What Apple Could Learn From Nintendo’s Headphone Mistake

Nintendo removed the headphone jack on the GBA SP 13 years ago and I still haven’t forgiven them for it. Compared to the Game Boy Advance (or GBA), the SP had rechargeable batteries, a bigger and brighter screen, and felt great in your hands. It should have been the greatest handheld gaming unit of it’s time, but it lacked one key thing… a headphone jack.

There have been rumors that Apple would repeat this mistake when launching the newest iPhone, so many of us were prepared for yesterday’s news, but the big difference between these two consumer technology giants is that if Apple’s new bet turns out to be a big mistake, they are unlikely to come back and fix it in future models.

What Apple Could Learn

As a chiptune musician, I still collect and use old handheld gaming systems and not a year goes by that I don’t curse the executive who removed the headphone jack from the GBA SP. If it wasn’t for the missing headphone jack, the SP would be my favorite device for GBA games and making music. Instead of using the ubiquitous headphone jack, Nintendo required gamers to use an extra dongle that plugged into the SP’s rechargeable power port. These dongles were cheap, but limiting in three major ways.

  1. You can’t charge and use the headphone jack at the same time- Because the SP only had one port, you had to choose between charging your device or listening to it. This might not be so bad when you are on the go, but if you are the sort of person who likes to listen to podcasts while you are at work or play Pokemon while charging your phone, only using one port for audio and charging means you’ll have to choose between power or audio.
  2. Power ports are not as sturdy as 3.5mm headphone jack- The headphone jack was designed for constant on the go usage. They work great when on a jog or when walking around with a device in your pocket. Power cables were designed around a whole other use case. When charging your device, you probably aren’t moving around or storing it in your pocket, so the ports are designed to be a little less sturdy. When using a dongle for the GBA SP, audio would constantly cut in and out. That’s why I can never use an SP when I’m performing on stage. No matter how good your dongle is, it still has to rely on a good audio connection from your device. I doubt the lightning port on an iPhone is going to hold up to normal wear and tear without constantly dislodging itself.
  3. One more thing to lose- The requirement of an extra dongle means one more piece you’ll probably leave at home or work… then you are stuck with a pair of headphones that you can’t use. As you switch between different devices, you’ll probably be taking the dongle on and off frequently. Leaving it on your desk, or in your gym bag, or wherever. I bet iPhone users are going to start amazing extra dongles just to leave around everywhere in case they left their dongle at home.

Never Bluetooth

I’ve whined about dongles so much that you might be saying “But Doc, just get a pair of bluetooth headphones.” I’ve tried throughout the years to jump over to BT headphones, but it’s always such a shitty experience that I doubt this tech will ever truly catch on in the same way as normal headphones have.

  • Bluetooth audio tech is still terrible- The connection is not reliable and the audio quality is low tech. Bluetooth isn’t just wirelessly transmitting high quality audio, it’s using it’s on proprietary compression. That’s on top of the audio compression that you are using (MP3, M4A, WAV, etc). Bluetooth audio works okay for phone calls or listening to podcasts, but really loses it’s charm when listening to music.
  • Switching between devices sucks- After your morning walk or bus ride, you probably switch over to your laptop for a few hours, then switch back to your mobile device on your way back. This daily task was the single worst part of using bluetooth headphones. Constantly pairing my device drove me nuts. That’s not even mentioning all the times a friend or co-worker might hand you their device and say “listen to this”, but you can’t because you’d have to pair your headphones to their bluetooth just to watch a 30 second video.
  • Twice as many things to charge- Charging a portable device is annoying enough, now imagine needing to charge your headphones too. Ugh.

Apple Does What Nintendon’t

Nintendo claimed that removing the headphone jack was necessary at the time. There’s just no way they could have fit such a cumbersome extra piece into this state of the art tech. After consumer backlash though, Nintendo never made this mistake again. Proprietary controllers or chargers, sure, but consumers didn’t want an extra dongle just to use their favorite headphones.

Apple probably won’t back down. In fact they’ll probably remove headphone jacks from every laptop and device they make in the future. Which means that folks like me, who still carry around their DS Lite or some fun pocket synthesizers or an older iPad, will have to keep an extra bag of dongles on them just to be prepared.







3 responses to “What Apple Could Learn From Nintendo’s Headphone Mistake

  1. Mike K Avatar

    The usability, compatibility and convenience arguments are all reasonable. Wanted to add some detail to the audio quality side: What matters is the codecs available to the A2DP profile. If your headphones and device both support aptX you’re all set. Macbooks and many Android devices support aptX (my own JLab Epics do as well). iPhones do not, they only support AAC. If your headphones support AAC as well, it should be streaming AAC directly to them without further encoding (though it may not).

    I definitely don’t think removing the 3.5mm jack is a great idea. But it’s such a clearly Apple-y move I don’t get the hoopla.

  2. DocPop Avatar

    Great feedback. I didn’t know about the AAC/compressionless aspect. That’s interesting.

    I was reading this article about compression and Bluetooth, which doesn’t come to any conclusions, but shows some of the audio differences between bluetooth compression and other audio outputs http://www.sereneaudio.com/blog/how-good-is-bluetooth-audio-at-its-best

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