A collective groan echoed across the Internet a few years ago when Apple announced that it was dropping the traditional 3.5mm headphone socket from the iPhone 7. Then, in 2020, Apple also decided to stop including a set of EarPods in the box with new iPhones leaving iPhone users to find their own headphones.
A same challenge applies to owners of the iPad – none of the current range of iPad models has a headphone socket. Only the standard 10.2in iPad features a Lightning port, the other iPads all offer USB-C as a means to connect accessories.
It’s obvious, then, that Apple wants us all to go out and buy a set of AirPods, which use Bluetooth to provide wireless audio. However, there are still times when it’s preferable to use a good old-fashioned set of wired headphones. Apart from anything else, you don’t have to worry about the battery running flat, and there are many people who still prefer the sound quality provided by wired headphones too. Throw in the fashionistas who seem to think that wired headphones are charmingly retro, and wired headphones do seem to be having a bit of a moment right now.
There are a few manufacturers that make headphones with a Lightning connector, which are specifically designed for use with the iPhone. However, most of the latest iPad models – apart from the entry-level 9th gen iPad – have now switched from Lightning to USB-C connectors. Perhaps the iPhone will follow this same trend.
Fortunately, there are new headphones now available that have a USB-C connector for wired audio, so you can choose a set of headphones that has either Lightning or USB-C, depending on which iPhone or iPad you own.
Headphones that have USB-C should work with Macs that have USB-C too – although most Macs do still have a standard 3.5mm headphone socket that will work with conventional headphones. One thing to remember is that many headphones use a USB-C connector for charging – but may not allow you to play audio via a USB-C cable, so check on that before buying any new headphones.
There’s one other option as well. You can still use traditional headphones that have a standard 3.5mm audio connector with an iPhone or iPad – although you will need a suitable adaptor or cable that has a 3.5mm connector for the headphones and a Lightning or USB-C connector for your Apple devices. Apple sells 3.5mm headphone jack adaptors with both Lightning connectors for $9/£9 and USB-C for $9/£9.
Other companies sell adaptors too – most notably Belkin, with its Rockstar or Connect Lightning to 3.5mm adaptors ($39.99 at Amazon US or £29 at Amazon UK), which provide multiple ports and connectors so that you can charge your iPhone or iPad and listen to music at the same time. We look at even more adapter options here: Best Lightning headphone adapters for iPhone.
Best Lightning and USB-C headphones
1. Austrian Audio Hi-X25BT
- Includes USB-C-to-3.5m, USB-C and USB-A cables
- Great sound quality
- 30 hour battery life
- Not great as Bluetooth headphones
- Wireless mode doesn’t support AAC
Austrian Audio is a well-known name in Hi-Fi circles, making high-end headphones and microphones for musicians and audiophiles. However, it also makes some more affordable headphones, such as the Hi-X25BT, which provides impressive sound quality for a very affordable $179/£135.
As the name suggests, the Hi-X25BT does include Bluetooth to provide a wireless option when required, with an impressive 30 hours of battery life in Bluetooth mode. It’s not at its best with Bluetooth, though, as it doesn’t support either Apple’s AAC or AptX for Android, relying on the more basic SBC codec for wireless audio.
The emphasis, therefore, is more on using the Hi-X25BT as a set of wired headphones via its USB-C connector. Austrian includes two cables with the headphones, with a USB-C-to-3.5mm connector that provides standard analogue audio, or a straightforward USB-C cable that provides digital audio from an iPad, Mac or other devices that have USB-C. There’s also a USB-A adaptor included too, and I had no trouble using the Hi-X25BT with both USB-A and 3.5mm connections on my ageing office iMac. I also found a Lightning audio adaptor from Belkin in my desk draw, which allowed me to use the Hi-X25BT with a Lightning connection on my iPhone as well – although, of course, this isn’t included with the headphones, so you’d need to provide your own adaptor for an iPhone.
And, as you’d expect from a company with Austrian’s Hi-Fi background, the sound quality is great, thanks to 40mm drivers with impressive 12Hz – 24KHz frequency response. The cymbal crash that starts Blondie’s Rapture rings out crisp and clear, with a loose relaxed feel on the jangling rhythm guitar. The song’s bouncing bass line works a treat too, and never gets lost in the mix as can sometimes happen with less precise headphones.
