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The Headphone Port: The Mac’s Achilles Heel

Apple has the most beautiful, well-designed lineup of desktop and laptop computers ever made. But they all have one common part that has given me more trouble than any other: the blasted 3.5 mm headphone port. I’ve owned dozens, maybe even hundreds, of devices with such a port, dating back to the 1980s, and have never had a problem with one, except for my two Macs: a 2011 MacBook Pro and a brand-new iMac with Retina 5K display.

The source of the problem, as Chris Breen once explained in Macworld, is that inside every Mac’s headphone port is a small sensor switch that detects when you insert a plug. Plug in your headphones and the switch triggers, shuts off the Mac’s internal speakers, and outputs sound to your headphones. Remove the plug and the switch flips the internal speakers back on.

That seems like a sensible design decision, but at least on a computer, it’s flawed, as my examples demonstrate.

The Sound of Silence -- A few months ago, my MacBook Pro’s internal speakers stopped working. When I tried to turn the volume up, the onscreen icon indicated that they were broken, but when I plugged in headphones, everything worked fine.

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After a bit of research, I learned about the headphone port switch, and deduced that it had become stuck. This problem is not rare, as shown by the above Macworld article, as well as Apple support discussion threads here, here, here, and here.

How do you know for sure that the switch is stuck? You’ll see these symptoms:

  • No sound from the built-in speakers
  • An inability to change volume
  • A red light from inside the headphone port
  • In System Preferences > Sound > Output, the selected output remains stuck on headphones, even when they’re unplugged


There are a few commonly suggested remedies for a stuck switch:

  • Insert and remove your headphone plug a few times to reset the switch
  • Blow compressed air into the headphone port to clean it out
  • Gently insert a stick, like a cotton swab stripped of cotton or a toothpick, into the port and gently move it around to dislodge the switch

Unfortunately, none of these worked for me. But my MacBook Pro was still covered under AppleCare, so I brought it in for service. A few days later, I had a new logic board, and I was mostly good again.

The problem bit me a few more times, even with the new logic board. Thankfully, plugging in and removing headphones reset the switch each time thereafter on the MacBook Pro.

The problem with my iMac isn’t a broken part, but it’s a design flaw that’s even more annoying.

An Inconvenient Port -- The iMac with 5K Retina display is a work of art, with its huge, crisp screen and clean design. It may be a bit too clean.

As you probably know, all the iMac’s ports are in the back of the machine, including the headphone port. This puzzling decision can only be chalked up to Apple’s Ive mind, which often prioritizes form over function.

The problem with this design is that you have to reach behind the iMac every time you want to connect or disconnect headphones. Since the iMac is so thin and light, you’re guaranteed to shift the screen every time you do this, and I always feel like I’m going to knock it over. It’s also difficult to plug the headphones in without getting fingerprint smudges on the screen. It gets old fast.

No problem, I thought. I have a pair of Beats Solo2 headphones, and while this isn’t the place to review them, one nice feature is that they have a detachable cable. I was hoping that I could keep the cable plugged in and merely unplug the headphones to play audio out of the speakers, which works with some devices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with the iMac. Nor would running an extension cable to a more convenient location.

Ah, but what if I manually switched the output to the internal speakers in OS X? Here’s a tip: Option-click the volume icon in the menu bar, and you get a drop-down menu that lets you choose audio outputs and inputs. But unfortunately, that doesn’t work here either.

Image

Neither of these solutions work because the headphone port switch is hardwired: if the sensor detects the physical presence of a plug, it disables the internal speakers, and there is no way to re-enable them other than toggling the sensor again.

This is an Achilles heel for every Mac, because if that little tiny sensor gets stuck, as it seems to for a non-trivial number of users, your internal speakers will no longer work. Conceivably, it could also get stuck in a way where the speakers would work, but not the headphones.

As it stands now, I have these options:

  • Leave my headphones plugged in all the time, which isn’t ideal, because I like to play music through the iMac’s otherwise thoroughly decent speakers when the house is empty.

