Some people choose a phone for its camera; others for its performance. Here we find out which is the best phone for music, and round up the thirteen best sounding phones you can buy in the UK in 2016.
Updated 10 May 2016 with LG G5 and HTC 10 audio tests.
Best audio phone 2016 UK: Summary
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.
Best audio phone 2016 UK: In-depth comparison
This is one of the most in-depth phone-audio comparisons you'll find on the web, so use the links below to jump directly to the section you need:
Phone speaker tests
• Apple iPhone 6s
• BQ Aquaris M5
• Google Nexus 6P
• HTC One M9
• HTC 10
• LG G3
• LG G5
• Marshall London
• Microsoft Lumia 950
• OnePlus 2
• Samsung Galaxy S6
• Samsung Galaxy S7
• Sony Xperia Z5
• Phone speakers conclusion
Phone internal audio tests
• Apple iPhone 6s
• BQ Aquaris M5
• Google Nexus 6P
• HTC One M9
• HTC 10
• LG G3
• LG G5
• Sony Xperia Z5
• Microsoft Lumia 950
• OnePlus 2
• Samsung Galaxy S6
• Samsung Galaxy S7
• Sony Xperia Z5
• Phone internal audio conclusion
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).
The iPhone 6s has a decent sound, but is a little let down by its mids and overall loudness. We would have like to hear it project louder and with a bigger emphasis on the mids rather than the lows. Its one-speaker design is also not well placed for those that hold their smartphones in their right hand. We hope to see Apple adopt a dual-speaker design in upcoming iPhone models. (Also read our full iPhone 6s review.)
Apple iPhone 6s Physical speaker positioning: Single downward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. We found its placement to be poor if you hold your phone in your right hand. It sometimes meant that sound was being supressed due to the speaker’s positioning.
Apple iPhone 6s Loudness rating: 7.5/10 - The iPhone 6s didn’t get that loud, which means that listening to the phone’s speakers in a crowded or loud environment might not be enjoyable. On the plus side there were neither distortions nor vibrations felt.
Apple iPhone 6s Lows: The sub-bass response is good, which was surprising to hear as we weren’t expecting a single-speaker phone to really produce any sort of sub-bass response. Its mid-bass is well presented and has a decent slam, however we felt the mid-bass didn’t have the right amount of control to it.
Apple iPhone 6s Mids: The mids are affected by the low-end response and are in fact V-shaped and therefore are a little recessed. This was a shame to hear as the iPhone’s internal audio is known to be sounding quite flat (a good thing in this context) but unfortunately this same principle wasn’t applied to its external speaker.
Apple iPhone 6s Highs: The highs are a little rolled off, which is a little disappointing, but natural considering its emphasis is more on the low-end frequencies.
Apple iPhone 6s Soundstage: Its soundstage is decent where its instrument separation is amazing. Despite only having one small speaker, it was further impressive to hear that its positioning was accurate.
(Find out more about the next iPhone, the iPhone 7.)
The Aquaris M5 has great overall sound quality through its speaker, which is a single downward-firing right-hand speaker. We found the speaker to be a little low in comparison to other smartphones, however through the use of the Dolby Atmos app (pre-installed with the phone) we were surprised by the 15-20 percent boost in volume we could attain. (Also read our full BQ Aquaris M5 review.)
BQ Aquaris M5 Physical speaker positioning: Single downward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. We found its placement to be poor if you hold your phone in your right hand. It sometimes meant that sound was being supressed due to the speaker’s positioning.
BQ Aquaris M5 Loudness rating: 6.5/10 - The rating indicated here is how loud we found the Aquaris M5 to go without the Dolby Atmos app enable - as we are conducting all tests in this article without any software alterations. We found the speaker loudness a little low and would have liked it to be louder by default.
BQ Aquaris M5 Lows: Its lows extend well and have an emphasis on the mid-bass frequencies.
BQ Aquaris M5 Mids: We found the mids to be clear, but slightly recessed. They are unfortunately affected by the mid-bass slam and therefore created a V-shaped sound signature.
BQ Aquaris M5 Highs: The highs extend very well and provide a nice sparkle to the top-end frequencies. They are slightly rolled off, but on the whole impressive.
BQ Aquaris M5 Soundstage: We were satisfied with the overall soundstage presentation, but would have liked the Aquaris M5 to provide a slightly wider and deeper soundstage.
