Tech News

Did Removing the iPhone’s Headphone Jack Increase Lightning Port Damage?

A little over five years ago, Apple was rumored to be removing the headphone jack (a.k.a. 3.5 mm, or stereo jack) from the iPhone 7. Seeing this ominous change, one of our teardown engineers considered this and proclaimed a looming repair problem:

Removing the headphone jack and consolidating its function into the Lightning port will lead to more broken Lightning ports.

iFixit, July 14, 2016
Headphone and Lightning jack from iPhone 6S, removed
Headphone/Lightning port connector in the iPhone 6S.

Andrew Goldheart wasn’t alone. Much of iFixit’s technical writing team agreed. The headphone and Lightning ports were, before the iPhone 7, consolidated in a single assembly—replacing either one required replacing both. But between 75-87 percent of iPhone 5- and 6-series owners looking for port repair guides were looking for Lightning replacement, not headphone jacks—the charging port was a lot more likely to break. Making the Lightning port the only slot for wired headphones, we guessed: 

will also increase the failure rates of the Lightning-port-audio. Because you’re essentially doubling the use of a port that’s proven delicate in phones-past.

What’s more, with a broken Lightning port, you couldn’t charge your phone, back in those pre-wireless-charging days. We did note one non-port-bending alternative: wireless headphones. “But Bluetooth still sucks (both in function and battery impact),” we wrote, “and adding more non-replaceable batteries to a product sucks even more.”

Were we right? Were iPhone owners forced to fix their Lightning port more often for the next five years? Not exactly. After Apple found the “courage” to drop headphone jacks, many things changed about iPhones, people’s affinity for Bluetooth, and the design of Lightning ports. Some of it is good news. But some of it is landfills full of tiny circuit boards and non-replaceable batteries.

What changed after the iPhone 7

Pulling a barometric gasket from an iPhone 7 Plus
Among other things Apple now had room for inside their 3.5-mm-less iPhones was a barometric vent, equalizing internal pressure with outside conditions and aiding altimeter accuracy.

Apple did, of course, remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, and every iPhone thereafter. Apple’s stated reasons were to save space inside the phone, improve water resistance, and shift audio processing from inside to outside the phone. Coincidentally, the company simultaneously had ready wireless headphones designed to easily pair with other Apple devices—AirPods. Those basically disposable, $100-plus gadgets could soon be the company’s third-most-popular product.

Many smartphone makers followed suit in removing their jacks and selling their own AirPod clones. Square, the company whose headphone-jack-based card reader jump-started its small-business appeal, transitioned to wireless readers.

Apple and other phone-makers typically provide 3.5-mm-to-single-port dongles. But, in our experience, they either break or go missing the third time you remember you have them.

The iPhone 7 was a turning point for the headphone jack as a consumer convenience. It was also the peak of people’s desire, or maybe tolerance, for fixing that port. Let’s go to the charts. 

Who cares about Lightning ports?

First up, page views on our Lightning/headphone port replacement guides. We don’t always have a guide ready the moment a device drops, or even at the same time every iPhone cycle. So I gathered page views from within one year after the publication of our Lightning/headphone jack guide publication.

Unique page views of Lightning port replacement guides within one year of publication.

Not exactly a smooth roller-coaster. Starting at the iPhone 5s, there’s a steady rise of interest in replacing the power/audio board. Then a dip after the 6S, but that’s likely because the 6S Plus didn’t sell as well as its predecessors (roughly one Plus to every four 6S models, by one estimate). The first budget-minded iPhone SE fared better. But people are generally less likely to fix their cheaper phone when parts need fixing, the difference in cost between fixing and upgrading being narrower. This principle does not include the iFixit staff, however; many of us kept their first-gen SE going just as long as the software would allow. RIP to a real one.

Then the jackless iPhone 7 arrives in late 2016, and, almost proving our point, page views on that phone’s Lightning port connection guide increase nearly 75 percent over the comparable guide for the 6S. Overall sales of Lightning connectors, too, hits an all-time high in 2017.

