Why Some USB-C Headphone Dongles Don’t Work

Ever since Apple ditched the iPhone’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, such as Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Note 10, have followed Apple’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 adaptor — a dongle — that turns your charging port into an 3.5mm headphone jack. Here’s the sticking point, though. Not all dongles are alike, and that cheap adaptor 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-analogue converter (DAC) — which changes digital audio data into analogue signals your headphones can play back — and an amp. The disagreement is whether this conversion should happen on the smartphone itself or within the adaptor you’re connecting to it.

When some manufacturers’ leave the DAC out of their adaptors, or stuff in a bunch of proprietary circuitry that doesn’t play nicely with all devices, you’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 adaptor

All smartphones that can dump audio out via USB-C can work with what’s known as an active cable — 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, you’ll want to err on the side of shopping for an active adaptor for your device.

Finding the right adaptor can be easy if you know what to look for. When shopping for a USB-C headphone adaptor, check the product description for either a DAC or USB-IF certification (which is only awarded to adaptors that have a built-in DAC).

If you can’t find either mentioned in an adaptor’s manual or description, you’ll at least want to do a little homework to see if others have had success or silence connecting the adaptor to the same device you own.

And if you don’t even want to deal with this, you can always opt for a decent pair of Bluetooth headphones. You’ll have to deal with battery life and charging, sure, but at least you’ll be able to rock out without issue.


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