Ever since Apple ditched the iPhoneâ€™s headphone jack, getting your old headphones to work with newer smartphones has become a messy issue. Plenty of Android models still have 3.5mm audio jacks, but some, like Samsungâ€™s upcoming Galaxy Note 10, have followed Appleâ€™s lead and moved to one, single connection option: USB-C.
You can still plug your headphones into these devices, but doing so requires an adapterâ€”a dongleâ€”that turns your charging port into an 3.5mm headphone jack. Hereâ€™s the sticking point, though. Not all dongles are alike, and that cheap adapter you just bought from wherever might not allow you to get audio from your device at all.
USB-C headphone dongles are not all the same
The big problem with USB-C dongles is that nobody codified new hardware standards before smartphones started dropping their headphones jacks.
Playing digital media through headphones requires a digital-to-analog converter (DAC)â€”which changes digital audio data into analog signals your headphones can playbackâ€”and an amp. The disagreement is whether this conversion should happen on the smartphone itself or within the adapter youâ€™re connecting to it.
When some manufacturersâ€™ leave the DAC out of their adapters, or stuff in a bunch of proprietary circuitry that doesnâ€™t play nicely with all devices, youâ€™ll get a big hunk of nothing in your headphones.
Right now, only a small selection of USB-C-to-3.5mm adapters include DACs, and those that do can be more expensive than those that do not.
How to find the right adapter
All smartphones that can dump audio out via USB-C can work with whatâ€™s known as an active cableâ€”one that has a DAC and amplifier built in. Smartphones can also do this same process with passive cables, but this is optional. When in doubt, youâ€™ll want to err on the side of shopping for an active adapter for your device.
Finding the right adapter can be easy if you know what to look for. When shopping for a USB-C headphone adapter, check the product description for either a DAC or USB-IF certification (which is only awarded to adapters that have a built-in DAC). If you canâ€™t find either mentioned in an adapterâ€™s manual or description, youâ€™ll at least want to do a little homework to see if others have had success or silence connecting the adapter to the same device you own.
And if you donâ€™t even want to deal with this, you can always opt for a decent pair of Bluetooth headphones. Youâ€™ll have to deal with battery life and charging, sure, but at least youâ€™ll be able to rock out without issue.