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How important is smartphone audio output (and how important are the accessories you use with it)?

By Adam Doud April 13, 2016, 10:30 am

One of the least talked about things on a smartphone is its audio output. Don’t get me wrong, people do talk about it. But compared to camera, battery life, and other considerations, audio output is one of those “nice-to-haves” rather than a necessity. Sure, we love our front-firing speakers, but at the same time, we’ll happily accept a rear or bottom firing speaker if the rest of the hardware is up to snuff. We might ding it in the review with a sentence or two, but that’s about the extent of it.

OEMs have started to push superior audio in some of their smartphones. Deals with companies like Beats or Harman Kardon are becoming more common. The LG G5 really put audio in the spotlight with it’s DAC “friend” that you can plug in for top of the line headphone audio. Not only that, but it’s charging a pretty decent penny for the module that only benefits other really good equipment – high end headphones. But for audiophiles, that can be a big deal. So we asked our editors how they weighed audio in the grand scheme of mobile.

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Adam Doud

Senior Editor

“It’s not terribly important, but my tastes are evolving.”

For most of my young adult life, I have been a dollar-store earbud guy. Audio has never been that important to me. Not because I don’t dig audio – I was in a band for 12 years – but because as a mobile device, I was willing to accept that audio would always be sub-par. Especially when it came to external speakers. No matter how much an OEM touted its speakers, they were always garbage.

Bluetooth isn’t really much better, not because of headphone quality but because Bluetooth is pretty awful to work with. God forbid I should want to keep my phone in my pants pocket while wearing a Bluetooth headset. It’s so irritating when audio works gloriously for the first five minutes and then starts cutting out even though literally nothing changed.

Now, wired headphone audio is a different story. Like I said, I used to be a dollar store earbud guy. But when I started working downtown and commuting every day, I decided to invest in some good earbuds, mainly for the isolation. Then I reviewed four sets of headphones from 1MORE, and I started to hear what really high-quality headphones could be. So, now I’m hooked, and I’m off the garbage headphones for good.

So, what I’m left with is, I don’t think that high quality audio is that important to me. The exponential leap between what I used to hear and what I hear now has been so great, that I’m not so sure extra fine tuning by Beats, or HK are all that important to me. Maybe one day I’ll have an LG G5 with DAC module and that will change. But for now, I’m skeptical that such branding and equipment is worth the extra cost. But then, to a point, I felt that way about earphones in general. Maybe my world is about to change.

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Adam Lein

Senior Editor

“I could say it’s not important, but that would be overstating it.”

Audio output on my phone is barely important. As long as I can hear the text-to-speech SMS notifications, caller ID announcements, and speakerphone communications, that’s fine. A lot of the time it’s on mute or very low volume. When I want to listen to music, it’s connected to the JBL PowerUp Bluetooth Qi wireless charging speakers at home, or my Bluetooth car stereo in the car, or whatever Bluetooth or wired headphones I might have with me if I’m really bored on the train. When I’m not listening to music, I use a Jabra Stealth headset for calls/notifications while mobile or a Bluetooth motorcycle helmet when on the motorcycle. Having a high-end audio processor in the phone won’t affect those scenarios.

On the tablet, however, it’s a different story. I definitely do want good audio on my tablet and that’s because I use it for video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I also use it for watching online videos, streaming movies over my home network (via Windows Media Center), and even listening to music.

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Dushyant Shrikhande

Dushyant_profile

Contributing Editor

“You’re probably ok with what’s in the box.”

To me, portability and convenience are the most important consideration when it comes to mobile audio. If you’re an audiophile, chances are that you use a portable music player like this COWON and play high quality lossless media files through that. Possibly use a portable DAC/AMP combination along with it, and of course, some high quality portable headphones like Sennheiser Momentums.

But if you’re not an audiophile, more often than not you’ll be alright with the earphones that came bundled with your phone. Or, you’ll use Bluetooth.

Smartphones these days have high quality audio components these days. You don’t need a separate DAC attachment because the internal components are quite good. (Components like the Wolfson DAC come to mind.) LG’s DAC module seems to be an effort to appeal to the audiophile demographic. Is it absolutely essential? Probably not. But if you’re an audiophile and the extra fidelity means a lot to you, then this is right up your alley.

Collaborations with Beats or HK and the like do not interest me personally, because more often than not they are half baked and gimmicky software based enhancements.

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Joe Levi

Senior Editor

“We are moving in the right direction.”

Audio and video are the two essential components of any multimedia system. When talking about video we can quickly quantify what makes a “good” picture: frame rate, resolution, DPI/PPI, color saturation, etc. When we talk about audio, the definition of what makes a “good” sounding system are a bit less apparent – unless you’re an audiophile.

For the rest of us, we know that we need good-sounding high-, low-, and mid-range sound reproduction – but exactly what that is, how how to quantify that isn’t as simple as “1080P with 500ppi, with vibrant colors and deep blacks”. Capitalizing on our ignorance, various manufacturers have branded their audio experience: Beats, HK, Boom Sound, etc. While these mean nothing more than “Retina Display” or “Ultra Pixels”, they mean enough to certain consumers to sell devices.

Now, that may be changing, as OEMs attempt to educate us about what goes into making “good sounding audio”. LG, for example, is pushing a DAC module that you can pick up for your LG G5. What is a DAC, what does it do for audio, and will it really make my audio sound better? Those are all the questions the LG is hoping you’ll ask, and will be convinced that you need one in your next phone.

Regardless, the move toward quantifying your audio experience – rather than relying on brand-names that don’t have any particular technical significance – is a good one, and will ultimately result in better sounding audio.

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Juan Carlos Bagnell

Senior Editor

“Audio is life.”

I’ve been in and out of recording studios for years now. In addition to all of the other comments our editors are likely to share, good mobile audio quality is vital to protect my hearing. Like a lot of folks I did some dumb stuff going to clubs as a kid, listening to music way louder than I should have, but now I depend on these ears to feed my family. The entire chain of hardware is crucial not only for enjoyment, but also to insure that I don’t tax my ears more than necessary. That my headphones fit properly, block unwanted noise, and are properly driven, while also dealing with the convenience of not needing to carry multiple gadgets and gizmos.

Maybe the most interesting fight of this year for me will be to see (hear) what LG does with that external DAC unit for the G5, and how it compares to the V10. Regardless, it’s been exciting watching more mobile manufacturers step up to offer higher quality audio playback.

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Jules Wang

Contributing Editor

“A Walkman. Or maybe I’m just stuck in my time machine.”

If I’m not doing anything meaningful, I’m probably in transit — wheels on the bus or feet on the ground, whatever. And since most of that moving gets kinda boring, I’m shoveling sounds into my lugs. And when I get really bored, I pick out every synth, every string, every plosive in that track. My proverbial smartphone’s a pretty good companion because it gives me awesome audio content from every damn corner on the earth for me to listen to.

Now which phone is it? Well, if you want to speculate whether the Dolby or Beats or Loudface McGee brand provides the best enhancements to that audio, go ahead. Should you get an external DAC or look for a phone with what’s billed to have a great internal one? Yes. For me, I’ll just make sure I have a good, flat pair of cans.

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“On a scale of 1 to 10…”

So that’s what we think. It’s a pretty eclectic range of feelings from 1 all the way to 10. So what about you? How important is audio output on a phone you’re purchasing? Is audio your life, or are you just learning to appreciate it? Sound off below with how you feel. Be sure to also include how deals with sound brands like Beats or Harman Kardon float with you. Do you suddenly pay more attention to what they have to say, or is it a big ball of meh?

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