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This question is in light of the new iPhone 7, but is relevant to older iPhones as well since the adapter works with all Lightning iPhones running iOS 10.

Since the Lightning port is digital-only, the Lightning to 3.5mm connector must contain a Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC). Since the sound quality will depend largely on this DAC, how does it compare to the DAC contained in the iPhone and used traditionally for the headphone jack?

Edit: After receiving the adapter and subjectively A/B testing it with my Sennheiser 598 headphones for an hour or so, I did not notice any difference between my iPhone 5 analog output and my iPhone 5 with lightning to headphone adapter. See @timothymh's answer for quantitative details.

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    This article (in german, use Google Translate if necessary) implies that sound actually is transmitted analog through the adapter (which may work because Lightning devices can change the meaning of the different contacts if required). – nohillside Sep 17 '16 at 8:16
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    We need iFixit or someone to do a teardown of the adapter. – Squuiid Sep 17 '16 at 15:44
  • This comment also suggests that the DAC may be inside the iPhone. – mbirth Sep 18 '16 at 21:26
  • @mbirth Yeah there's a lot of controversy about this right now. It basically comes down to the question, has apple had a path from the on-board DAC/ADC to the lightning port since the iPhone 5, and is only now opening it up via software (iOS 10)? Or is the lightning port staying digital-only, with the DAC, ADC, and amplifier contianed within the adapter? There are a lot of good points for both sides, so I guess we won't see until the adapter is taken apart. – Steve Sep 18 '16 at 21:46
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    The Vietnamese site Tinhte has torn down the Lightning EarPods, along with the 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter. It confirms that those accessories contain a DAC: macrumors.com/2016/09/20/… – user11633 Sep 20 '16 at 17:32
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It is imperceptibly worse than the standard iPhone DAC + amplifier + headphone jack.

Regarding the debate over whether it contains its own DAC, iFixit looked into this, in collaboration with Creative Electron, by x-raying an adapter and investigated what they saw. According to iFixit, it is likely that it contains, at minimum, “a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and amplifier, and its counterpart, an analog-to-digital-converter (ADC).” If you’re interested in learning more about that, read their article.

adapter

Also on that page, they refer to German computer tech magazine c’t, which conducted a detailed study into the sound quality of the iPhone 7 with adapter when compared to an iPhone 6s and an iPad Air with and without the adapter. Below is their English translation of c’t’s findings:

table

If you compare the contents of the various columns, you can see that there is very little difference in output with and without the adapter, though dynamic range and output power are very slightly reduced—well below the threshold of human perception. From iFixit’s article:

So, is it a difference you are likely to notice? If you sit in a quiet room with a really, really good pair of headphones … and you’re a canine, the answer is: maybe.

The numbers do show a reduced output impedance on he new models, which will improve frequency response with certain headphones. For optimal performance over the full frequency range, headphones with x impedance should be driven by an amplifier with an output impedance of no more than x/8. The iPhone 6s, with its 4.5Ω impedance, can drive headphones with impedance greater than 36Ω, which excludes many smaller in-ear models. The adapter's 0.37Ω impedance can accurately drive headphones as low as 3Ω—lower than any on the market.

In summary, if you have high-quality in-ear monitors, you may experience a small but noticeable increase in audio quality with the new adapter. Everyone else will experience an imperceptible decrease.

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    For anyone interested, this forum post has a great analysis as well and is a good read: head-fi.org/t/627111/… – Steve Oct 7 '16 at 1:38
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    One note. At the bottom of the linked article, they link to another test (heise.de/newsticker/meldung/…), where they note that the lightning adapter has a higher noise floor at -86 dBFS, which is perceptible with sensitive headphones. – foges Nov 15 '17 at 19:35
  • Definitely not imperceptible, at least on with the X. Using a pro DAC adapter created a much better sound, but it had gain issues with recordings at higher amplitude. – Darf Nader Feb 24 '18 at 7:42
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    @DarfNader The difference between the internal headphone jack and the lightning DAC, not between the lightning DAC and something that costs lots of money. – Timothy Mueller-Harder Feb 24 '18 at 19:13
  • The “something that costs a lot of money” is actually closer to the audio experience of the iPhone before we entered “dongle days”. – Darf Nader Mar 1 '18 at 4:04

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