2. Belkin SoundForm
- Features a Lightning port
- Tangle-free cable
- Great sound for low price
- No carry case
- Sound quality is dependent on good fit
Lightning headphones are normally pretty expensive, since manufacturers have to make a special version of their standard headphones that uses the Apple-only connector just for iPhone owners. However, Belkin surprised us by releasing its SoundForm Headphones With Lightning Connector, priced at just $39.99/£29.99.
Despite their low price, the SoundForm headphones – which used to be called Rockstar, but have been rebranded – are sturdily built, with a chunky, flat cable that reduces tangles when you shove them into your pocket.
The inline controls are fairly basic – just a little microphone for voice calls, a couple of buttons for volume adjustment, and a Play/Pause button that controls music and phone calls. And, at this price, there’s not a lot in the way of added extras either – there’s no carrying case, and just three sizes of silicon ear-tips, although that should be enough to provide a good, comfortable fit for most people.
Belkin also says the headphones are water-resistant – although it doesn’t quote an IP rating – so they should be a good, affordable option for jogging around the park or working out at the gym.
Sound quality is a pleasant surprise too, given the low price. The SoundForm delivered the multi-layered bombast of Bohemian Rhapsody with clarity and detail. Smaller, less expensive earbuds such as these often suffer from weak bass, but the SoundForm also managed to dig down to the deep, sinister electronic bass on Prime Evil by The Orb.
Our only concern is that the sound quality is very dependent on getting a good, firm fit inside your ears, but as long as the ear-tips provided by Belkin fit you properly then the SoundForm is the best set of budget-priced Lightning headphones we’ve seen so far. Belkin also makes some handy and affordable Lightning adaptors, which let you use existing 3.5mm headphones with a recent iPhone, or even connect an iPhone to a car music system.
3. Apple EarPods
- Feature a Lightning port
- Decent sound at a low price
- No silicon tips
- Not ideal is you need a firm fit
Apple stopped including the EarPods with new iPhones years ago – which was annoying for iPhone owners, but great for headphone manufacturers who could step in with their own alternatives. But the Internet says that the cool kids are wearing wired headphones again these days – it’s a retro thing, apparently – and the EarPods are still available for people who prefer a simple and affordable set of wired earbuds.
There are actually two versions available, both costing just $19/£19, with either a Lightning connector or a standard 3.5mm audio connector for older iPhones or iPad models that still have ye olde headphone connector. That 3.5mm connector will work with other audio devices too and, of course, a wired connection means that you don’t have to worry about the battery running down in the middle of a long journey.
The design of the EarPods was updated a few years ago, with a more oval-shaped earpiece that is designed to rest more easily inside the ear. However, they still have the same one-size-fits-all design of the original EarPods, with no option to use silicon tips in different sizes, so they’re probably not the best choice for people who need a good, firm fit for working out or jogging around the park.
You’re not going to get hi-fi quality headphones at this price, but the wired connection avoids the compromises caused by the limited bandwidth of Bluetooth, so the EarPods still provide respectable sound quality. The bass sounds nice and firm, and our only complaint is that higher frequencies can sound a little thin at times.
4. Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
- Supports Apple’s AAC codec
- Sound great in both wired and wireless modes
- Wide frequency response
- Didn’t work with the Macs we tested with
The name suggests that Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless headphones might be wireless-only, but the Momentum – currently in its 3rd generation model – was actually one of the first headphones to support audio over a USB-C connection. And, as well as the USB-C connector on the right-hand earpiece, there’s a 2.5mm audio connector for analogue audio as well, with both USB-C and 2.5mm-to-3.5mm audio cables included in the box.
Available in black or white, the Momentum Wireless costs $399/£349, making it one of the more expensive headphones in this category – but that’s still $150/£200 less expensive than Apple’s AirPods Max ($549/£549), which don’t provide a wired option (unless you buy a separate Lightning adaptor for £35/$35). The Momentum Wireless also includes noise-cancellation features, and supports Apple’s AAC codec for Bluetooth, along with AptX for Android devices, so it’s both cheaper and more versatile than the AirPods Max.
