We’ve learned Apple has quietly introduced a new specification for manufacturers in its Made-For-iPhone/iPad/iPod (MFi) program that allows them to create headphones that connect to iOS devices using a Lightning connector instead of the usual 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple has not flipped the switch on the audio input support for Lightning cables and existing iOS devices, but it will release a software update in the future that will enable support in devices running iOS 7.1 or later.
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The Lightning headphones will be capable of receiving lossless stereo 48 kHz digital audio output from Apple devices and sending mono 48 kHz digital audio input. The input means that the headphones will also support a microphone for audio input following Apple’s upcoming update. Manufacturers will be able to take advantage of Apple Headphone Remote controls like Volume Up/Down/etc, as well as other buttons for launching specific apps such as iTunes Radio or initiating playback controls on iOS. In addition, the headphones can be made to work specifically with a companion iOS app and launch a specific app when connected to an iOS device.
There are a few benefits of using the Lightning cable to send audio. Apple says the headphones will be able to draw power from an Apple device (even if the device is asleep), which for some products could eliminate cost associated with an internal battery. It could also work the other way around by providing power to an Apple device from an internal battery or external power source. That enables you to listen to music and also use a passthrough setup so you could charge the device simultaneously, much like you can with an audio dock that uses a Lightning connector. The headphones will also be capable of receiving firmware updates.
Apple will allow two configurations for the headphones. Standard Lightning Headphones are described by Apple as using minimum components when paired with a digital-to-analog converter supported by the Lightning Headphone Module. It also has an Advanced Lightning Headphones specification that allows digital audio processing features like active noise cancellation and uses a digital signal processor and digital/analog converter. Manufacturers building the Standard configuration have to use this Wolfson digital-to-analog converter.
While everyone has been focusing on what Apple’s purchase of Beats Electronics means for its audio and headphone business down the road, the news Apple is developing some innovative new headphone tech using its own proprietary Lightning connector is significant. If Apple does get partners on board and Lightning headphones prove to be popular with users, it’s easy to see how Apple could push Lightning headphones as a big differentiating feature for iPhone and other Apple devices. A previous report claimed Apple was working on a version of its own in-ear EarPods using a Lightning connector and planned to enable higher-resolution audio playback in iOS 8.
I’m guessing we’ll see a Lightning cable eventually make its way to a pair of Beats. Perhaps Apple will even use Beats as the first pair of Lightning cable headphones to help promote the new tech when it finally flips the switch on support.