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What does phone audio quality depend on

Posted: , by Nick T.

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What does phone audio quality depend on
Siemens SL45 - the first music phone

Siemens SL45 - the first music phone

It was over 10 years ago when the first phone that could play MP3 files, the Siemens SL45, hit the market. The handset came with a pair of earphones and expandable storage, which enabled it to double as a portable music player – a feature never before seen until that day.

Nowadays, there is a plethora of phones – some of the dumb and all of the smart kind, that can do that trick. However, not all of them are created equally and their audio performance tends to vary from model to model. Of course, some manufacturers use the power of marketing to convince you that their device is superior to others in that aspect, yet there is no guarantee that the real life results will meet your expectations.

To give you a better understanding of what turns a smartphone into a good music player, we have listed and described the elements that its audio quality depends on the most. And the good thing is that most of them you have control over, so if you are not pleased with your phone's audio, don't go looking for a replacement just yet.


Lossy vs lossless

It all begins with the audio source. In most cases, this would be an audio file that was downloaded from an online music store, or ripped from a CD in a true old-school fashion. Unfortunately, the majority of popular audio formats, such as MP3, WMA, AAC, and the likes, compress information using elaborate algorithms in order to save bandwidth or storage space. As a result, the audio quality suffers to an extent depending on the level of compression – the lower the bitrate of the file, the lower its fidelity. A solution to that would be to use the so-called “lossless” audio file formats, which retain a song's original quality while still reducing its footprint quite a bit. FLAC and Apple Lossless are currently the two most popular ones. The tricky part, however, is that decoding them may put a little more strain on the device’s processor, thus draining its battery slightly faster. Besides, they occupy quite a lot of storage space when compared to their “lossy” counterparts, albeit not nearly as much as an uncompressed file would.


Software

Not to be forgotten is the phone's audio software. When it comes to smartphones, the music player application that it is equipped with and its platform's native audio system are responsible for decoding your audio files. They also determine what audio file formats can be played. Besides, audio software can process the sound in a way to suit your tastes via equalizer presets and effects. Those who fancy the true high-fidelity experience would rarely have these enabled on their device, but we know that more than a few of you would not mind some extra bass, treble, or stereo expansion added to their tunes.


Audio codec

Yamaha YMU823 - the audio codec inside the Samsung Galaxy S II

Yamaha YMU823 - the audio codec inside the Samsung Galaxy S II

Even though manufacturers rarely mention what audio components they have incorporated into their devices, the hardware that transforms the zeros and ones into audible analog output is also crucial to the overall audio quality of a phone. Contemporary smartphones, in particular, feature a single chip called a codec that handles the digital-to-analog conversion process and amplifies the audio output before it gets sent to your earphones. Unfortunately, manufacturers often skimp on audio hardware in order to keep production costs low. On the other hand, if a smartphone is equipped with a high-grade codec, you can expect it to be capable of delivering high-quality, hiss-free audio with a minimum amount of distortion even at the highest volume levels.


Headphones

With the exception of some rare cases, the performance of a phone’s stock earphones is mediocre at best. And that should come as no surprise since manufacturers want to keep a device's production costs low. Besides, it is assumed that a pair of stock earphones would suit the needs of the average Joe. That is why they usually offer low to average audio fidelity, little to no ambient noise isolation, and an often underwhelming volume output. On top of all that, it doesn’t take long before they get infested by crackling noises, the iPhone’s earbuds being a perfect example of that. There doesn’t seem to be another way around that except spending some extra cash on higher quality earphones.


Conclusion

And these, folks, are the main factors that affect the audio quality of your smartphone. Now that you have the knowledge, feel free to dig deeper and experiment until you reach audio nirvana. However, keep in mind that you and only you can be the judge of your phone's audio performance, and you should not let cheap marketing tricks fool you. If you are happy with the way your handset sounds, just enjoy it to its fullest.