The Google Nexus 6P provides a loud, albeit a little uncontrolled speaker sound quality. It was a pleasure to see the dual front-facing speakers aiding the overall experience of watching and listening to content on your phone, but we were disappointed with the distortion of the speakers at maximum volume. (Also read our full Nexus 6P review.)
Google Nexus 6P Physical speaker positioning: Dual front-facing stereo speakers. We enjoyed listening to its speakers due to its front-facing speaker placement. This makes it excellent for watching movies or playing games on your phone.
Google Nexus 6P Loudness rating: 9.5/10 - the Google Nexus 6P was the loudest phone we tested. With its dual front-facing design, the speakers were loud and provided a great stereo sound. It also came to no surprise that the speakers were the largest on any of the phones we tested, simply due to the size of the Google Nexus 6P’s screen. However, it did very slightly distort at maximum volume, where the speakers became less refined and accurate. Fortunately, no vibrations were present at maximum volume.
Google Nexus 6P Lows: The sub-bass is present but doesn’t really extend low enough for our liking, which is unfortunate given that its mid-bass has decent impact and is well controlled. However we found that the mid-bass didn’t have much presence and sounded slightly subdued.
Google Nexus 6P Mids: The reproduction of the mids was very good and more so had great imaging. This was definitely the highlight of the phone’s speaker output.
Google Nexus 6P Highs: The highs were very slightly rolled off at the top-end, but yet provided a great sparkle and extension.
Google Nexus 6P Soundstage: The soundstage is well presented, mainly because of its dual-speaker design, where the reproduction of the songs were wide rather than narrow, which is a good sign. The soundstage could have been a little better in its depth. The instrument separation was good but lacked that little bit of finesse. The tonality is well presented and its decay shines through.
(Find out more about the next Nexus 6, the Nexus 6 2016.)
Many thanks to Mobile Fun for supplying this HTC One M9 for our audio review.
The HTC One M9 did not disappoint us in its speakers’ sound quality, however we found that a lack of loudness hindered the phone really being used as a Boombox - pun intended. BoomSound, which HTC has developed alongside Dolby Audio was enabled by default for the speakers and we weren’t able to disable it entirely. We therefore did our testing using the Music Mode, as we felt it better reproduced music. (Also see our full HTC One M9 review.)
HTC One M9 Physical speaker positioning: Dual front-facing dual stereo speakers. We enjoyed listening to its speakers due to its front-facing speaker placement. This makes it excellent for watching movies or playing games on your phone.
HTC One M9 Loudness rating: 7.5/10 (using music mode) - the HTC One M9 was not as loud as we were expecting it to be. Volume was drastically lower than the much louder Google Nexus 6P and Marshall London, which both have dual front-facing speakers. On the plus side there was no distortion at maximum volume, but there were slight vibrations on the backplate of the phone. This comes from the phone being made out of a full metal construction.
HTC One M9 Lows: The sub-bass is decent, with an average extension for a phone’s speaker, but unfortunately the sub-bass sounded cut-off. Its mid-bass slam is a little weak and was slightly uncontrolled.
HTC One M9 Mids: The mids were average, with the sound being a little pushed back and recessed. Nevertheless, the HTC One M9 had a decent reproduction of the mids.
HTC One M9 Highs: The highs extended well and provide a good sparkle to the phone’s overall sound signature.
HTC One M9 Soundstage: Its soundstage was good but lacked a little depth, which tied into our similar findings to the Google Nexus 6P. On the plus side, due to its dual speaker design, its width was well presented.
(Find out more about the next HTC One, the HTC One M10.)
The HTC 10 was extremely impressive in its speakers’ sound quality, but we did find the use of its two speakers rather odd in comparison to other smartphones out there. This comes from the bottom speaker filtering most of the low end frequencies, whilst the top, front-facing speaker focuses on the mid and high frequencies. In principle, the idea is great, however when it comes to holding the phone in various orientations, it changes the speaker's soundstage. Holding the phone horizontally produces more of a surround sound, while holding it vertically focuses the music towards you. Unfortunately, we weren't able to fully disable HTC BoomSound for our speaker tests and therefore used Music Mode. (Also see our full HTC 10 review.)
HTC 10 Physical speaker positioning: As mentioned above, the HTC 10 has two speakers, one for the mid and high frequencies, the other more focused on the lows. One of the speakers is at the top, front-side of the phone and the other is located at the bottom right-hand edge of the phone.
HTC 10 Loudness rating: 8.5/10 (using music mode) - we found the phone to be loud enough to be enjoyed in a small room, or bathroom, but in comparison to other dual-speaker phones it didn't come across as loud. On the plus side we didn't notice any distortions or vibrations through the phone's back plate.