The nice folks who provided this internal sales data asked that I remove the specific numbers, but it is based on real unit sales. It would probably look rosier if we made it up, huh?

So did history bear out our Lightning Audio Disaster Suggestion (LADS)? Well, despite sales cresting just after the iPhone 7, they’re followed by a fairly steep decline. This decline might have been even steeper, were it not for the attention Batterygate drew to iFixit (which likely generated more sales overall).

Moreso, if we group headphone port sales by model, we see that the 2017 year was actually a peak for people fixing the Lightning port on older models: their iPhone 5, 6, or 6S, the phones of one or two years ago:

Again, specific sales numbers have been pulled, but this chart is based on real parts unit volume. Also, our parts manager made me a pivot table for this chart. Nice guy.

There’s more to this story than just graphs, though. Starting with the iPhone 7, and continuing through later OLED-screen models, Lightning ports simply became more of a pain to replace. Replacing the port on the iPhone 6s is 39 steps. Most of them are the same steps required for any iPhone repair: heating up the screen, prying, disconnecting cables, disconnecting the battery, and so on.

The last iFixit-written Lightning port guide up at the moment, for the iPhone SE 2020 (essentially an iPhone 8) is 66 steps—that’s 69% longer. You have to move the entire logic board out of the way. You must heat up the iOpener a second time to get at the huge glued-down flat cable inside. It’s only rated “moderate” in difficulty; even at a walking pace, though, a marathon is a marathon. 

We still sell the parts (here’s an iPhone 12 Lightning connector), but we don’t have iFixit-written repair guides (at least yet) for the Lightning ports on the iPhone X series, the 11, 12, or 13. That’s partially due to dwindling part sales, which are themselves indicators of dwindling public interest. However, there’s also Apple’s release scheme, dropping up to four phones at once. Creating detailed guides for even the common repairs for each iPhone takes time, and we’ve got a lot more than iPhones needing guides.

Not even Apple offers Lightning port replacement as a standard-price service. If Apple can fix your Lightning port (or instead offers you a refurbished whole-unit replacement), the prices range from $270 for an iPhone SE (2020/second generation) to $600 for an iPhone 13 Pro Max. There is certainly some value in fixing your own iPhone’s wonky Lightning connector—owning your stuff and protecting your privacy among others. But it’s an undertaking.

The verdict

Did removing the headphone jack from iPhones cause more Lightning port damage? Probably not. For one thing, many, many people took up Bluetooth headphones and never looked back.

Chart showing Bluetooth headphones rising from 10 to 55 percent, non-Bluetooth headphones dropping from 90 to 45 percent.
Source: Quartz/NPD Group

In the three years before the iPhone 7, Bluetooth and non-Bluetooth headphones essentially swapped places in revenue share, according to NPD Group market research. In recent years, Apple’s AirPods and Beats headphones account for nearly half of the increasingly popular “true wireless” category. Wired headphones are still around, but as a factor in Lightning port damage, they’re far less substantial. 

There are other factors, too. We know of other phone makers that prioritized reinforcing their USB-C ports, cutting down on port replacement repairs. And the rise of wireless charging has likely lessened Lightning port damage even further—not to say there isn’t damage done.

The future moves in mysterious ways: wireless became king, repairs became tougher and more fragmented, fixes became less common, and interest faded away. So, yes, our initial worries turned out to be less dire than predicted. But the future didn’t get much rosier for it—if anything, it’s more bleak. Essentially, we traded a theoretical Lightning port stress problem for a bunch of other, measurably worse, problems.

If you’re still angry about losing easy, no-battery-required access to your tunes, we recommend taking advantage of all the component space and increased waterproofing Apple gained and using it to hold onto your phone for as long as you can. Take them up on their promise of more durable phones. Fix only what’s broken and demand your rights to keep it running as long as possible.