USB-C port iPhones are coming; it is anything but certain. When, exactly, is still up for debate, but the EU says Apple must add USB-C charging ports to iPhones from 2024, and even if the UK won’t actively follow the EU to enforce this request, it will not matter.
The EU has mandated a USB-C charger to rule them all from Apple, and Tim Cook’s behemoth has been given an official two-and-a-half-year deadline to make it happen.
Add to that some controversial reports claiming that the iPhone 14, slated to launch in September, will be the last iPhone to sport Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector and it looks like Apple’s 2023 iPhone 15 (and even the long-talked-about foldable iPhone, if it materializes) might get USB-C – let alone wait!
Lightning first struck in the 2012 iPhone 5, and I for one will not mourn its passing. Yes, USB-C ports are slightly wider and thicker than Lightning connections (8.4mm x 2.6mm vs. 6.7mm x 1.5mm) but that’s barely noticeable in the weights or Android phone measurements now, right?
Why should Apple’s forced move away from Lightning for USB-C get you excited? Several reasons, including potentially faster charging (which will only improve with the arrival of USB-C 2.1) and improved data transmission speeds, as USB-C provides a delivery rate higher power than Lightning and provides faster charging under the same voltage.
If that’s all you need to know about data transfer, skip to the audio paragraphs below, my friend! But if you want to know more about USB-C’s power management, strap in: Lightning supports a maximum current of 2.4A, but USB-C carries 3A with support up to 5A because Lightning devices transfer data at USB 2.0 speeds, which is 480 Mbps, while USB-C can currently transfer data at USB 3.0 speeds (using USB 3.1 Gen 1) of 5 Gbps. All of this essentially means less time waiting and more time enjoying. In addition, it is a more universal, brand-independent and durable charger.
But as a music lover, I don’t want to dwell on any of those things. I want to tell you how great your USB-C iPhone will sound in a few years.
A USB-C connector will finally solve the iPhone’s Hi-Res Audio accessibility issues
USB-C chargers essentially mean much easier access to 24-bit Hi-Res Audio.
But let’s back up for a second. High-Resolution Audio is specified as any file that has been mastered above the CD-quality bit rate and sample rate, at 16-bit/44.1kHz. Common hi-res combos here are 24-bit/96kHz, aka the maximum resolution of Apple Music’s Lossless level, and 24-bit/192kHz – where Apple Music’s Hi-Res Lossless offering is maximum.
The trick is to have those Hi-Res Lossless files (which, let’s not forget, Apple gave to its Apple Music subscribers at no additional cost just over a year ago) on your iPhone, you currently need an elaborate wired system of components starting with the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (which is limited at 24-bit/48kHz) and then a third-party portable DAC to get you up to resolution, then a good wired headset. Not exactly a svelte setup.
Why outsource DAC? The built-in digital-to-analog converter tucked away in Apple’s most recent iPhone 13 lineup can’t handle these prominent high-resolution files. So you need another, better, external one to do the heavy lifting.
Now USB-C: While USB-C wired headphones themselves can still be a bit hit or miss in terms of audio quality, as they can be passive (meaning you’re still beholden to your phone’s DAC for quality) or active, meaning the conversion process happens in the headphones themselves, USB-C DACs are where things get revealing – but let’s not rush.
The main benefit of active USB-C headphones is prolonging a digital signal state and bypassing your iPhone’s internals – all that distortion of other smartphone signals etc. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, as the source device (read: smartphone) needs to support audio accessory mode – and some don’t, currently. Plus, it’s not always obvious which headset models are active and which are passive, resulting in a super detective sleuthing mission to figure out if any of this will work or not.
But take a look at the Astell & Kern AK USB-C Dual DAC above. Suddenly, 3.5 mm headphones with smartphones are back on the menu! (Although, if you still really want a 2022 smartphone with a 3.5mm connection, look to the Sony Xperia 1 IV, which lists wired and wireless “Hi-Res Audio” support out of the box, although the scope of this support is not specified).
Back to this DAC. As one of the biggest names in portable music players, Astell & Kern has already worked supreme magic with built-in DACs. And for that, his first stand-alone stopped-board DAC, the company knocked out the park as far as I’m concerned.
This double USB-C DAC is essentially made up of two small blocks (a USB-C socket and a DAC) connected by a flexible braided cable. Sitting next to any other portable DAC, it’s tiny and weighs around 25g. But A&K still found room for two DAC chipsets capable of handling audio files up to 32-bit/385kHz resolution, as well as headphone amplification. Read that again: 32-bit… 385kHz, that’s serious Hi-Res audio, without the extra adapters, dongles and add-ons.
I’m currently using this setup, alongside a reliable set of Austrian audio headphones and a Samsung Galaxy S21. Yes, it’s still a two-part system (or three if you count the phone), but it beats the three-pronged attack I would have to use to get anything close from an iPhone. And with it, my music is both amplified and expanded, clearer and more defined, more detailed and with more space around each note or musical passage.
This Astell & Kern DAC plugged into an iPhone for simple hi-res audio may still be a few years away, but when it does, I can’t wait to hear it.