HTC 10 Lows: We were impressed by the bass reproduction of the HTC 10, as it was able to reproduce decent sub-bass tones, albeit being cut-off in the lower-end frequencies. The mid-bass didn't have much presence, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing, with the mid-bass being lean and controlled.
HTC 10 Mids: Its mids were very well presented, through the second speaker, creating a forward-sounding mid-range that was both engaging and fantastic to hear for both music and documentaries. The HTC 10's mids could be described as accurate and precise.
HTC 10 Highs: The phone's highs were slightly rolled off, but were also oddly enough sibilant. We found the highs to provide a nice sparkle and give good life to music.
HTC 10 Soundstage: As mentioned above, we found the soundstage to be a mixed bag, depending on how you held the phone (or how it was sitting on your desk). For the sake of consistency, we tested the phone whilst having it positioned vertically towards us. The soundstage was impressive, with great instrument separation and tonality, while also having a good width. We did find the speakers to lack a little depth, but given its traits, can be excused for its somewhat shallow soundstage reproduction.
We were very impressed by the LG G3’s overall loudness and its high-end frequency extension. However, due to its design the speaker was limited in performance, as when placed normally on the table, with its screen facing up, the LG G3’s speaker reduced in overall loudness and clarity. (Also see our full LG G3 review.)
LG G3 Physical speaker positioning: Single backward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. We found its placement to be poor if you hold your phone in your right hand. It meant that sound was often being supressed due to the speaker’s positioning. Furthermore, the positioning of the speaker affected the overall loudness of the phone’s speaker. On the plus side there was no distortion, but instead there were small vibrations present through its metallic body design.
LG G3 Loudness rating: 8.5/10 - However we found that when the screen was positioned upwards it blocked the speaker’s output, due to the design of the backplate being curved. This meant the speaker’s loudness when being placed with its screen facing upwards was reduced to a 7.5/10 - which is still louder than most smartphones out there. If the phone’s speaker is being used with its screen faced downwards (on the floor), then the LG G3’s single backward-firing speaker achieved an impressive 8.5/10 in loudness.
LG G3 Lows: The lows had a very slight sub-bass extension, where its mid-bass is very faint and not that well controlled. This meant the LG G3’s overall low-end reproduction was rather disappointing.
LG G3 Mids: Its mids take advantage of the weak mid-bass slam and are surprisingly good, where they had a good reproduction and sense of realism.
LG G3 Highs: The LG G3’s highs are really its standout feature, where they were really well presented and well extended at the top end.
LG G3 Soundstage: Its soundstage could have been a little wider, but on the plus side had a good depth to it, which equated to a fantastic tonality and instrument separation.
(Find out more about the next LG flagship, the LG G5.)
The LG G5’s overall loudness is impressive, but we would have preferred a progression on from the LG G3 and G4, whereby having a dual speaker design would have been extremely beneficial. Despite only have a single downward-firing speaker, its overall performance is good (Also see our full LG G5 review.)
LG G5 Physical speaker positioning: Single backward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom left-hand corner of the phone. Its location is ideal for those holding their phones in their right hand, but for those who hold the phone with their left hand, you might find its placement inconvenient.
LG G5 Loudness rating: 8.5/10 - We were impressed by the overall loudness, which was able to reproduce a distortion-free sound. However, at maximum volume we did notice the phone's body to vibrate, meaning whilst in-hand it was uncomfortable to hold.
LG G5 Lows: We found the lows somewhat disappointing, with its sub-bass being close to non-existent, whilst the mid-bass lacked any sort of presence and didn't have the control we would expect in a flagship phone.
LG G5 Mids: Its mids, like the LG G3's audio reproduction, take advantage of the low mid-bass slam and are forward-sounding. The overall mid-range reproduction is impressive and accurate.
LG G5 Highs: The highs were slightly rolled off at the top end, but do provide a great top-end frequency sparkle, giving life and joy to music.
LG G5 Soundstage: We found the soundstage to be a little odd, with the decay being a little odd. We suspect it's due to its chamber, which makes the LG G5's speaker sound somewhat different from other smartphones out there.
The Marshall London really impressed us, but had tough competition from the other flagship phones. We felt the Marshall London just edged out in front, mainly due to its speaker design and its fantastic low-end response, which was phenomenal to hear in such a small set of speakers. Its loudness was also pleasantly received alongside its overall sound quality traits; albeit not being the most flat- and accurate-sounding phone, it still provided the best overall experience. (Also see our full Marshall London phone review.)
