Following Apple’s ‘brave’ move to ditch the headphone jack on the iPhone X, many rivals have done the same. This means USB-C is a common connection for headphones, but how does it compare the traditional 3.5mm jack?

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Ok, so Apple was not the first tech brand to remove the original headphone port from a phone, but those who went before – like the Oppo and Motorola with the Moto Z – did not make the same effect.

The Basics

Let’s tackle the fairly clear first. If your phone (or other device) does not have a headphone jack then you will need to plug through the USB-C (assuming that’s the port of choice). We are ignoring the existence of Bluetooth here, but you can, of course get wireless headphones.

Plugging into USB-C means you will need an adapter to use a traditional headphone jack, or a pair of USB-C headphones like the OnePlus Type-C Bullets. Often, one or the other will be included in the box.

The down sides here are that you can lose the dongle, or you want to charge your phone and plug headphones at the same time.

OnePlus Bullets USB-C

The Complicated Bit

To set the scene, digital files on your phone (or the ones being streamed etc.) need to be converted into analogue so that your headphones can play the sound. For this you need a DAC, a digital to analogue converter.

A headphone jack makes it simple as the DAC needs to be inside the phone so that when the signal reaches 3.5mm port, your headphones can read it. Headphones can not turn binary and zeros into audible sound without a DAC.

With a USB-C port, things get a lot more tricky because the DAC can be either in the phone or tucked away in the dongle.

That’s probably not the end of the world, but it’s very difficult to know where the phones and dongles have it. There is no industry standard so phone makers can do what they like and do not make it very clear to the consumer.

Pixel 3 USB-C

This lack of consistency means that you can not just plug any dongle into any USB-C port and plug it to work (our colleagues at PC World tried with frustrating results). If it does not have a DAC inside and the phone does not either, then you will not get any sound.
The simple advice is to stick with the USB-C dongle or headphones. You may not want to do that though, so check the compatibility before spending any money.

Isn’t USB-C audio better?

In theory, yes. If we just look at the details of the digital audio on offer then you should get a better result. This is due to things like moving the DAC away from the components within your phone that can start for interfere.

That’s a very broad statement though, and it really comes down to the individual pieces of equipment you are using.

There are so many variables that it is not possible to say one is better than the other for audio quality. To a large extent, it will depend on what headphones you are plugging in – whether they are 3.5mm or USB – as well as the quality of DAC and other components being used.

When all is said and done, the current mess that the USB-C means that cons outweigh the process at the moment. We’d rather just plug some headphones in and know everything is going to work.