Image courtesy of: Wikipedia, AnandTech

29 Comments
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posted on 12 Dec 2011, 09:06 2

1. xmusicianguy (Posts: 96; Member since: 13 Jul 2011)


I use my bionic with the internal speaker. I was very pleased.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 09:13 5

2. Nickmfnjackson (Posts: 101; Member since: 21 Jan 2010)


I had a Nokia 3300 in '03. At the time I was the only person I knew with a phone with mp3 playing capabilities. It was pretty sweet. Also, a comparison between models would have been awesome...

posted on 13 Dec 2011, 00:46 1

27. TreyTreyTaylor (Posts: 313; Member since: 21 Dec 2010)


hell yes. the 3300 was oh so special at its time.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 09:15 2

3. Rayzin (Posts: 83; Member since: 27 Oct 2011)


I am more interested in which phones have the best internal speaker quality and volume.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 11:19 1

13. Nick_T (Posts: 146; Member since: 27 May 2011)


The Nokia 600 (now cancelled) was supposed to have the loudest one out there. Perhaps its internal speaker is going to end up on another Nokia handset one day. Select Sony Ericsson phones are pretty impressive. Samsung and LG's are average in general.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 09:15 6

4. sgogeta4 (Posts: 392; Member since: 02 Feb 2011)


Decent beginner article on the basics of sound quality on phone. Wish you went into more specifics, for example, the current best codec is made by Wolfson and can be found in the original Galaxy S and a few other Samsung phones such as the Droid. The Galaxy SII's Yamaha is decent but definitely not on the same level as the Wolfson. One big disappointment for me w/ the Nexus is that the audio codec is not a Wolfson (don't think it's even on the level of Yamaha).

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 11:42 2

14. Nick_T (Posts: 146; Member since: 27 May 2011)


We wanted it to be simple and easy to understand, which is why we didn't dig much into details. And yes, I personally agree that a Wolfson codec sounds great. That Yamaha in the SGSII is not bad by any means, but they could have done better.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 12:04

15. beatsandmelody (Posts: 109; Member since: 01 Nov 2011)


"and a few other Samsung phones such as the Droid"

The Samsung Droid what? Droid is a line, which model are you talking about?

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 15:28

22. ledbetterp3 (Posts: 467; Member since: 31 Aug 2011)


@beatsandmelody there is on one Droid manufactured by Samsung... the Droid charge

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 16:10

23. sgogeta4 (Posts: 392; Member since: 02 Feb 2011)


Sorry, didn't reread. I did mean the Charge. Thanks for the clarification.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 13:11 1

18. SleepingOz (unregistered)


Not everyone will be able to find the differences between them.
The Yamaha codec is good but I must agree that the Wolfson is better.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:03 3

5. SuperAndroidEvo (Posts: 4335; Member since: 15 Apr 2011)


This was an excellent article. There are many factors to having great sound from your music. I love my Klipsch Image S4 in ear headphones, they are the nicest sounding in ear headphones I can find for the price. They sound just as good as $200 to $300 in ear headphones, for only $70 dollars.

I was not aware that the audio codec in our smart phones make that huge of a difference. I would like to know what audio codec is in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, since that is the next phone I am getting?

I just went to Google & it says the Texas Instruments TWL6040 8-Channel High Quality Low-Power Audio Codec is the codec. I hope that is a good audio codec because I plan to listen to a lot of music on my phone since I travel for my job quite often.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:07

7. belovedson (Posts: 832; Member since: 30 Nov 2010)


i havent heard a clean sound coming from any phones. i would prefer using a dap but its kind of pointless because carrying two or three items when one will do...

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 12:44 2

17. SuperAndroidEvo (Posts: 4335; Member since: 15 Apr 2011)


For in ear headphones they are bad a$s. For work I can’t walk around with those huge head phones like the ones Beats makes.

For in ear the Klipsch Image S4 in ear headphones do the job very nicely. The sound range is incredible, & top notch. You get decent bass, but you will never get bass like those huge regular headphones that make you look like a clown.

Plus the S4's are so much easier to carry & put away. To me I prefer the in ear for portability & convenience. I have too much sh*t to carry & to add some huge headphones would be counterintuitive, plus they make you look silly with those huge things on.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 16:12

24. sgogeta4 (Posts: 392; Member since: 02 Feb 2011)


The TI codec isn't great, IMO falls behind the Yamaha, which in turn is behind the Wolfson. Beats is crap, you're paying for the marketing, not for quality sound. For the same price point, you can do much better.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:04 1

6. belovedson (Posts: 832; Member since: 30 Nov 2010)


thankyou for this meaningful post i think it should be pinned on top permanently so the noobs will stop gloating about how great the sound is coming from their htc blah blah blah phone.