Marshall London Physical speaker positioning: Dual front-facing stereo speakers. We enjoyed listening to its speakers due to its front-facing speaker placement. This makes it excellent for watching movies or playing games on your phone.
Marshall London Loudness rating: 9/10 - The Marshall London has a set of fantastic external speakers, where its stereo sound produces a loud, but clear reproduction. We did find the speakers to distort very slightly at maximum volume and when the speakers were on maximum volume created small vibrations through the phone’s body.
Marshall London Lows: The lows of the Marshall speakers were easily the best speakers we heard on any phone. The sub-bass was not only present, but also extended very well, which was surprising to hear. It doesn’t go without saying that its mid-bass response was also phenomenal for a phone’s speakers. The mid-bass had a great slam that could really be heard and sometimes felt - something that was a very nice experience to have when listening to the Marshall London.
Marshall London Mids: The mids are very well presented with a very lean and precise reproduction. The mids were slightly affected by the mid-bass response, as the mids were slightly pushed back, therefore making the Marshall London sound a little recessed and V-shaped.
Marshall London Highs: The highs were a little rolled off at the top end, but we found them to provide enough sparkle and clarity leading to an enjoyable experience.
Marshall London Soundstage: The Marshall London’s soundstage felt a little unique, mainly due to the sound signature that was presented through the phone’s speakers. The sound had an authentic, rock’n’roll feel to it, where listening to the Marshall London phone reminded us of the amplifiers that Marshall sell to musicians. The actual soundstage itself was nice and wide, due to its dual stereo speaker design. The speakers also had a reasonably good depth to them, which added to the overall experience.
The Microsoft Lumia 950 has an average speaker, which left us neither impressed nor unimpressed. We felt its strongest asset was its mids reproduction, while its weakest came as no surprise - its lows. (Also see our full Microsoft Lumia 950 review.)
Microsoft Lumia 950 Physical speaker positioning: Single backward firing speaker. Unlike the LG G3, the speaker’s positioning doesn’t hinder its loudness. This comes from the design of the camera at the back of the phone which slightly sticks out, preventing the speaker from being muffled by the surface on which the phone is sitting.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Loudness rating: 8/10 - The Microsoft Lumia 950 has a clear, loud-sounding speaker and despite its backward firing speaker, was loud no matter which way the screen as facing. There are also no audible distortions or vibrations felt on the phone.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Lows: Unfortunately, there was no sub-bass extension heard on the phone and its mid-bass also had poor control and lacked any impact. It was disappointing to hear no real emphasis made on the low-end frequencies.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Mids: The mids were fortunately well presented and accurate sounding, which comes from the phone having a very subdued mid-bass response.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Highs: The speaker has well extended highs that provide a good sparkle to music.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Soundstage: The soundstage is well represented and alongside the tonality and reproduction, made the experience a little better. We found the instrument separation to be good, but felt it still had some room for improvement.
We found the OnePlus 2 to have one of the weakest speakers out of all the phones we tested. We were satisfied with the high-end frequencies the OnePlus 2 offered, but felt that its lows and mids reproduction could have been vastly improved. We hope that in future models OnePlus will aim to deliver better speaker quality. (Also see our full OnePlus 2 review.)
OnePlus 2 Physical speaker positioning: Single downward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. Despite its positioning, the sound of the OnePlus 2 was not affected by any sort of hand grip. This comes from the speaker being slightly more centred rather than in the corner of the phone.
OnePlus 2 Loudness rating: 6/10 - The OnePlus 2 was the quietest phone out of the other phones we tested, which is a shame as we would have liked to hear the phone reach a louder volume. Due to this, it has neither distortion nor any vibrations that could be heard or felt at maximum volume.
OnePlus 2 Lows: Its sub-bass extension is almost non-existent, whilst its mid-bass is very weak and doesn’t have much impact or conviction, whilst not having much control in the lows.
OnePlus 2 Mids: The mid-range on the OnePlus 2 is not that impressive, where it has a decent reproduction and reasonable level of accuracy.
OnePlus 2 Highs: Its highs are well presented, where they provide a good extension in the high-end frequencies with a fantastic sparkle. It should be noted that the highs do produce a slightly sibilant sound, but isn’t something that really bothered us when it came to our audio tests.
OnePlus 2 Soundstage: We found the soundstage to have a good depth and width to it, which added a lot to the overall listening experience of the phone’s speakers. We also found the tonality and the instrument separation to be very good.
