Amid rumors claiming Apple's next iPhone heralds the inexorable demise of the 3.5mm headphone jack, the company on Tuesday was granted a patent for a hybrid headphone design capable of both corded and wireless operation.
As awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple's U.S. Patent No. 9,277,309 for a "Detachable wireless listening device" details a headphone that accepts audio signals via a traditional cord in one mode, and Bluetooth or other wireless protocol in another.
The patent shares design similarities with a pair of regular earbuds. For example, both appear to sport a main audio cord branching off into two leads — one each for right and left earbuds. In practice, however, the invention relies on two separate cables; one connecting the stereo headphones together to form a listening subsystem, and another tethering that subsystem to a host device.
Crucial to Apple's invention is a magnetic attachment mechanism that connects the listening device (earbuds and accompanying cable) to the host cord for battery recharging and wired audio signal transmission. When the earbud-side cord becomes detached, the system can be programmed to detect the state change, automatically pause the charging process and activate wireless communications. The ability to free one's headphones from a bulky host device provides a host of benefits, not the least of which being freedom to move without fear of getting wrapped up in wires.
Apple's hybrid earbud concept came to light as a patent application in 2012, shortly after the company launched its redesigned EarPods headphones with iPhone 5. The intervening years have seen three iPhone iterations with no colorable headphone hardware modifications.
A closer look at the patent as granted reveals only minor changes from the 2012 application, the most prominent being mention of a magnetic attachment system in the patent's claim construction. Previously, the filing only alluded to a vague attachment mechanism. An easy-to-use docking/charging interface is key in creating a pair of functional wireless headphones, and a design riff on the familiar wired EarPods supplied with all iPhones isn't a bad way to start.
Last November, rumors surfaced claiming Apple plans to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from its next-generation iPhone design in favor of an all wireless or Lightning solution. While still an industry standard, the headphone jack is an aging relic of the analog era that stands in the way of thinner, more flexible iPhone designs.
It is possible that technology referenced in today's patent grant will make its way into a next-gen Apple headphone model, a development that at least seems feasible in light of Lightning's introduction and subsequent platform buildout. The foundation for Lightning-enabled audio equipment was laid in 2014 when Apple announced the Lightning headphone module, a piece of hardware that offers third-party manufacturers access to deeper system controls, direct analog audio out and enough juice to power attached accessories. Apple itself debuted Lightning-compatible headphones, albeit through the Beats by Dre brand.
As for the empty space left by a removal of iPhone's 3.5mm jack, the most recent rumblings say Apple could replace the audio module with a second speaker for stereo sound, though a lack of evidence precludes objective speculation. All will be revealed when the next flagship iPhone is announced, an event likely to take place this fall.
Apple's hybrid headphone patent was first filed for in March 2011 and credits Jorge S. Fino as its inventor.