i hear you sgogeta4

the original galaxy has a much better codec then the htc's. htc's are supposedly known for its great audio, yet its by far the worst of the bunch. i recently loaded some flacs and used it on the 3d and used my etomics er4s and boy did it sound like doo doo.

i would like sony to get on top of things and make a competitive android phone using their engineers from their daps and use them for their next phone. sony is by far the most superior, their daps audio is warm, clean and the drivers are powerful.

apple is ok. i would place in following order
samsung with the wolf
apple
htc

i dont know much about the older sony's and their ripoff specs for a phone and motorola.

posted on 13 Dec 2011, 03:42

28. ToneDef (Posts: 39; Member since: 15 Jun 2011)


Apparently the Wolfson chip combined with Voodoo sound mods really unleashes the sound, so when I get some time soon, I will be flashing my Galaxy S with a Voodoo-equipped ROM. Yipeee!

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:19

8. LewsTherin006 (Posts: 140; Member since: 18 Nov 2011)


One of the cools things i found out is that google music is able to upload flac files and it lets you play them. Now you will lose quility because you are streaming it from the internet, but its still cool to know it supports it while my ipod classic doesnt.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:27 1

9. parthpatels007 (Posts: 52; Member since: 27 May 2011)


GSMArena.com focused on this area almost since the beginning of their website! Happy realization PA. Include them in your reviews soon.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 11:12

11. sudhar131998 (Posts: 63; Member since: 06 Sep 2011)


same here

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 10:45 1

10. willywill_evo (Posts: 162; Member since: 05 Jan 2011)


agree wih SuperAndroidEvo i own the same headphone but now that Klipsch has the S4A for android i want to buy them, headphone are a must for me..i dont use the speaker phone

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 11:15

12. sudhar131998 (Posts: 63; Member since: 06 Sep 2011)


therefore the winniers a re iPhone 4S (earphones) , Samsung Galaxy S2 (both earphones and internal speakers) , HTC Sensation XE (earphones)
please do not refer to this as order wise example 1st , 2nd & 3rd these phones are just listed.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 18:13

26. lukasound (Posts: 152; Member since: 16 Nov 2011)


you are kidding? :)
have you heard iPhones earphones? i have never had or heard worse earphones made in this century... and it's so weird that the most famous portable music players come from apple... i owned an iPod shuffle (got it free from my internet provider) and it had the worst earphones. sound was of good quality, but weak as it had no eq... i digress...
iPhone 4 has terrible headphones that need to be replaced as soon as you buy it.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 12:19 1

16. networkdood (Posts: 6310; Member since: 31 Mar 2010)


RAZR has awesome sound - so loud and clear that my wife complains. Sounds even better with original iphone ear buds.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 13:13 2

19. SleepingOz (unregistered)


You sound like you know nothing in audio quality.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 16:15

25. sgogeta4 (Posts: 392; Member since: 02 Feb 2011)


I believe it has the same codec as the Nexus, which isn't great. Some people can't hear the difference, IMO they're the lucky ones since once you notice, you really need to get good quality audio once you've heard how it can sound like and it's damn expensive.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 14:05

20. bullwank (Posts: 5; Member since: 11 Sep 2011)


The best and cheapest in-ear phone manufacturer for me is the ones by SoundMAGIC, a previously liitle known Chinese company that was originally a designer for some of the better known companies that make ear phones and headsets. With prices ranging from $20 to $50, they produce some of the best bang for the buck ear phones you'll ever hear!

I found out about them by accident, while lurking in an audiophile forum, took a chance with one of their cheaper models, and had been hooked ever since. I would recommend the models IN-EAR PL30, IN-EAR E10, and the IN-EAR E30. If you want to learn more about their brand; you can always search for their somewhat rare reviews on the internet.

posted on 12 Dec 2011, 14:17 2

21. Cyd07 (Posts: 83; Member since: 03 Oct 2011)


PL30 are good, really good for the price (23€ delivered with amazon). For those who speak about the quality of Iphone earphones...I still laugh...

Try a PL30 for a week then come and tell me that Iphone earphones are good...and the PL30 are still 30€ earphones, not 100...

posted on 13 Dec 2011, 11:26 1

29. DontHateOnS60 (Posts: 863; Member since: 20 Apr 2009)


Go to GSM Arena for sound tests on devices.

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