It’s been nearly a year since Apple ditched the headphone jack with the iPhone 7, and it’s still hard to say how consumers have benefitted.
Things seem to have worked out well for Apple — iPhone users by and large haven’t cared about the change, and the company’s big push into wireless headphones seems to have made its AirPods earbuds a hit. It doesn’t hurt that the company’s Beats subsidiary is the top seller of wireless headphones, either.
But the Bluetooth wireless standard remains an imperfect technology — it means another thing to recharge, occasional signal losses, and generally higher prices for the same quality of sound. And those drawbacks continue to dog any company’s wireless headphones.
Wires, for all their irksome tangling, still just work.
Thankfully, Apple still has a place for reliable wired audio on every iPhone: the Lightning port, the same thing you use to charge the device. Lightning is a digital connection, too, so it’s capable of doing many of the same “smart” tricks the audio world has explored in recent months.
Thus far, though, few companies have really tried to tap into Lightning’s potential. It makes sense: Going Lightning means limiting your market to Apple users, and wireless is where most of the industry’s growth is.
But now we’re finally starting to see some headphones make the case for why iPhone users should want a digital port like Lightning over the old-fashioned analog headphone jack.
Take, for instance, the Pioneer Rayz Plus, a $150 pair of Lightning earphones I’ve tested for the past few weeks. Though they look like fairly unremarkable on the surface, they use Apple’s port to pack a handful of forward-looking features, many of which I’d expect to become standard for earphones of this type.
To give you a rundown of those features:
• You get active noise cancelling without having the bulky external battery pack hanging from your cable that’s typically required for such tech. Pioneer says the Rayz Plus will adapt its level of noise cancelling to your surroundings, too, changing its intensity where appropriate.
• A “HearThru” feature allows the earphones let in a modicum of outside noise. If someone in the office has a quick question, for instance, you can turn this on and answer without having to take off the earphones and pause your music.
• An “Autopause” feature aims to let the Rayz Plus sense when they’re being taken out of your ears and, well, automatically pause whatever’s playing.
• A recently-added “Smart Mute” feature automatically mutes your line when you’re on a call and not talking, then un-mutes you when you start up again. This worked beautifully in my testing.
Not all of this needs a digital connection like Lightning to work, but Pioneer is also promising more updates in the future; a “Coming Soon” tab in the Rayz app currently says the earphones will soon be able to isolate your voice from background noise when you’re taking a call. Mainly, though, using Lightning means you neither have to recharge nor keep track of a dongle.
There are other clever design touches.
The four-button remote is a bit long, but has a “smart button” that can be used to turn on certain features or open a small number of apps. For instance, I set it so a single tap toggled noise cancelling, a double tap toggled HearThru, and a long press opened Apple Music.
It’d be nice if the remote could open any app, but this effectively lets you control everything without constantly having to go into Pioneer’s app. That’s ideal.
The remote also comes with its own Lightning port, which means you can actually recharge your iPhone while listening to music. (What a concept!)
This isn’t quite as fast as charging normally, and having a little connector at the end of the cable looks awkward, but it does work well. As far as I can tell, it’s also the only Lightning headphone to offer this.