Why Is There a Headphone Jack on the New MacBook Pro?

Glenn Fleishman
4 min readNov 2, 2016

Apple wanted to ditch the headphone jack on the iPhone for reasons that escape me. Fine: it’s a vestige of the past. Apple shipped Lightning-connected earbuds with each iPhone 7 and 7 Plus; and it made the rare decision of including an adapter (Lightning to audio) plus selling said adapter for $9 each.

So with all that hubbub, why did Apple then, weeks later, introduce a throughly revamped MacBook Pro with a headphone jack and a bunch of Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports? Because there’s no audio spec for USB-C yet! And, also, USB-C ports are both expensive and valuable.

Ports on the revise 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros.

The timing was off on the spec part. Despite USB-C having been in development for years and having started appearing on computers and smartphones around March 2015, apparently the USB Implementors Forum, which manages the USB specifications, and its product-making members didn’t consider this a priority.

You can buy USB Type-A adapters very cheaply that offer audio input and output. And some desktop-style USB-C and Thunderbolt 2 docks include analog audio output, as they handle the conversion and mapping internally.

So why couldn’t Apple eschew the audio jack and supply an adapter?

  • Professional audio workflows are built around using an audio jack (see Phil Schiller’s comment below). Removing it and requiring an adapter would mess with those setups, which must form a bit enough portion of Apple’s sales for it to be concerned.
  • Updated! AppleInsider reports (with a review unit in hand), that the audio output jack no longer has the digital portion. The audio jack isn’t just analog! It’s a combined analog/digital output port, which supports optical-digital Toslink cables and high sample rate output. Apple would have to replicate that feature or provide an alternative, or it’s stepping away from customers who need it. (How many need it? Enough that Apple made it a standard feature.)
  • It would take up a valuable Thunderbolt 3 port, especially on the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro (without the Touch Pad), which has just two USB-C ports. Each Thunderbolt 3 port can handle 40 Gbps of symmetrical data flow or power a 5K display or two 4K displays. Feeding out just audio seems pretty thin.
  • Space simply isn’t as scarce on a laptop, even one as thin as the MacBook Pro (or MacBook, which has a USB-C port and an audio jack).
  • With an iPhone, Apple’s made the assumption that people are using it away from power often enough that charging and listening at the same time aren’t an issue. I think Apple’s wrong, but who am I to question that wisdom.
  • The cost of a USB-C to Lightning adapter would be much higher than than Lightning to 3.5mm analog audio. Apple sells its USB-C to Lightning cable for $29, and while I assume they make some money off it, I also expect it’s not a lot. Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 Type-A adapter is the closest I’ve seen to this: an adaptor with a Lightning port.

None of this precludes Apple dumping the audio jack in the future, but it does seem to argue that its remaining utility outweighs what users would have to give up if it were gone.

Update: Phil Schiller provides an explicit reason in an Independent interview, though it would seemingly affect only a subset of its sales. It must be enough sales that Schiller used the word “many” rather than “some.” He doesn’t mention digital audio output, but that could play in as well.

Is it inconsistent to keep the 3.5mm headphone jack as it’s no longer on the latest iPhone?

Not at all. These are pro machines. If it was just about headphones then it doesn’t need to be there, we believe that wireless is a great solution for headphones. But many users have setups with studio monitors, amps, and other pro audio gear that do not have wireless solutions and need the 3.5mm jack.

Why is there no Lightning port on a MacBook Pro?

Dunno! Apple has only put them into iOS devices so far. There’s no technical reason that I can think of, just manufacturing cost, for that omission.

Also, if there were a Lightning port, it would only accept headphones and other iOS peripherals: there’s no Lightning-to-Lightning cable, so such a port couldn’t be used for charging an iOS device.

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Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning