As we get ready to wrap up 2012, I’ve been thinking about just how far smartphones have come. Compared to where things were only a year ago, I can see big improvements all over: screens are larger and more detailed than ever before, more and more carriers are offering high-speed LTE data, and software keeps seeing tweaks to deliver a smoother, more functional experience. Why is it, then, that audio technology seems to have taken a back seat to everything else?
The only manufacturer that seems to have come up with a cohesive strategy to focus on audio performance is HTC, and as far as I’m concerned, they totally botched things. It’s not about branding, or headphone bundles; smartphone manufacturers need to start designing phones themselves with better placed, better performing, and actual stereo speakers.
Take one of the hottest Androids around at the moment: the Nexus 4. It may be fast, it may have great software, but its speaker leaves oh so very much to be desired. Sure, it can get loud, but the frequency response is just appalling; even with the old hand-cupped-around-the-back trick, it can be nearly impossible to get anything even hinting at deep, rich bass out of the phone.
I’m not even asking for anything that crazy. Prominent, large, forward-facing speakers like you’ll find on the Samsung Galaxy Music might be capable of delivering the best sound, but they’re just not going to look that great on a lot of phones, and I can’t simply pretend that aesthetics don’t matter. Maybe there’s a more inconspicuous way to implement something like that (and certainly, the Galaxy Music’s speakers look a lot less garish in a muted silver than the bold blue Samsung used in so many promotional images), but I’m willing to compromise.
One great way to solve at least a few of the problems phones have with speakers would be to go with something like we see on certain tablets, and go edge-mounted. That can give manufacturers a little more space to play around with, rather than sandwiching the speaker under the display and other phone components. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some tricky decisions to be made in terms of optimizing the layout and making the best use of available space, but I really think the results could be worth it; it’s not an absolute rule, but most of the tablets I’ve checked out with speakers like this sounded head-and-shoulders above smartphones.
Using edge-mounted speakers also gives OEMs the ability to create some real stereo separation; the farther apart the drivers are, the more appreciable the stereo effect’s going to sound.
The time is right for manufacturers to start making our phones sound as good as they’ve been doing everything else. I think the race for super-thin phones has definitely started taking a back burner (finally!) and we’re seeing OEMs start paying more attention to better ways to make use of a phone’s size; that means things like higher capacity batteries, and room for larger screens. I’m just saying: let speakers in on that fun, too. Our ears will thank you.