Part of what we do here is to look at all sorts of accessories you might want to use with your phone. Cases, screen protectors, headphones, you name it and we try to look and recommend a product so you know if you're getting your money's worth. Since the 3.5mm headphone jack is fading away (yes, Samsung will do it too, once it's more affordable) that also means we need to look at USB Type C headphones and adapters.
What a mess.
First, the answer to the question in the title: No, there isn't a single USB-C headphone adapter that will work with every phone. There's a simple reason why, but it's just silly that this has to be a thing in the first place.
Passive vs. Active
Cables designed to work with the USB standard can be active or passive. Active cables use copper wires and have a semiconductor of some sort to boost or amplify the signal strength. If you have an outrageously long USB cable for anything, it's probably an active cable. Low-voltage data signals aren't designed to cover eight or ten feet (or more) inside a cable, so they need a bit of a boost.
There are two ways audio can be sent out via the USB port. The onboard DAC and amplifier can convert the digital signal to analog (regular headphones only work with an analog signal) and send it out through the USB-C port. The adapter then passively transmits the analog signal from the USB port to the 3.5 mm port on the other end of the cable. This works exactly like your last phone with a 3.5 jack did, except there is now a dongle in the mix.
Digital audio signals can also be sent out through the USB-C port. These signals bypass any DAC or amp that's inside your phone and are a raw digital signal that something needs to convert before it can play through a set of speakers. That means they depend on a DAC and amplifier inline somewhere. That group of components can (and does) live inside an active USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in
some most Android phones without a headphone jack.
All devices that can transmit audio and have a USB-C port that sends a signal out must be able to supply the digital signal for an active cable. Unfortunately, the changes that make a passive cable work are optional, and we all know what happens when something is optional — companies don't like to do it.
Meet Audio Adapter Accessory Mode
Audio Adapter Accessory Mode is the name of the protocol that allows a USB-C port to send analog audio through its connector and into something that's plugged in — like a 3.5mm adapter. A set of headphones with a USB-C connector will always support Accessory mode, so they can play music that was converted by the phone's hardware or convert it themselves with circuitry inside them.
Audio Adapter Accessory Mode isn't complicated. Four connections inside the USB port turn off any digital output and replace it with the four analog connections needed (Left audio, Right audio, Microphone, and Ground). Compliance means that every device that supports Audio Adapter Accessory Mode uses the same four connections in the USB-C plug so it just works if supported by both pieces.
Optionally, (there's that word again: "optional") a second set of connectors can be used to allow for charging at up to 500 milliamps.
- If your phone supports Audio Adapter Accessory Mode a cheap $3 USB-C to 3.5mm adapter works perfectly.
- If your phone supports Audio Adapter Accessory Mode and has the optional connectors for charging, a cheap adapter that splits into both a headphone jack and a USB charging port will work perfectly.
- If your phone doesn't support Audio Adapter Accessory Mode you need a more expensive active adapter that has the circuitry inside to convert the digital signal and the phone will give you an error message that says "Accessory not supported" in some way.
Did I mention that this is a mess?
Phones that support Audio Adapter Accessory Mode
Here are the phones that are built to support Audio Adapter Accessory Mode. The dongle that came in the box is just a simple passthrough with no semiconductor inside, and you can order a cheap replacement adapter (or three) as a spare.
- Motorola Moto Z
- Motorola Moto Z Droid
- Motorola Moto Z Force
- Motorola Moto Z Play
- Motorola Moto Z2 Play
- Motorola Moto Z2 Force
This list probably isn't complete and Chinese brands like Xiamoi may also support Audio Adapter Accessory Mode in some phones. This is an obsession of mine and I will find any other phones that need to be added to this list. If you know one that's not there, hit the comments and tell me, please.
What should I buy?
Look at the list above. If your phone is on it, you can save about $10 when buying an adapter. I like this pack of two for $8 from Amazon (opens in new tab) but almost any type will deliver the same results — it's just a short length of copper wire that sends the signal out and has little impact.
If your phone is not on this list and is not branded by HTC, you need an adapter with some circuitry inside. This means Pixels, Essential phones, Huawei phones, Samsung phones (if you want to use the USB port for audio. It works!) and even old Nokia Lumia phones. I bought this cable as a back up for $15 from Amazon (opens in new tab) and it sounds as good or better than the one that came in the box with my Pixel 2. Unlike the adapters above, these do have some circuitry inside and can have an impact on how things sound.
If you have an HTC phone, your best option is to use the JBL headphones that were made for it because they sound great and you don't need a dongle. If you do need a dongle, try the kind made for phones like the Pixel 2 instead of the cheaper type made for Motorola phones. It might work, depending on how the accessory pins are used (preferably not used at all) in the dongle. Most active adapters will be fine.
One last thing — you can use an active dongle (the ones with circuitry made for phones like the Pixel 2) with your Moto Z Force. Your phone will know when it's plugged in that it shouldn't switch to Audio Adapter Accessory Mode and will send the digital signal out like a Pixel or OnePlus 6 does.