The only minor oddity is that while we had no problems using USB-C to listen to music on a couple of office iPads that have USB-C, the Momentum wasn’t able to play music from our office Macs via USB-C. That means that the USB-C option is best suited for the latest iPad models that have USB-C – although, of course, there’s still Bluetooth and the standard headphone connector available for Macs, iPhones and other devices.
And, as you might expect from Sennheiser, the Momentum Wireless sounds great in either wired or wireless modes. I’ve always enjoyed the warm tones of Sennheiser headphones, and that sound really stands out on The Big Sky by Kate Bush, capturing both the range and richness of her voice on the song’s chanting chorus. However, the Momentum 3 Wireless also boasts a frequency response that goes right down to 6Hz on the low end – and 22Khz on higher frequencies – and it delivers a big, beefy bass sound for the song’s rumbling bass and drums that really works a treat on dance and rock music.
5. Zorloo Zophia
- Bluetooth and wired modes
- USB-C cable, with optional Lightning adaptor
- Includes high-quality DAC
- No noise-cancellation
- Modest battery life
The new Zophia earbuds from Zorloo really stand out in a crowded market, simply by virtue of providing both Bluetooth wireless and a more traditional wired mode.
If you need the convenience of Bluetooth then the Zophia supports Apple’s AAC codec, along with AptX for Android devices. Battery life is relatively modest at just five hours, but the USB-C charging case lets you top the earbuds up for a total of 25 hours listening time. But, when the battery is flat, or you want to listen to your favourite music with the best possible sound quality, you can simply plug in the proprietary audio cable provided by Zorloo and the Zophia will automatically turn off Bluetooth and switch into wired mode.
The audio cable has a USB-C interface that will work with Macs and iPads that have USB-C, but you can also buy the Zophia with a Lightning adaptor as well. The cable also works as a DAC – digital-to-analogue converter – that bypasses the somewhat ropey analogue audio that you can get from many Apple devices in order to enhance the sound quality even further. The standard USB-C version of the Zophia costs $169/£139, or $179/£147 with the Lightning adaptor. And, for real hi-fi buffs, there’s a version that costs $209/£170 with the Lightning adaptor and additional support for the ‘studio quality’ MQA audio format used by some high-end audio devices, and streaming services such as Tidal.
The Zophia works perfectly well in Bluetooth mode, although there are cheaper Bluetooth headphones that can match its sound quality using Bluetooth alone. But it’s the wired option that is the Zophia’s real selling point – and switching the Zophia into wired mode using the Lightning adaptor on my iPhone makes an immediate improvement to the sound quality. Kate Bush is all over the Internet at the moment, thanks to Running Up That Hill being used in Stranger Things on Netflix, but my favourite track on the Hounds Of Love album has always been The Big Sky, and especially the thunderous 12-inch ‘Meteorological Mix’. The Zophia really comes to life with the Lightning adaptor’s wired connection, immediately displaying a brighter, more vibrant sound. It captures the deep, snappy sound of the slap-bass, and the rumbling avalanche of drums and percussion, but still manages to pick out lighter details such as the shimmering cymbals and, of course, Kate’s own soaring vocals as the final chorus goes “walking out on the big, big sky…”
6. JLab Go Work
- Great for phone calls and video-conferencing
- 45-hour battery life
- Only 3.5mm audio connector provided although works with USB-C
- Bass heavy
As the name suggests, JLab’s Go Work headset is primarily designed for use at work, taking phone calls or video-conferencing with colleagues and clients at work. It has thickly padded earpieces so that you can wear it comfortably all day long, and there’s an adjustable boom mic to make sure your voice is clear during calls. You can use the Go Work with Bluetooth if you want, and it boasts an impressive 45-hour battery life to see you through a whole week at work. However, the right earpiece has a USB-C connector, which is primarily used for charging, but can also be used to provide a wired audio connection if you prefer.
