Consumer Technology

Apple killed its headphone plug, so a few companies are helping dig its grave

Aneri Pattani, special to
Q Adapt headphones
Source: Libratone

This week, Apple killed the headphone jack on its iPhone 7, meaning users may end up paying at least $160 for its new wireless headphones. Yet a few vendors are quickly rising to the challenge of a brave new world untethered from wire-based headphones.

Already, several new headphones are making use of Apple's Lightning cable, rather than the classic audio port — but they don't come cheap. Some of these accessories often run upwards of $150, while others cost more than the iPhone itself.

When it unveiled the iPhone 7 on Wednesday, Apple sent shockwaves through the tech world by getting rid of the headphone jack and pushing consumers to its Lightning port. That will now serve as both charger and, for an additional cost, an adapter port for those who still want to use wired headphones.

However, the tech giant's self-styled $159 AirPods, a basic set of wireless ear pods compatible with the iPhone 7, lack certain flair. For those who want more style and flair, there are plenty of other options — the catch being price.

Apple iPhone 7
Mark Neuling | CNBC

A few companies, including high-end audio manufacturer Audeze and Danish audio equipment creator Libratone, are focusing on wired options. Audeze's EL-8 Titanium, which sells for a whopping $799, was released in December 2015 — just before rumors surrounding the new iPhone had surfaced. The company's other Lightning-compatible model, Sine, costs $499. Audeze has also developed newer models priced at $399 and $599. Those will begin shipping in late October.

When the company decided to build more consumer-friendly models in addition to its professional grade headphones, it turned to the Lightning connector in order to boost sound quality, Audeze CEO Sankar Thiagasamudram explained to CNBC recently.

But will audiophiles really shell out that much money for headphones? Thiagasamudram thinks so.

"The reason they are expensive is because of the type of technology," he told CNBC. "We are known for accuracy and quality of the sound."

He didn't anticipate Apple eliminating the headphone jack, but the recent news has certainly helped Audeze's sales. The company has been selling more Lightning-compatible headphones over the last few months as rumors of the new iPhone circulated, Thiagasamudram said, and traffic to Audeze's website has quadrupled.

Libratone is also betting on customers valuing quality and unique features more than price. The Danish company said pre-ordering for its $179 Q Adapt in-ear headphones will begin in late September. The headphones will ship in mid-October.

While interest in the company's product has spiked since Apple's new iPhone announcement, Libratone President Mike Culver insists the timing is coincidental.

"We started on this project over a year ago," he told CNBC. "This is not tied to the iPhone 7 launch at all. We would have done this either way, regardless of whether they took out the headphone jack."

Video screen image of Apple AirPods during a media event in San Francisco, California, U.S. September 7, 2016.
Beck Diefenbach | Reuters

Either way, the company appears certain to benefit from Apple's dramatic shift away from the headphone jack. That's because Libratone uses the Lightning connector to provide greater power for its new headphones, which offer adjustable noise cancellation — a feature that lets users decide how much external noise they want to hear.

This functionality requires a lot of power, Culver said. For typical headphones, that would mean attaching a battery pack that needs to be recharged. Using the Lightning port allows the headphones to harness extra power without comprising a sleek design.

Yet for those who don't need the frills of noise cancellation or professional-level sound quality, electronics and lighting manufacturer Brightech provides a cheaper alternative. The company has been selling Lightning-compatible headphones since December 2015: Its in-ear option costs $49.99, while the over-ear option costs $39.99.

"We're looking for people that don't have $300 to spend, who need things but have to be able to afford it," said Mark Adelman, Brightech's retail manager. He said the company typically sells 20 to 50 Lightning-compatible headphones each month. Since rumors about Apple eliminating the headphone jack surfaced last week, they've seen a nearly threefold increase in sales, he said.