  • Buy a set of computer speakers. I’d rather not do this, partly because of the expense of getting a decent set and partly because they require space I don’t have, occupied as my desk is by two 27-inch displays. Yes, I realize this is the definition of a first-world problem.

  • Buy some sort of wireless audio solution, like headphones or a speaker. With Bluetooth, quality isn’t great even if you pay for it, plus I would have to fuss with charging batteries.

  • Connect a USB digital-to-analog converter that I can plug my headphones into. So far, I think this is the best option for most people, but again, you probably get what you pay for, so it might not be inexpensive.

I did hack together another free solution, though it’s not an option for everyone. My secondary Dell monitor has its own headphone port, and since its Mini DisplayPort connection from the Mac can carry audio, I can select the monitor as an audio output from the volume menu. But there’s a catch: OS X, expecting the monitor to have its own volume controls, doesn’t let me change the headphone volume.

The workaround is again free. The free demo of the $39 audio utility Sound Siphon 2 provides just the volume control I need. As explained in the Sound Siphon FAQ, launch Sound Siphon, go to Sound Siphon > Preferences, and select your actual output device from the drop-down menu (in this case, DisplayPort). Close Sound Siphon preferences, and click On in the upper left. Now, when you choose Sound Siphon Out from the volume menu, that selects your headphones, while Internal Speakers routes audio to the speakers.


The problem with this solution is that the headphone output never gets particularly loud, and volume-boosting app Boom (see “FunBITS: Boom for Mac Pumps up the Volume,” 18 April 2014) doesn’t work with this setup. It’s too quiet for my podcasting work, so I’m re-evaluating the other approaches.

The fact that I have this problem with a $2,200 computer is nothing short of ridiculous. Both my iMac annoyance and the aforementioned MacBook Pro silence have the same root cause: Apple does not provide a software override for that infernal headphone port switch.

Here’s the thing: I know the speakers can still work with the switch triggered. When I reboot my iMac with the headphones plugged in, it fills my office with the Mac startup sound. So if it can play that sound through the speakers, I know it’s capable of playing other audio as well.

So please Apple, I’m begging you: give us a way to switch between internal speakers and headphones in OS X. Pretty please? It’s a simple option that could be added to the Sound preference pane; it can’t be that difficult. Slip it into the beta for OS X 10.11 El Capitan, put it in a point release, or at least expose the API to developers so they can fix it.

Alternatively, let’s say for argument’s sake that there is no way OS X could override the headphone port sensor switch. In that case, Apple, I beg you again: get rid of that stupid switch in future Macs. Make it a software function. On my last non-Mac computer, a home-built Windows PC, I could swap between headphones and speakers in the sound card settings. Come on, Apple, Microsoft Windows and a guy who built a cheap computer on a kitchen table has you beat here! That should be sufficiently embarrassing.

Think about it this way, Apple: ditching that switch would provide a consistent audio source management interface in OS X, and would result in fewer support calls, fewer trips to the Genius Bar, and less waste, because a dumb little switch getting stuck wouldn’t require an entire logic board replacement. It truly is the Mac’s Achilles heel.

 

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Comments about The Headphone Port: The Mac’s Achilles Heel
(Comments are closed.)

Ronnie  2015-09-02 13:41
Another solution that is to get an inexpensive audio interface with a headphone jack. I use a Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 for recording, and I use the headphone jack on the front of it. It also connects via USB, so you can ignore the inconvenient headphone jack on the back of the iMac.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-02 14:23
Right, that'd be a DAC, which I mentioned in the article. They run the gamut from $6 dongles to expensive professional-grade units like the Scarlet.
so, Man up! If you can swing a 27" retina iMac and another 27" monitor, you can afford a decent USB Dac.
Mattflight  2015-09-21 22:40
Josh, as someone doing podcasting work you should be using an external DAC for your microphone input. And as someone who has multiple Focusrite Scarlet devices for recording podcasts and a radio show they are worth every penny.