It’s nice to have that wired option although, oddly, the audio cable that’s included in the box only has a 3.5mm audio connector on it. That worked fine with the headphone socket on my office iMac but, of course, iPads and iPhones no longer have a headphone socket, so if you want to use the Go Work with your mobile devices then you’ll still need to buy a 3.5mm adaptor from Apple or another company such as Belkin.
The sound quality is perfectly fine for voice calls and, of course, you can also listen to some music when you’re off duty as well. The sound is a little bass heavy – although some people do like that – but still perfectly respectable for such a low-cost set of headphones, and the low price makes the Go Work a good option for people who are working from home.
7. Moshi Avanti LT
- Lightning or 3.5mm, plus USB-C option
- High-quality sound
- Variety of colours
The problem with most Lightning headphones is simply that they only work with Apple devices such as the iPhone and older iPads – and won’t even work with newer Apple products such as the iPad Pro range, which has now ditched Lightning in favour of USB-C instead. It’s hard to justify spending a lot of money on expensive headphones that will only work with a single device.
So Moshi has played it smart with its
Avanti on-ear headphones. They’re fairly pricey, at around £220/$240, but the headphones include both a detachable Lightning cable for Apple devices, and a conventional 3.5mm cable that provides compatibility with a wider range of smartphones and other audio devices. Moshi also makes a second model, called the
Avanti C, that comes with a USB-C cable for the increasing range of smartphones and tablets compatible with that connector.
The headphones themselves are smartly designed, and available in a variety of different colours. The on-ear design means that they’re quite compact, and the earpieces fold inwards so that you can easily slip them into the carrying case that’s provided for when you’re travelling.
They sound great too, thanks to a frequency range of 15Hz – 22kHz. That allows them to provide a really nice, firm bass on dance tracks such as Prime Evil by The Orb, while also reaching right up to the glass-cutting falsetto of Roger Taylor on Queen’s Lap Of The Gods.
High-quality sound, portable design and useful accessories ensure that the Avanti LT headphones can really earn their keep both at home and when you’re travelling – and, unlike most Lightning headphones, you can use them with non-Apple devices too.
- Great sound quality
- Creates a unique profile for you
- Immersion mode
Although the Nuraphones are wireless, they have a proprietary connector. Normally that’s an annoying feature but here it means you can use the headphones with a number of different cables, including Lightning.
It’s very unlikely you’ve used any headphones like Nura’s. They might look like fairly standard over-ear headphones but they also have an in-ear section, too. It’s an odd sensation that you’ll have to get used to but the technology on offer here could be worth it.
We don’t find them the most comfortable headphones around due to the design, but the sound quality and features are something quite special.
The first time you use Nuraphones, they will play a range of tones to map your personal hearing. Once it know what frequencies you’re more or less sensitive to, it will create a profile unique to you. You might not believe how good it is – try someone else’s profile and you won’t like the sound as much.
Furthermore, the design means that while the in-ear drivers do most of the regular work, the outer cups have bass drivers for an adjustable immersion mode. This is best described as like having sub woofers in your headphones and you’ll feel the bass rather than hear it.
A G2 software update to the app brings additional features, too. Namely active noise cancelling with a ‘social mode’ so you can hear what’s going on around you without taking the headphones off.
They’re an $400/£349 and available from Amazon and Nura. You can read a full review over on Tech Advisor.
Can I just use a Lightning adapter?
If you prefer to stick with an existing set of 3.5mm wired headphones that you really like then it is possible to buy an adapter. And, in fact, Apple did include a Lightning adapter with the iPhone 7, 8 and X when they were first launched. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case with current iPhones.
You can still buy Apple’s Lightning To 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter for £9/$9 from the Apple Store, but it’s also possible to buy non-Apple alternatives from audio specialists, such as Fiio’s i1, which provides superior sound quality, but costs around £69. Some manufacturers, such as Audeze and Bowers & Wilkins also make their own Lightning cables for use with their own headphones.
Serious audiophiles can also opt for a portable DAC – digital/analogue converter – such as the popular iFi range or the Chord Mojo to really give their audio quality a boost.
For buying advice related to other types of headphone, see our Best wired headphones test.