The hi-fi difference on phone audio: does it really matter?
Give your eardrums everything they deserve by putting your headphones through audio boot camp.
Audio hardware has been the forgotten child of phone reviews, compared to more prominent features like processing power or camera quality. However, hi-fi audio phones like the recent LG V20 are set to change all that. Praised by CNET as the "concert-goer's phone", the V20 promises to deliver pristine audio recordings and pump out crisp, lossless audio via the industry's first 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC (digital analogue converter). And if that isn't enough, each handset will come with Bang & Olufsen earphones. All of this indicates a bright future for audiophiles: you can now fully appreciate every detail of the DAC's dynamic range – and for music-lovers everywhere else it’s the simple luxury of knowing you can listen to an album the way it’s meant to be heard.
But how do you really know how well your old phone measures up in comparison? Or your home speakers, for that matter? You could seek out the highest quality uncompressed tracks to hear just how much difference good phone audio hardware and decent set of buds can really make...or take the shorter route and read our easy guide (as well as our track recommendations) on the audio qualities to look out for in a phone.
It's (really) all about the bass. The sub-bass frequencies sit between 20 to 60 Hz, which mean they're usually felt more than they're heard. Listen for a decent pitch, without any distracting reverberation, and try to pick out the textures in a decent bass track. 'Teardrop' by Massive Attack, is a good choice, but a better one is 'Fantasy' by The XX. Skip to around 1.20 (you’ll know it when you get there) and you should feel it in your bones.
The dynamic range simply refers to how much we can hear - from the quietest sounds to the loudest. Any decent recording of an orchestral track should come into its own here, but you'll get a better test from something more complex, like Nine Inch Nails' 'God Given' (or, if you can't find a decent recording, anything from the studio remastered edition of The Downward Spiral). On a great set of the earphones the track should sound full and deep - with every instrument and note clearly defined against each other.
The presence of a song is defined by its clarity. This area of the frequency range is usually where the harmonics sit, so rubbish speakers will usually concentrate everything they've got here (so you can hear the important bits), often resulting in a 'tinny' sound. Any great cello recording will show how well your headphones cope - but a better test might be a track with two distinct instruments to hopefully highlight the separation. Yo-Yo Ma performing Chopin's 'Sonata For Cello & Piano' in G Minor, is perfect for this.
Much more than just a gimmick, good 3D sound should make you feel like you’re in the middle of the music. There's plenty to choose from here. Ernst Reijseger's soundtrack to Werner Herzog's film, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, features a choir, orchestra and organ in a real church - all from different directions. Amber Rubarth's Sessions From The 17th Ward was recorded using a single pair of microphones placed inside a dummy human head – replicating the way both ears pick up different sounds. The best, though, has to be Roger Waters' QSound album, Amused To Death, which assaults the listener with barking dogs, gun shots, cars, planes, horses and chirping crickets in full 3D space.
The midrange frequencies are ones you hear the most clearly. Anything and everything between 250 Hz to 4Khz on the spectrum will be picked up in intimate detail by a good set of headphones - and rendered flat and lifeless by a bad set. The best way to test it out is with the human voice and nothing else. Pick a well-recorded a cappella track and focus on the enunciation of the mouth and the resonance of the nasals. Above all, it should sound like there’s someone singing right in front of you. The Persuasions have made some great recordings on the Chesky label (including a great cover of 'Rocky Raccoon' by The Beatles) and they're pretty much all perfect.
The best way to test any set of headphones is to play your favourite song. You've heard it a hundred times before, so you should know it better than anything else, and you'll know when it sounds good (or bad). Most modern pop, rock and jazz songs are over-produced to such a high standard that it's hard to go too far wrong. Plug in some thumping Daft Punk, some catchy Justin Bieber or something that you've already played so much you're completely sick of it. If you want to hear it again, you know you’ve found a great set of headphones.
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