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Smartphone speakers are finally clear; now it’s time for them to get loud

By Michael Fisher June 17, 2013, 2:52 pm

The modern world of smartphone audio is perhaps best summed up by country-music singer Loretta Lynn: we’ve come a long way, baby.

For much of the decade or so that smartphones have existed, the devices have been plagued by underwhelming audio performance, a symptom of too-small speakers paired with anemic software drivers, permitted only to suckle the tiniest bit of energy from an already power-strapped system. With very few exceptions, audio has been the afterthought, not the focus, of the smartphone industry.

Thankfully, that’s started to change in recent years. As smart devices have grown more powerful and more popular, they’ve gradually replaced dedicated personal media players. Between Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and all the myriad audio and video apps in between, the smartphones of today have access to a cornucopia of rich media itching to take advantage of a robust sound system. We saw early signs of manufacturers incorporating powerful speakers to fill this need in devices like 2006’s Motorola Q, and more recently in the HTC Surround and Samsung Galaxy Note II – but no device in recent memory has generated more buzz for its speakers than the HTC One.


We’ve talked at some length about HTC’s BoomSound approach to handheld audio, even unscientifically comparing the One against competing devices using a decibel meter. In brief, HTC has paired dedicated amplifiers and Beats audio with speakers that face the proper direction to generate some of the best sound we’ve ever heard out of a smartphone. But that “best” perception comes largely from the clarity, not the amplitude, of the One’s output. While the HTC device does produce some of the richest, most-nuanced sound out there, it’s actually not that much louder than its more-conventional competition. Which means it’s frankly rather quiet.

As anyone who’s listened to the Pocketnow Weekly podcast knows, I used to sell mobile phones for Nextel (now Sprint). In a time when voice quality was paramount, and a market segment where most devices were used as walkie-talkies in very loud environments, speakerphone performance was hugely important – and Nextel’s iDEN equipment, whether it came from Motorola or RIM, delivered. Nextel phones were the loudest consumer mobile phones available in America, bar none. Their ringtones were shriller than a gym coach’s whistle, and their speakerphones kicked out enough oomph to create a breeze you could feel if you held your hand close enough. Seriously.

Admittedly, the price they paid for this outrageous acoustic performance was high: in a world quickly growing obsessed with thin hardware, Nextel phones were big, heavy, and cumbersome – and they had horrible battery life to boot. While there were other reasons for the ponderous nature of iDEN hardware, a big part of the problem was accommodating the massive speaker around back.


But that was in 2005. As years passed, newer technology allowed for smaller acoustic elements that provided similar performance. In the waning years of iDEN’s popularity, Sprint managed to launch a few Nextel devices that could even be called svelte – devices like the Motorola i9, Nextel’s RAZR2 lookalike which offered speakerphone performance that’s still louder than most devices on the market today. And phones like the i9 weren’t just launched years ago – they were discontinued years ago. That’s how long it’s been. The technology to enable truly loud speakerphones in mobile devices is by no means new. So why don’t we see it in today’s cutting edge smartphones?

The answer probably lies partly in the lack of perceived demand. I say “perceived” because I think some companies use the technology press as a sort of barometer for consumer demand, and smartphone audio performance hasn’t been a focus of the tech press at large in quite some time.

While it’s easy to get caught in the trap of only reviewing phones in nice, quiet offices and snapping videos on sedate little side-streets, I think it’s important for tech writers to remember that many buyers will be using their smartphones in noisy environments (start typing “smartphones with loud speakers” into Google and it’ll auto-complete your string well before you finish). And “noisy environments” doesn’t have to mean a construction site or a carnival, either; even such mundane settings as a car being driven down a highway or a ferry crossing a harbor can feature pretty loud ambient sound levels.

Also: fog horns. We mustn't forget the plight of the lighthouse-keeper.
Also: fog horns. We mustn’t forget the plight of the lighthouse-keeper.

While delivering louder sound might come with some penalties, I’d wager that many consumers would be willing to accept them. We’ve seen that people will put up with a phone that’s a little thicker and a little heavier, if it packs a great camera in exchange. We’ve seen that people will buy a phone that’s ridiculously oversized, if it offers a bevy of features not found elsewhere. I think many of the same folks would spring for a slightly thicker phone with slightly worse battery life, if it also offered a speakerphone powerful enough to overcome the ambient noise of a busy street, or the sustained roar of a stiff breeze. Because while clear, rich, beautifully-balanced smartphone audio is a really wonderful thing, all that nuance won’t matter one bit if the sound never reaches the user’s ears.


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