My cellphones are all bass and no treble, and this lack of treble troubles me terribly.
October 9, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

The internal speaker quality on most cellphones I've tried seems abysmal, yet no one else I've talked to seems to notice/care -- even those whose cell phones I've tried and which are terrible in exactly the same way. So: (i) Have I just had a string of bad luck with cell phones? (ii) Does anyone else notice this? and (iii) Is there a cellphone review site that actually rates speaker quality on cellphones? Or, better yet: (iv) Are there cellphones that have an equalizer I could use to adjust the speaker to my heart's content?

N.B.: I'm not referring to reception quality, nor the hands-free speaker quality [though see below], but the quality of the wee speaker that sits right next to one's ear. I expect these speakers to be as good as any speaker on a landline headset, and am mystified as to why they're not. Also, if it matters: I am young(ish), a musician, and my hearing seems to be significantly better than most. I'm even the sort of person who uses earplugs at concerts to take care of it, so I doubt this is a problem on my end.

Of the four cellphones, I've ever owned, cellphone 1 had perfectly crisp sound from its ear speaker. Every one since, however, has been a dud in that regard. 2 and 3 were so terrible that I ended up returning them. My current one is passable, but is still nowhere near the quality of my first, or of any landline phone, all of which have crystal clear quality.

The symptom seems to be this: these speakers output perfectly good bass and midrange, but offer very little treble. Or, even if they give off treble, the bass and midrange are so amped up in comparison that they drown it out. I either have to turn the volume down and press the phone hard against my ear, or turn it up to uncomfortable levels and hold the phone away from my head. Neither seems to approximate the sensible range of frequencies required for conversation. I ended up returning phones 2 and 3 because I had to ask everyone to repeat everything twice, which was annoying to everyone involved.

One hypothesis: phone 1 was much better than the rest because it was old and featureless and had no hands-free option. My most recent phone, on the other hand, has a hands-free option, and -- amazingly, to my mind -- uses the exact same speaker for hands-free as it does for normal use; it just turns the volume up to 11. So maybe the problem is that this speaker is designed for loud use, and the whisper-quiet volume needed for beside-the-ear use just can't provide the same range of sounds. I really don't know.

My questions (as above) then:

(a) Have I just had a string of bad luck with cell phones?
(b) Does anyone else notice this?
(c) Is there a cellphone review site that actually rates the quality of this speaker? or
(d) Are there cellphones with an equalizer for that speaker which could solve all my problems?

posted by matlock expressway to Technology (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
cellphone one may also have been back in the day when carriers had a lot fewer customers, and thus more voice bandwidth per customer than nowadays, no? i.e. it may have less to do with the hardware than the service...
posted by sexyrobot at 12:47 PM on October 9, 2011

Best answer: (a) no (b) yes (c) CNet rates 'audio quality' (d) Android phones, at least with Cyanogenmod, have equalizers.

But I think the difference between cells and landlines is the size of the phone body that makes it harder to make a decent resonant chamber for the speaker.
posted by zippy at 1:12 PM on October 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

My best mobile phones for audio quality have been Motorola. Have you tried a bluetooth headset or ear buds + mic?
posted by theora55 at 1:17 PM on October 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding theora55: it may be that the poor audio quality is a result of the compression used in modern (digital) cell phones. But a good way to rule that out is to use a good and familiar pair of headphones in your current phone if it has a normal 3.5mm jack, as many do now.

If the audio is good, it's a crappy speaker. If it's bad, it's about call quality/compression.
posted by thegears at 2:45 PM on October 9, 2011

Its probably not just the codec used. Skype calls from my PC with reasonable speakers to mobiles sound much better to me than mobile to mobile calls.
posted by dantodd at 4:01 PM on October 9, 2011

Best answer: All carriers have crappy voice codecs now. at&t used to use a higher bitrate version of AMR which sounded even better than EFR (the original good sounding cell phone voice codec), but no longer. They can cram almost twice as many calls into the same space by cutting the bitrate in half. It wouldn't be such a large problem if that didn't also cut down the relative amount of error correction available.

All the phones I've had that do VoIP calls sound significantly better that way than they do making calls over the cell network.

