How to get the best sound quality from your smartphone
Which streaming services have the best sound quality? What are the best apps to help improve the sound quality of your smartphone? BBC Music Magazine's audio expert Chris Haslam answers all your questions and recommends a few of the best add-on accessories to help improve your phone's sound quality
The vast majority of us now use one, and if you’re anything like me, rely a little too heavily on it. But when it comes to sound quality and enjoying music, our smartphones can leave a lot to be desired. But there are plenty of things you can do to improve your audio experience without losing the convenience of carrying every note of music ever written around in your pocket.
Read how the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble performed its first concert
Which streaming services have the best sound quality?
Whichever streaming service you use, do check you’re listening in the best possible quality. Spotify has four streaming options, ranging from 24kbps (kilobits per second) – avoid this – up to almost CD-quality ‘very high’ setting (320kbps).
Tidal (tidal.com) premium subscribers can stream MQA, which is superior to CD, and the new Amazon Music HD service offers 50 million lossless CD-quality songs and millions in Ultra HD (better than CD quality). Apple Music streams in AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) which, while not hi-res, does sound better than a basic MP3. But remember, if you have the capacity, downloading hi-res song files on Wi-Fi will sound great and save on data.
Apps that will improve your smartphone's sound quality
There are now several apps – and a couple of headphones, including Nuraphones (nuraphone.com) – that test your hearing and tweak the output, essentially tuning the sound to your ears. It’s a neat trick and can make a big difference to your enjoyment, especially if you struggle to hear low or high frequencies.
Sonar Works (sonarworks.com) is one such app that not only tests your hearing, but also calibrates the sound depending on your headphones’ make and model. It works with over 280 different pairs, and the results are impressive, boosting your smartphone’s performance instantly. IRIS (shapedbyiris.com) is another brand looking to enhance sound quality through an app, and the pre-release version is superb.
If you’re still using the headphones that came with your smartphone, then spending just £30 on a new pair will transform your experience. Increase your budget and you’ll enjoy even more detail and a greater sense of space and dynamism. And if your phone still has a headphone jack, plugging in sounds better – pound for pound – than streaming wirelessly.
Phone accessories to improve sound quality
But if you’re still not enjoying your phone’s audio quality, try a portable DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter). The DAC chip in your phone is OK but it can’t compete with dedicated designs such as the Chord Mojo from Chord Electronics (chordelectronics.co.uk) or the xDSD from iFi Audio (ifi-audio.com) which improve the signal going to your headphones – especially if they’re a good pair.
The best accessories to boost the sound quality of your smartphone
NuraLoop earphones £199
After an initial hearing test, the companion Nuraphone app adjusts the sound to suit your ears. The difference can be marked. nuraphone.com
iFi xDSD £399
This exceptional wireless portable DAC and headphone amplifier will transform the sound of your streaming services, and with HD Bluetooth you can enjoy wireless listening, even with your wired headphones. ifi-audio.com
Sony Xperia 5 £699
Sony’s latest smartphone features high-resolution audio and DSEE HX which upscales the audio signal of even the worst MP3 files to near high-resolution sound quality. sonymobile.com
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.