Phitek Stratus headphones are specifically designed to work with jacks. Image via Phitek

APEX Insight: Some of the iPhone 7’s most talked-about features are its wireless AirPod earbuds and its removal of the 3.5 mm audio jack. But what does this mean for in-flight audio? 

One of the iPhone 7’s most talked-about features is its wireless AirPod earbuds. Bose, a passenger and airline favorite for eliminating jet-engine drone, recently cut the cord off its QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones, too. But wireless technology presents challenges inside the aircraft cabin.

“The hundreds of battery-powered devices that need to be recharged become a hindrance to the cabin crew,” says Chris van der Loo, product marketing director for Phitek Systems. “And there are only so many simultaneous wireless data transmissions possible in a confined space using aircraft-safe frequencies.” Phitek’s Stratus headphones are wired to work in tandem with its SmartJack receptacle. Instead of building the noise-cancelation technology into the headset, the company integrated it into the audio jack, providing a more cost-effective and maintenance-friendly product. Meanwhile, van der Loo says the company is keeping its eye on developments in wireless technology and other solutions.

Apple’s leapfrog toward wireless headphone technology isn’t itself noteworthy. Wireless headphones have long been popular among audiophiles. Rather, the iPhone 7’s switch from a 3.5 mm audio jack to its trademarked Lightning connector marks Apple’s move to digital audio – and, as critics have noted, a more proprietary framework. Current headphone jacks and ports rely on more than 50-year-old analog technology to convert digital MP3s for listening. By shifting to its Lightning connector, the company hopes to usher in a wave of high-quality audio. Others endorse USB-C port technology, which is currently available on Samsung and Google devices.

“The 3.5 mm jack is dominant in all markets and we believe this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.” — Mark Reed, IFPL

But consumers may not be ready for Apple’s new features just yet, which is likely why the company includes a 3.5 mm jack adapter for its connector. For aircraft seatbacks and armrests, the future of wireless audio is likely more distant. “The 3.5 mm jack is dominant in all markets and we believe this trend will continue for the foreseeable future,” says Mark Reed, director of Business Development, North America, IFPL. “However, we are closely monitoring the adoption of consumer technology and the in-flight entertainment and connectivity response to it.”

The promise of digital audio, on the other hand, has spurred the innovation of headphone technology. “Historically, the most important factors have included comfort, sound quality and durability. However, with the advent of digital audio, there is a growing focus on new features,” says Mark Donaldson, CEO of Soundchip, who counts double-tap functionality, VoIP, digital surround sound and digital connectors such as USB-C as examples. His company worked with Panasonic and LongProsper to deliver quality audio through its Serenity S1H headphones.

Caroline is managing editor at APEX Media.