This mess will sort itself out. USB was also a mess when it first arrived way back in the 1990s and we had the same worries about cables construction (I fried a very expensive set of USB speakers with my Tangerine iMac because I used the cable from a USB Iomega Zip Drive) and compatibility between USB v1.0 and USB v2.0. It happens when something new that has any sort of optional ways to use it arrives. Everything will be fine eventually, and in the meantime, you have resources like this one made by people with an unhealthy obsession with cables and headphones.
See at Amazon (opens in new tab)
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Current phone has headphone jack and I'm assuming my next will also.
But I think we can see the end is nigh.
While there are still some people out there that aren't completely ignorant and believe that Bluetooth or dongles have any benefit over the headphone jack, there will still be one or 2 companies that will capitalize on that. Those will be the only phones I will buy. LG and Samsung will probably hold on.
When Bluetooth and USBC surpass the audio quality of the headphone jack "All" manufacturers will drop it IMO.
USB C can already top the quality of built-in headphone jacks, but Bluetooth is another story. Even though Bluetooth supports lossless transmission protocols, the problem is that the stream still needs to be converted to analog, and the DAC inside the headphones is not as good as the DAC in the phone. This is why I use the wire on my Ghostek soDrop 2's instead of Bluetooth: The wired audio quality so so much better than I can hear the difference immediately.
"USB C can already top the quality of built-in headphone jacks,..." irrelevent. 99% of all phone music is played from lossy media through headphones when out and about. Analogue (i.e 3.5mm jack) sound is every bit as good. The audio quality argument is the weakest one. These are phones for heaven's sake, not advanced audiophile equipment. The human ear has a limitations!
Nicely written. I do have a question. Is it typical for a USB-C based phone to support digital audio (not the Audio Adapter Accessory Mode), even if they have a headphone jack? The specific question is for the original Pixels. You reference Pixels but do you just mean the second version. Do the original Pixel's support digital audio over the USB-C? As a side note, iPhones did support audio over lightning long before they deleted the headphone jack.
The OG Pixel supports USB-C Audio so long as the dongle/headphones are active. Passive connections won't work.
The phones that I've played with support digital audio out through USB C, even if they have a passive 3.5mm headphone jack. However, I would check with the manufacturer since there are so many phones out there.
iPhones supporting audio through Lightning was a good thing I found out by plugging my iPhone 7 adapter into my iPhone 5S. The 5S headphone quality was pretty bad, so using the lightning adapter actually improved it quite a bit.
Yea, the little flat iPhone charging dock always had an earphone socket on the back. You could plug headphones into it or use a plug to plug cable to plug it into an amplifier. Only connection to the phone was the lightning jack, so it supported audio.
Any suggestions for even higher end adapters? I’ve seen some with Sabre DACs for ~$50 but have no idea if they work the way they’re supposed to with the Pixel 2.
There's been reports of external DAC's being limited by default volume limits on the Pixel. The company that makes the Dragonfly DAC did a patch which sets the hardware volume to 100%, then you adjust it down from there. However, this is dangerous because you can damage your hearing if you forget to turn it down. It's best to start your media playing before you have your headphones on your ears.
Silly question. My phone (Axon 7) has USB-C and a standard headphone jack. Not that I'd ever do it, but could I use set of native USB-C of headphones with this device, or does the phone's OS need to be specifically configured to support USB headphones? Obviously, the existence of multiple standards implies that, yes, the phone needs to be configured for one of them. But is that 100% true?
@Jerry: FYI the official Google USB C to 3.5mm adapter is already available for $9 from Google Store, cheaper than the Amazon version. It's better to stack a few in places where it's needed (car, office desk, travel bag, etc.) or remember to carry over everywhere
I have one that came in the box with my pixel 2xl and it works for the pixel, my LG g5 and the nexus 5 x. Although for some reason the orientation matters on the nexus .
Just hang on to one of your older phones with a jack for playing music. Job done. I still use my old Z30 when working the garden. If it should have an argument with the lawnmower then tough doodo.
I have the LGV30. It has a hifi dac( headphone jack). When I work out or do certain activities I use Bluetooth. Why do phone makers make things so complicated. For example Samsung and curved glass. I see so many cracked displays cases and tempered glass barley works because of the curved edges. Then you have the deletion of the head phone jack and notches. When will it stop
I'm confused. You claim that there isn't a single dongle that would work in all phones, but you also say that all devices must support sending out digital signals for active dongles. Wouldn't that mean that an active dongle would work for all phones?
I'm just waiting for the day that a phone has 2 USB-C ports... If I can't have a headphone jack, I'd be content with two type C ports.
Thank goodness we got rid of that pesky headphone jack. This is so much better.
I forgot how much I loved the look of the wooden phones that those Motorola and OnePlus phones had! Plus, the durability and unbreakable screens Motorola has meant I never needed a case. I had a Droid Turbo 2 and never used a case. That screen was unbreakable! I have Pixel 2 now and use a case because I drop my phone all the time and I know I would eventually crack the screen. I just love the look of wood. I wish they still made phones with wood, particularly ebony macassar! Other than women, I think that's the most beautiful naturally occurring thing on Earth.
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