Yeah, About That iPhone 3GS Headphone Port Thing…

Just when we thought there was a clear enough answer (“yes!”) to an obvious question—“will my old headphones work with the iPhone 3GS”—reality had to intervene today and change that to a “maybe.” Or an “at least partially, for audio but not remote control purposes.”

Who is affected? iPhone 3GS owners interested in using certain third-party headphones that have an in-line, single combined play/pause/call button.

Who is not affected? iPhone 3GS owners using Apple’s old or new iPhone headsets, as well as those using certain other third-party headphones with the aforementioned single multifunction button.

So wait, are you saying that third-party headphones don’t work with the iPhone 3GS? No. What we’re saying is that certain third-party headphones with play/pause/call button controls might or might not function fully with the iPhone 3GS. More specifically, the button mightn’t work, or it might sort of work and sort of not work.

As you might guess, we have bunches of different headphones around here that we pull out for testing on an as-needed basis. When the iPhone 3GS came out with one of those (ahem, newfangled) three button in-line remotes, we wanted to know whether its headphone port worked properly with prior-generation mic- and remote control-enabled headsets, like the Ultimate Ears 4vi, and of course Apple’s earlier iPhone Stereo Headset. Test one, test two, test another couple of headsets—yup, they all worked. People heard us, we heard them, and the buttons did what they were supposed to do. Case closed.

Today, however, we started to play around with Belkin’s brand new Headphone Adapter for iPod shuffle 3G, the first cable-styled remote control add-on for the buttonless shuffle. It doesn’t include a microphone, but it does have the same three buttons as the remotes included with the iPod shuffle 3G, the iPhone 3GS, and two other sets of Apple-branded headphones. So the Adapter should work with all of the latest, remote-ready iPods, plus the 3GS, right?

For remote features, yes, it does. Belkin doesn’t say that it will, but it does, which is great. So then we tried the next thing: what happens when you connect iPhone and iPhone 3G-ready one-button headphones with microphones to the Adapter—do they work? Sorta. Music and calls are totally audible. The microphone works but doesn’t sound good. And the single button is disabled. Fair enough; one wire, one set of working buttons, no problem.

But it turns out that some of the iPhone and iPhone 3G-ready headsets have buttons that don’t work with the 3GS. Like V-Moda’s Vibe Duo and Vibe II. Once in a rare while, we’ve somehow been able to make their buttons trigger Voice Control on the 3GS, but otherwise, a Vibe button press doesn’t seem to do a thing. This, even though the buttons on Ultimate Ears and Apple’s pre-3GS remotes work just fine. Note also that none of the pre-shuffle 3G in-line earphone remotes, Apple or third-party, work to control that shuffle, making Belkin’s Adapter (or a competitor) the only real option for using non-Apple earphones.

Surely, there’s some innocuous explanation for this, like repeatedly incorrect engineering by certain third-party headphone developers. You already know the not-so-innocuous explanation, which would suggest that some old mics and remotes that worked with both prior iPhones are being blocked deliberately on the iPhone 3GS to create a market for newer, Apple-controlled ones. Which do you think is the case?

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