Audiophile smartphone: selection criteria and a few typical class representatives

    Musical smartphones for music lovers have been invented from time immemorial. Then the memory of mobile communication devices did not exceed hundreds of megabytes, and the hardware capabilities were much more modest than now. This led to the need to increase the computing power and memory capacity to fully perform the functions of the player. Today, polymorphic push-button mammoths have been replaced by the uniformity of touch rectangles, and the musical smartphone has become a slightly different gadget. Users had a desire not only for the tolerable portable sound that is in any modern phone, but for maximum fidelity of playback in a pocket form factor and without the use of additional devices.

    Unfortunately, the demand for HI-FI smartphones has led to marketing manipulations. “Thanks” to this, today almost any more or less decent smartphone can be seen in reviews from the series “best audio smartphones of the season”, etc. Despite the common belief that the sound quality in smartphones does not differ and all smartphones sound the same, there is still a difference. Oddly enough, the quality is different and largely depends on the hardware capabilities of the devices. Under the cut about the criteria for the quality of music smartphones and some models that, in my opinion, deserve attention.

    The term “audiophile” in the article is not used as a curse word, but for simplification and, possibly, with slight sarcasm.

    About who needs a musical smartphone and what it should be

    So, to begin with, if you are satisfied with the fidelity of playback and the state of memory in your smartphone, as well as you do not intend to change the headphones in the near future, your smartphone does not need to be replaced. There is no point in buying a new smartphone, if you are satisfied with the sound quality (and other functionality) in the old one - no. Undoubtedly, there are people who are in search of a perfect sound, but the vast majority are satisfied with standard parameters.

    In my opinion, users who have a real need for the so-called music smartphone - these are owners of high-impedance headphones who want to use them with a smartphone. High-impedance headphones include in-ear and in-ear headphones with an impedance of 64 Ohms or more, as well as full-size and overhead headphones with an impedance of 100 or more Ohms.

    I will say right away that according to my personal observations, there is a very clear correlation between the subjective perception of fidelity of reproduction (sound quality) and the resistance of the headphones. The higher the impedance, the higher the sound quality (though, if between 32 ohms and 100 ohms the difference is very noticeable, then starting at 350 it can hardly be detected by ear).

    It is logical that for headphones with high impedances you will need amplification, which the standard equipment of phones cannot provide. For this, the smartphone must be equipped with a tolerable amplification chip and sufficient battery capacity for long battery life. Of course, you can use an external DAC with an amplifier, but in this case, the smartphone can be anything. Moreover, such a solution is almost equivalent to using a separate player and has practically no advantages in compactness and functionality.

    No less significant musical smartphone seems to people who are able to hear the difference between lossless, as well as highres formats and mp3 (as well as other lossy compression options). By the way, such a difference, according to the results of numerous double-blind tests, contrary to the opinion formed by many, only a few are able to hear. As a rule, differences could be determined only on familiar tracks and only on almost flawless equipment. But we can say that a true musical smartphone should have a digital-to-analog coder, which is capable of decoding highres formats and reproducing a music signal without losses.

    Similar requirements are imposed on smartphones by users who do not hear the difference, but want to be one hundred percent convinced that there is none. In their case, the hardware capabilities reinforce their belief that they have acquired a really worthwhile thing and listen to a “truly” high-quality sound.

    Thus, the prerequisites for a “music smartphone” are:

    • the presence of a built-in amplifier for high-impedance headphones;
    • high-performance DAC for highres and lossless formats;
    • equipped with a high-capacity battery;
    • for lovers of wireless sound, it is considered useful to get support for aptX HD codecs and other technologies that support hirez for wireless data transfer;
    • equipment of the device with a large amount of memory.

    In addition to the described criteria, there are devices designed to work with a certain technology that allows you to "improve" the sound. As a rule, such devices work with a certain type of headphones.

    Overview of audiophile smartphones

    HTC U Ultra
    I'll start with the most atypical device among all audio smartphones, namely the HTC U Ultra. Characteristic differences of the device were the lack of a high-impedance input (which, it seemed, should have been), the presence of special USonic technology, and the use of USB-C instead of the traditional 3.5 mm jack and special headphones. USonic involves continuous analysis of sound in real time and its hardware correction depending on the collected indicators.

    The system receives data for analysis using special microphones installed in the “native” headphones of the smartphone. The use of USonic is the reason for replacing the classic 3.5 mm jack with USB-C. USonic technology is both a virtue and a curse on the smartphone. So when connecting non-native headphones, the DAC is automatically blocked. This is treated using applications from developers of enthusiasts or a special adapter.