And if the 2i2 is more than you want to spend, the also offer the Scarlett Solo that can be had for $100. A perfect little device if you are going to be the only one needing a mic in your office.
I wonder if this inexpensive USB adapter might serve the purpose http://www.amazon.com/Plugable-Headphone-Microphone-Aluminum-Compatibility/dp/B00NMXY2MO

What scares me about Tim Cook is his apparent lack of obsession with perfection — at least the kind that Steve had. OSX is suffering, and I just can't f*cking watch him strutting the stage spewing the superlatives any more.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-02 14:30
I have zero doubts that Steve would have signed off on the existing iMacs. Remember the old SuperDrive iMacs that had the SuperDrive and SD card slots on the side, so if you weren't careful, you'd stick an SD card in the SuperDrive slot? That happened on Steve's watch.

Apple has long had a thing for putting form over function. Steve Jobs screwed up a factory because he insisted that precision machines be repainted, which ruined them.
To clarify: I'm bitching about OSX, specifically , which seems to be the essence of your article as well — i.e., “signing off” on annoying deficiencies that could be easily mitigated (in your example) in software.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-02 18:50
Everything Josh is talking about started on Steve Jobs' watch.
they just need an improved headphone jack. The functionality, when it's working, is ideal. no need to fiddle with software, just plug or unplug as needed.

the repainting fiasco was back in the Bad Steve days, before he had a clue and was just a dilettante carpetbagger.

never heard of anyone putting SD cards in the superdrive slot. seems like a clueless newbie mistake I'd think.
Peter Hertzmann  2015-09-03 00:47
I'm using a similar USB adapter, also under $10, with my 5K iMac. I run an extension cable behind my desk and under it so my headphones plug in at the front. This keeps my desktop free of cabling. It works fine.

I have a second USB connection for my Plantronics earpiece so I can use the Mac as a phone, also with no wires draping across my work surface.
John Beatty  2015-09-02 16:50
For many years I've used a couple of Yamaha amplifiers that take USB input (I bought several spares on eBay after Yamaha ceased making them). Nobody else seemed to make an equivalent amp at the time, but Amazon now comes up with some. Another alternative is a "HomeSpot NFC-Enabled Bluetooth Audio Receiver for Sound System" - I bought one of these a few months ago, and it works fine, though I don't use it heavily.
Charles Ross  2015-09-02 17:11
While I admit that I've had the stuck headphone switch on my 17" MBP, and also admit I've always been able to fix it by plugging and unplugging headphones, I'd much rather Apple allow a software override as well as simply design a more reliable mechanism for the switch.

I use the switch daily, and would really miss it if when I plugged headphones in and out (which I probably do four or five times a day) I had to manually switch the sound output.
Paul Collins  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-04 13:56
I feel your pain. I find a USB headset (with mic) like those sold by Skype gives very satisfactory results for music or TV listening (YEMNA: your ears may not agree). Plus it has lots of other uses. I did macros to switch speakers/headset in the ever-useful Keyboard Maestro.

(I ran out of USB ports on the iMac long ago and got a stand/USB hub combo)
Dave Kitabjian  2015-09-05 17:14
Nice article and interesting discovery.

I have a feeling this was probably the cause of strange sound behavior I have seen in the past.

It would be nice if connecting headphones was as painless as turning my (Bluetooth) Trackpad on and off. Works perfectly every time. Maybe I should invest in some Bluetooth headphones...
bill452  2015-09-14 20:33
Hi, I have long been concerned about the headphone problem, just on general wear-and-tear principles. I've never had it fail in that particular way but was concerned. Anyway I needed to do something as I don't want to bother my wife when she's in the room and doesn't want to listen to what I'm playing, but do like to use the loudspeakers when possible, which includes when it's a program she is interested in.

So recently I bought some bluetooth earbuds (I'm mostly listening to talk so fidelity isn't much of an issue), and this is for me an excellent solution.
Openreels  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-14 20:38
There should be a software override in the Sound control panel. Hmmm, doesn't Windows have something like this...?

