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No headphone jack, no problem: 7 ways to output audio from the iPhone 7

Bluetooth headphones? Wireless speakers? How about all of the above, and more. Here are the best ways to get audio from your no-headphone-jack-having iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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Sarah Tew/CNET

As everyone knows by now, Apple finally worked up the "courage" to eliminate the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus smartphones. According to Phil Schiller, head of marketing, the decision was based on three reasons: firstly to show off Lightning's ability to adapt to uses beyond charging and data transfer, secondly to save space and thirdly to explore a wireless headphone option, the Apple AirPods.

The AirPods' W1 chip pairs seamlessly with iCloud, but they're not the only wireless earbuds on the block, and there are plenty of other ways to output audio from the new iPhones, both wired and wireless.

From dongles to Bluetooth to Wi-Fi -- and everything in between -- here are the best options. (And note that most of them will work with most earlier iPhones and even Android phones, too.)

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A Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle

Let's get this one out of the way first, because it seems to draw the most ire from readers. Apple thankfully includes a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box to make the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus compatible with "legacy" headphones. The catch is a single-port dongle means you can't charge the phone and listen to music at the same time, but guess what? Belkin already released a $40 Lightning splitter to solve that problem, too.

My colleague David Carnoy raises another interesting point: Apple could take advantage of the Lightning port to release certified powered accessories -- things like noise-canceling headphones (without the bulky batteries) or maybe a dongle-size headphone amp.

Lightning headphones

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David Carnoy/CNET

Want to split the difference between a dongle and wired headphones? Headphone manufacturers like Audeze and Philips have already introduced models with a Lightning connector in place of the 3.5 plug.

Sure, you'll need to lug around the 3.5mm adapter if you plan to plug into non-Apple sources, but the big advantage of Lightning is that it can supply power and data at the same time, so headphones like the new JBL Reflect Aware can now deliver active noise control in a compact earbud design.

Check out the full list of Lightning headphones you can buy right now.

Wireless headphones

If you want to cut the cord entirely, Bluetooth wireless headphones are the way to go. While it's true that sending an audio signal over Bluetooth requires further compression and processing that already mar the sound of digital audio files, most people welcome the trade-off if it means they'll never have to untangle a headphone wire ever again.

Wireless headphones come in all shapes and sizes, with features like active noise cancellation, fitness analysis and even augmented-reality access to fine-tune your aural environment. Yes, they have disadvantages: They still don't sound quite as good as wired headphones, and they need to be recharged. But the best models are better than ever, and you can get some great ones at prices below $150 (£110 or AU$200) or even below $100.

Check out a list of our favorite Bluetooth wireless headphones here.

Wireless speakers

Wireless audio is by no means a new medium for speakers, but Bluetooth has become the standard in recent years for its sheer simplicity and low-cost benefits.

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The Bose SoundTouch 10 connects to your device over Wi-Fi and comes with an app that can save your favorite internet radio stations as presets.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the other hand, if you're at home with a solid connection, Wi-Fi speakers have their own benefits: They generally don't sound as shrill and lifeless as Bluetooth speakers and they're better for streaming music to multiple rooms in the home.

If you're interested in piping audio into two or more rooms, look at the prices and features of other products in the same product "family." All Sonos products work together, as do Yamaha's MusicCast, LG's Music Flow and Bose's SoundTouch products, to name a few.

There's also the Amazon Echo, which offers voice-controlled music options (sans iPhone) over Wi-Fi, but also works as a standard Bluetooth speaker, too.

Apple also offers a Wi-Fi standard called AirPlay that offers better sound quality than Bluetooth, but AirPlay-compatible speakers tend to be more expensive. (See "wireless adapters" below for some better AirPlay options.

If you're ready to shop, here's a quick overview of the Wi-Fi speaker landscape and be sure to consult our ever-updating list of best Bluetooth speakers too.

Wireless adapters

If you're on a budget and hunting for the best deal to free music from your iPhone, our favorite Wi-Fi music player remains the diminutive Chromecast Audio from Google. At only $35 (£30 or AU$49), the tiny streamer turns any stereo with an aux-in port into a wireless music system, with multiroom capability and 24-bit/96kHz playback for the audiophile crowd.

It's worth noting, however, that Chromecast Audio works with a smaller selection of apps on iOS than Android, so be sure your favorite music apps are compatible before you buy it -- thankfully, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Deezer and dozens more make the cut, but Apple Music and iTunes don't.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Don't forget you can use Apple's lossless AirPlay to connect an Apple TV or AirPort Express and get music off your phone.

If you're looking for a relatively cheap way to add Bluetooth wireless audio streaming to an existing powered speaker or audio component with an audio input, the Logitech Bluetooth Audio Adapter is a worthwhile solution. It connects to a source via RCA or 3.5mm inputs and lets you use an iPhone as a remote to stream audio while maintaining control of volume and track selection from the palm of your hand -- no AirPlay or Wi-Fi necessary.

In a similar fashion, you can also buy portable Bluetooth audio receivers like the Wicked Audio Reach and the Outdoor Technology Adapt that bestow the power of Bluetooth to any pair of wired headphones by way of a 3.5mm jack. These little gadgets also incorporate track navigation and volume control buttons that can also answer/end buttons for phone calls, effectively turning headphones into headsets for Skype, Facetime, and voice-over-IP calls.

Apple iPhone Lightning Dock

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Apple

If you're a die-hard multitasker and want to listen to music while you charge your iPhone, the Apple iPhone Lightning Dock is an analog option that will set you back $39 (£30 or AU$55). The back of the dock has an audio port to connect headphones or external speakers, and it's ostensibly compatible with a variety of cases, although I haven't tested it myself to be sure.

Most of the user reviews express frustration that the actual cable you need to connect it to a power source isn't included in the box, so you'll have to pick one of those up too, or use the one that came with your phone.

Superdongle: A USB DAC

For the uninitiated, a digital audio converter (DAC) takes digital output -- like any music file -- and converts it to analog audio, then amplifies the signal to play through headphones or speakers so you get the full detail and definition. (Yes, all speakers and headphones are ultimately analog, at the end of the line.)

If you can't wait for Apple to come out with its own portable headphone amp/Lightning dongle, the AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC paired with a Lightning to USB Adapter adds the bare minimum amount of extra bulk to your portable setup while providing the sweet clarity and razor-sharp detail of a truly great headphone amp.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The DragonFly is powered by a 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre chip and works with MP3s and CD-standard 16-bit/44KHz to 24-bit/96KHz file formats. It can be used with desktop speakers or a component hi-fi system, or it can directly drive headphones through the Lightning adapter.

If you're willing to make a small investment for a big jump in sound quality, the Black version sells for just $100 (£75, AU$135).