    Partly, the disadvantages are compensated by the advantages of automatically adjusted sound, adaptability, etc. However, the lack of regular ability to use other headphones, as well as the existence of only a regular intraarican model cannot but upset.

    The advantages of the device are also considered to be the cameras installed in it, an additional screen that simplifies the use of music applications, as well as support for hi-res formats, which, however, the vast majority of flagships and certainly all music smartphones have.

    ASUS ZenFone 5 ZE620KL
    This device is also often positioned as an audio smartphone. Marketers praise the external speakers for the high uniformity of frequency response, which at first glance is not bad. However, given the volume of the case and the inevitable resonant problems, it is extremely difficult to believe that the sound of a smartphone will somehow change significantly from the use of some special speakers.

    This is easily verified in a blind test, where it is hardly possible to distinguish ZenFone sound quality from analogs at equal volume. At the same time, the built-in drivers still have a feature that deserves attention - they are larger and more powerful, due to which they are able to create impressive sound pressure (and this is really a virtue).

    But the most significant advantages of this smartphone for the music lover are the amplifier chip from NXP, which can “swing” high-impedance headphones. They decided not to implement the discrete DAC for audio, while they implemented support for the aptX HD codec and DTS Headphone: X post-processing technology, which creates the illusion of spatial sound.

    LG G6 32GB
    This smartphone with advanced sound hardware, is part of the successor to another V20 audio plugin. Together with the main elements of the path, such as a discrete DAC and an amplifier built on a chip from Saber, the model inherited the main problems.

    So, when using low-impedance headphones, discrete DACs and an amplifier do not work, instead of them standard integrated functions are used. This is largely justified by energy saving considerations, as well as the fact that with most low-impedance headphones it will be almost impossible to hear the difference. For a device, resistance below 64 ohms is critical. With an impedance of 64 ohms or higher, the DAC and amplifier begin to work.

    By the way, the indicated chip on Saber is only available in the Asian version of the device, it didn’t get into the global version and devices for the US market, contrary to the habit of shoving everything in these versions a little better than in devices for Asian markets. In other words, the principle “All the best for American children” did not work in this case. Potential users from Russia should not worry about this, because the Asian version is on sale in the domestic market.

    To summarize, for an audiophile this smartphone is valuable for the DAC and amplifier, but the advantages can only be assessed using high-impedance headphones. Also, the device can suit DJs as an average lousy recorder, for it is able to record sound in lossless and simultaneously from four microphones.

    You have to pay for all this with relatively low autonomy, since discrete audio chips have quite severe energy consumption and, when used, reduce the battery life by one and a half times.

    Subjective look

    In my opinion, the most useful feature of all is amplification, since it is precisely this that will allow the use of high-impedance headphones. Those who listened for a long time through devices with a resistance of 100 ohms will probably understand me.

    The relative advantage will be the use of aptX codecs, since modern versions of the standard CSB, in many respects, are not inferior to the technology from Qualcomm. But there seems to be no support for highres, so those who “hear the difference” and want to use wireless headphones will need atpX HD.

    The presence of a discrete DAC for such devices, as well as the use of highres formats, I personally consider an excessive excess. Despite this, I will not argue with people who operate with the argument “I hear”. If for them it is in demand - let it be. In such cases, we are talking about measurable improvements in fidelity of reproduction, and therefore not about placebo.

    I consider the use of surround sound technology and automatic correction to be an excessive decoration and an attempt to squeeze out what is not there from the musical material. These approaches do not always allow you to hear what you have recorded and, at times, distort the original signal too much. As an interesting experimental option for “pampering,” they will fit perfectly. The main thing is that such technologies do not become the main pricing factor, but remain only an additional function.

    Most importantly, the vast majority (about 80%) of users do not need an audiophile smartphone. At least due to the fact that the headphones for 500 rubles simply will not allow you to notice the difference.


    I’m sure that choosing a smartphone, one should take into account the maximum amount of technical data, otherwise there is a chance that the device will not be able to work as the user needs. This will naturally lead to dissatisfaction. We examined the most typical approaches to creating a smartphone for a music lover using 3 examples. I believe that everyone will be able to choose what he likes. I would be grateful for the comments and your ideas about what a smartphone should be for a music lover and whether such devices are needed at all, perhaps there are enough players and portable DACs with headphone amplifiers. Photo

    content used:

    We do not have smartphones in the catalog , but there are headphones , DACs , headphone amplifiers and other audio gadgets.

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