I'd also like to see the return of the analog Line Input jack!!!
Even if they had an analog line in (which some macs still do I think? or at least recently did), you'd have to A/D it once in there, so just get an outboard A/D converter and use the digital line in.
Bob Edsall   2015-09-14 22:15
My problem is the reverse. I can't get the Mac to recognize when I plug headphones or a set of computer speakers into the headphone port.
Roger Moffat  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-09-14 22:32
I have two Dell UH2414H 24" displays connected to my 2008 Mac Pro by Display Port, but don't see the option to choose Display Port in my Sound output settings.

Would this be because they're connected to a PCI graphics card which doesn't handle sound? The graphics card is ATI Radeon HD 5770.

I do have a Dell soundbar on one of the displays and get the sound to that via USB cable, but that occasionally seems to crash - pressing volume up or down gives the same "forbidden" graphic your article showed, and I have to turn that display off and back on again to get the sound to come back.

Thanks

Roger
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-14 22:42
Hmm, yeah, could be the graphics card. I'm not quite sure how Apple wires things up on the inside to send sound through the video card.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-09-15 08:12
For many years I used a PowerWave USB audio device from Griffin Technology to bring the headphone port to my desktop from behind one or another Mac tower on the floor under my desk. When it developed a subtle hum, I looked to replace it, but the PowerWave is no longer available.

After a little searching on Amazon I found the U-Control UCA222 by Behringer that sells now for around $30. It's a modest DAC, but works just fine with my Bose headphones. The U-Control shows up as USB Audio CODEC when I Option-click the Sound menubar item, from where it's perfectly easy to switch to Internal Speakers. This strategy can bypasses the headphone port entirely—though I actually have a set of desktop speakers plugged into the port on my "27 iMac.

The U-Control is plugged into a 7 port Pluggable USB 3 hub, which is essential given how few USB ports there are on an iMac. This won't eliminate cable clutter, but, it seems to me, that's a small price to pay for the convenience the DAC provides. Of course, whether this is an acceptable solution depends on your priorities.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-09-15 08:27
On another note, I agree Ive has lost his magic touch. He's applied his minimalist ethic to the OS X interface, where it is far less useful than it is with hardware design. Though, frankly, I think he's gone overboard with hardware as well. There was no aesthetic reason to slim down the iMac and the tradeoffs that entailed certainly don't benefit users. And the single port MacBook is an atrocity. It deserves the same oblivion that swallowed the Windows RT tablet PC.

But the OS X UI is the real disaster. Usability and accessibility have gone down the tubes. Similar values have even infected the Apple web site, where light gray text on a white background predominates. Emperor Ive has no clothes, but there's no one at Apple with the nerve - or the judgement - to point it out. Certainly not Tim Cook, who has let quality control in Apple software starve to death. Apple has inevitably become the victim of its own success. And the company's leadership is oblivious to their own hubris.
Sam Reichberg  2015-09-15 09:18
What we really need is a Take Control of Mac Sound (including iOS) book. In addition to the items mentioned here, once you start adding utilities, all bets are out on where the sound is going to come from, if ever...the lack of a directly assesible system equalizer, etc, etc.
rochlin2  2015-09-15 12:47
Another related issue: I can find no way to use my iMac's surprisingly good built in mid and upper range speakers with a sub-woofer plugged into the sound port.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-15 12:53
This might fit the bill: https://www.twelvesouth.com/product/bassjump-2-for-macbook
Not sure why the "red light" inside the headphone port is considered a sign of a problem. The red light is for optical digital audio output, is it not? That was pretty standard starting several years ago, but I"m not sure if they continue to offer that.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-09-15 15:05
It's a problem, because that light is only triggered when the switch is triggered. So if you see a red light in the port, that's because it thinks a plug is inserted.
Colleen Thompson  2016-08-31 08:23
I had to sell an otherwise perfectly good 2012 MacBook Pro because the headphone switch became hopelessly stuck. I would certainly second the motion for an override in software.