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Apple May Have Revolutionary Headphones Waiting in the Wings

April 21, 2016

With the death knell supposedly ringing for the 3.5mm headphone jack on the “iPhone 7,” we have to wonder what tricks Cupertino might have up its sleeve to revolutionize our listening experience. According to a patent filing published today, April 21, we may see Apple manufacturing a headphone that can seamlessly switch from wired to wireless mode without any interruption in playback.

This almost seems too good to be true, since even the best Bluetooth connection takes at least a few seconds to pair the device. Obviously, it’s nothing new for Bluetooth headphones to come with a plug-in audio cable that allows you to fall back to wired use if the battery runs low, but there are a couple of problems with seamlessly switching from wired to wireless, or vice versa.

The first problem is connecting to the correct Bluetooth device when there are several known connections within range. To address that issue, Cupertino suggests that the headphones can be designed such that the iPhone knows whether or not the wireless device is the same as the wired one, so it can continue transmitting audio to it.

A bigger problem is the lag time between when you disconnect the wire and Bluetooth kicks in. Apple’s patent offers a solution for that, too, by means of a data buffer built into the headphone.

In some embodiments, the control circuitry of the headphone can include a processor. In some embodiments, the processor can seamlessly transition speaker control between data received via the wireless transceiver and data received via the second contact. In some embodiments, the data buffer can be sized to operate the headphone for a predetermined amount of time without the receipt of additional data via the wireless transceiver or the second contact. This length of time can be greater than the length of time required to transition between storing data from the wireless transceiver into the buffer to storing data from the connector into the buffer.

- United States Patent application 20160112787

The patent filing also discusses a means by which the Lightning cable connecting the headphones to the iPhone could charge the accessory’s battery. As my colleague Bryan Wolfe pointed out, the necessity of charging wireless headphones could frustrate some consumers, and being able to charge the accessory straight from the iPhone could alleviate some of that frustration. Then again, it would also mean shorter battery life for the iPhone 7 if you had to charge your headphones.


Read more on the rumored future disappearance of the 3.5mm headphone jack

Even with the potential drawbacks, the idea of a headphone that transitions seamlessly from wired to wireless has definite appeal. This would solve a number of potential problems with a headphone connected via Lightning cable, such as the ease with which the wired plug could be disconnected.

Of course, Cupertino often files patent applications that it never does anything with, but it seems like a smart bet for a premium Apple-branded headphone to be released alongside the iPhone 7 in the fall.