ones I’ve seen floating around on various weblogs and Twitter timelines, but there’s a method to my madness. First, I don’t expect the Beats lineup to go away anytime soon. The cheapest pair of wireless Beats costs $199 and I don’t think their Apple-branded offering is going to be priced that high. Beats is their premium line of audio products and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

On the other end of the spectrum, Apple offers their wired, in-ear headphones for $79. I don’t expect these will stick around for very long after the next iPhone is released, but this product sets a pricing floor for the AirPods. Within that range — $79-199 — Apple has a few common price points that are worth considering. $99, $129, and $149 are the three I’d pinpoint as the most likely. And if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on $129. This particular prediction isn’t much more than a gut feeling based on the price range I expect it to sit in.

So to recap:

  • Lightning EarPods included in-box.
  • Lightning (male) to Headphone Adapter sold separately for $19.
  • Lightning (female) to Headphone or USB adapter sold separately for $29.
  • Wireless AirPods sold separately for $129.

The lead-up to this next iPhone’s release is going to be an exciting one. Perhaps we won’t be seeing any major redesign of the handset’s casing, but at least there’s a few rumored changes that are ripe for speculation.