Ironically, Bluetooth makes it even worse because the voice codec (SBR) used is also really crappy. It's like taking a 32Kbps MP3 and recompressing it again at 32Kbps, only this time with Speex or something. A2DP is better because of the higher bitrate, but somewhere close to zero phones use it on voice calls.

I just consider myself lucky in that while I notice the ever worsening voice quality, it doesn't bother me too much.
posted by wierdo at 4:07 PM on October 9, 2011

Oh, and I should note that calls between mobiles will always sound worse than a call where one end is terminating on a landline (or Skype, or uncompressed VoIP). This is again because of compression. If you compress something, uncompress it, then recompress it, it will lose quality in the second compression cycle. When you call between cell phones, that's precisely what's happening, even if you're on the same carrier (or same cell site).

If you want to hear good quality out of a cell phone, you have to buy an old GSM phone that doesn't support the half rate codecs, but that is new enough to support EFR. AMR full rate is better than EFR, but I haven't seen a phone that has the AMR codec and either doesn't support or allows the user to disable half rate operation.

It's amazing what a difference 6Kbps can make.
posted by wierdo at 4:11 PM on October 9, 2011

Cellphone have to minimize space, weight, power consumption, and bandwidth. Each one of these has an impact on the sounds quality performance available at a particular price point. Then there are nonnegotiable-at-any-price limits on top of that, just because that's how physics works.

So, it's not really reasonable to expect the same sound quality as phone a land line phone, which doesn't have those constraints.
posted by gmarceau at 4:29 PM on October 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all your responses! A few replies:

sexyrobot/thegears/weirdo: I should've clarified that these were all same-day comparisons, and I went back to phone 1 after both phones 2 and 3, so it wasn't a network congestion or a network codec issue -- unless there were compression codecs involved in the phone itself which were separate from the network.

zippy: the resonance chamber idea is very plausible -- phone 1 was pretty light and hollow compared to the others, so maybe it had more room to work with in that regard.

theora55/thegears: I will try an external headset to rule out the handset speaker.

gmarceau: I see your point exactly on the size/space/price relationship, but my first phone was of a similar size/space/price and the sound was crystal clear. And, if anything, I'd have thought that those wee speakers would be the cheapest component, since the basics of analog speakers haven't changed all that much in decades.

[With that in mind, though... my working hypothesis now involves more of a 'we'll cut costs at any cost' motive, where manufacturers have sacrificed 50% of my speaker quality in order to save $0.01 per phone, despite the fact that the speaker is the most important feature of all.]
posted by matlock expressway at 6:32 PM on October 9, 2011

Best answer: The phone and network must share a codec to interoperate, so an old phone that doesn't support the new codec will use the old one, while a new phone that does support the new 30% more asstastic codec will use the new one.

If you use a wired headset, you're taking the actual earpiece and most of the rest out of the equation.
posted by wierdo at 10:58 PM on October 9, 2011

I use an ancient Nextel phone (iDen network, operated by Sprint now) because it doesn't support the new 12:1 codec. The 6:1 sounds much better, to my ear, and it's the only way I understand anything.

My employer threw a new Verizon (CDMA, IS-2000) phone at me and it's terrible, using the internal speaker. I've tried 3 different Bluetooth earpieces, and only one (the Samsung Modus) had an equalizer that I could adjust to the point of intelligibility. Wired headsets are usually better than bluetooth, so try that if you haven't already.

I think this works out in the providers' favor. Ever-decreasing voice quality forces more people to use text messaging, which they charge extra for. The "unlimited texting" option adds $10 to the typical plan, over and above the voice minutes that we have trouble hearing.

In Europe, many cellular providers are rolling out AMR-WB, a codec that consumes a bit more channel capacity but provides vastly improved voice quality. Sadly, US-based reviews sites have refrained from eviscerating North American providers for their negligence in this regard.
posted by Myself at 11:46 AM on October 10, 2011

I find that on a smartphone, it can really make a difference if I'm talking to someone via cell network vs skype over wifi. Skype is much richer and better sounding.
posted by reddot at 5:14 PM on October 10, 2011

Perhaps there's a way to force a smartphone to use an old codec?
posted by zippy at 6:17 PM on October 10, 2011

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