In our tests we found the Marshall London phone the best for overall audio quality, followed by the Samsung Galaxy S6 in second place and the HTC 10 in third. The Marshall London phone also topped our speaker quality tests, while the Galaxy S6 came out on top for internal audio quality.
There are lots of smartphones out there with various different hardware configurations, from their external / visible hardware, such as their displays and cameras to their internal components that range from processors to antennae. The same principle applies with audio chips found within phones: they often vary between manufacturers, with some opting to utilise the audio codec found within the phone’s chipset (such as the Qualcomm WCD9330 codec found within the Snapdragon 810 chipset in the OnePlus 2) whereas others, such as Samsung and Apple, prefer to use dedicated chip manufacturers such as Wolfson Microelectronics and Cirrus Logic to amplify their phone’s capabilities.
Every day people use their smartphones, be it with earphones, headphones or via the built-in speakers of the phones, to listen to music, watch movies and YouTube videos. This is where a smartphone’s sound is important to us - we want to listen to our music the way the artists intended them to sound.
It should be stated, that if you’re very serious about audio, a smartphone’s internal audio cannot compete against a dedicated high-end portable player such as Astell & Kern and iBasso, to name just two brands, out of the many that are out there in the market today. Similarly, a sound system or an aptX-enabled Bluetooth speaker (aptX is an audio codec used by Bluetooth to transmit sound frequencies at a higher quality), will give you a much better experience over the small onboard speakers of any smartphone in the world.
This article will focus on those who simply want to use their smartphone for watching movies via the phone’s speakers or listening to music via the internal 3.5mm auxiliary jack found on all smartphones (notwithstanding rumours of Apple wanting to remove this auxiliary input from the next generation of idevices).
Some of the questions you might be asking yourself right now include: Will I be able to hear the difference between phones (sources) if I’m not an audiophile? What audio gear do I need to have to hear the differences? And do I need high-quality music/movies?
Do not fret, we’ve got you covered.
To make this a fair test we took all the smartphones into an isolated room to test them with our own ears, using a variety of different headphones and earphones at various price ranges to distinguish the differences. In our tests of each phone's internal audio components, we included equipment from £425 custom in-ear monitors to £5 universal earphones, where we noted the differences between the phones to be the same, no matter the audio equipment we chose. So yes you will hear a difference between the phones, no matter what earphones or headphones you own.
When it comes to listening for differences, it doesn’t take an audiophile to hear the variances between smartphones. The only advantage an audiophile has over the average consumer is that they know their audio equipment well, know what to look for in songs they love and have audio gear that helps them distinguish the differences at their peril. In no way is this article aimed for audiophiles only - in this comparison we will draw out differences heard between the phones which are applicable to everyone, using any gear!
It’s safe to say that the differences will be more distinguishable with higher-end gear, and the same goes for the quality of the music recordings. With higher bitrate, sample sizes and higher-quality codec files, the differences become more distinguishable.
In order to ensure we had all areas covered, we conducted our tests using a variety of different songs at various recording qualities - our lowest sampled song was at 256kbps, 44.1kHz MP3. This is in fact the default music standard when buying MP3 audio tracks from major resellers, such as Amazon.
It’s a little known fact that higher quality songs are harder to find and often a lot bigger in file size (i.e. FLAC vs MP3) - and the differences between them are noticeable, but only to a trained ear. Even then, in a blind test it can be tricky to hear the differences between a 256 kbps MP3 song and a 24-bit FLAC song: you really have to know what to listen out for.
Finally before getting into the comparison between the phones, let it be said that audio is a subjective matter, where one person’s experiences might not reflect another’s. In our tests we’ve remained neutral and objective, in order to share our professional opinions. Despite not having any audio recording equipment to back up our claims, we feel the experience and knowledge we have at PC Advisor is enough to provide you with an honest, impartial assessment of the phones.
We invite you to try the phones out yourselves and share with us your experiences - all comments are welcome and we would be more than interested to hear your thoughts on our tests and assessments. It should be noted that testing machines will give you an idea of how the phones should perform, but often the machine’s data isn’t a true representation of how a phone, headphone, earphone nor speaker will actually sound to the human ear.
In order to accurately and fairly test the phone’s speaker qualities, we tested each phone at a safe and enjoyable level near our ears. We intentionally did not test the phones at a distance at maximum volume, where we might hear distortion or miss important sound quality traits.
However, before testing each speaker at a more normal volume, we did ramp up each phone to hear its maximum loudness. We then tried to listen for any distortion being produced by the speakers and further held the phones in our hands to test for any vibrations that might cause discomfort in prolonged periods of use. Some people like to use maximum volume with the phone in-hand. We don't recommend this at all, but we've noted down our findings in each review below.
Alongside a short summary, we then broke down each of the phones’ speakers by their physical speaker positioning, loudness rating (including distortion and vibration testing results), lows (including sub-bass and mid-bass), mids, highs and soundstage (including decay, instrument separation and tonality).