(Learn more about the next OnePlus flagship, the OnePlus 3.)
We found the Samsung Galaxy S6 to output a mediocre external speaker sound, which left us wanting more. We feel that the Galaxy S6 could really benefit from having a downward firing dual stereo design or moving to dual front-facing speakers. (Also see our full Samsung Galaxy S6 review.)
Samsung Galaxy S6 Physical speaker positioning: Single downward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. We found its placement to be poor if you hold your phone in your right hand. It sometimes meant that sound was being supressed due to the speaker’s positioning.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Loudness rating: 7.5/10 - The Samsung Galaxy S6 wasn’t that loud, but nor was it unpleasantly quiet. It sat somewhat in the middle of how the other smartphones performed. There were neither distortions nor vibrations present at its maximum volume.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Lows: The sub-bass was almost non-existent, whilst the mid-bass had a very small impact and little control. We felt the lows could have been drastically improved by Samsung.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Mids: The mid-range on the Samsung Galaxy S6 is not that impressive, where it has a decent reproduction and reasonable level of accuracy. We felt that at times the phone’s speaker would sound a little recessed and V-shaped.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Highs: The highs on the other hand are good and have a great level of extension. This provides an excellent sparkle and a pleasant experience whilst listening to vocals.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Soundstage: Its soundstage is well presented, especially with its instrument separation and coupled with its sound reproduction, provides an accurate and impressive soundstage.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 has an identical speaker layout to its predecessor the Galaxy S6, where it's found at the bottom right-hand side. The overall volume and sound quality is an overall improvement over the Galaxy S6, where the volume is a touch louder whilst the sound signature is also more mid-centric - a healthy sound quality trait for movies and music. (See our full Samsung Galaxy S7 review.)
Samsung Galaxy S7 Physical speaker positioning: Single downward-firing speaker design with its location at the bottom-hand corner of the phone. We found its placement to be poor if you hold your phone in your right hand. It sometimes meant that sound was being supressed due to the speaker’s positioning.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Loudness rating: 8/10 - The Samsung Galaxy S7 improves a touch over its younger brother, the Galaxy S6, where the sound is slightly louder. We did not notice any distortions or vibrations present at maximum volume.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Lows: The sub-bass is non-existent, whilst the mid-bass is controlled, but doesn't have the impact you might crave when watching films.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Mids: The mid-range sounded a little unnatural, due to a perceived mids boost by Samsung. This did result in a more mid-centric sound signature over the Galaxy S6, but unfortunately wasn't an accurate reproduction.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Highs: Unlike the Galaxy S6, we found the highs to roll off at the top end. However, we were impressed by the sparkle the highs could provide, making it acceptable for us to enjoy music and movies.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Soundstage: We found the soundstage to be well presented, with a nice width and depth to the phone's speaker. Instrument separation was acceptable for casual listening sessions.
We were happy with the performance of the speakers, as they produced a nice stereo sound that had a good emphasis on the mids and highs. Unfortunately the Xperia Z5 fell short in the low-end department, where its bass was almost non-existent. We were very impressed with its soundstage reproduction and felt that it did a fantastic job in this department. (Also see our full Sony Xperia Z5 review.)
Sony Xperia Z5 Physical speaker positioning: Dual front-facing stereo speakers. We enjoyed listening to its speakers due to its front-facing speaker placement. This makes it excellent for watching movies or playing games on your phone. It should be noted that in comparison to the Google Nexus 6P, HTC One M9 and the Marshall London, the speakers weren’t as obvious to see, where the speakers are almost hidden behind its screen.
Sony Xperia Z5 Loudness rating: 7/10 - The Sony Xperia Z5 wasn’t that loud, and leaned towards the more quiet side. It sat somewhat in the bottom half of how the other smartphones performed. It should be noted that there were noticeable vibrations at the back of the phone due to its full metal construction. Out of all the phones we tested, we felt the vibrations were extremely noticeable on the Xperia Z5. On the plus side there was no distortion at maximum volume.
Sony Xperia Z5 Lows: We felt the lows were the Xperia Z5’s weakest link, with almost no sub-bass extension and very little mid-bass presence. In comparison to the other phones that had very little mid-bass presence, the Xperia Z5 at least had a good control in its low-end tones.
Sony Xperia Z5 Mids: The mids are very well presented, where they sound forward and are accurately represented. We were impressed by its mids, which were aided by the lack of a mid-bass presence.
Sony Xperia Z5 Highs: The highs are well extended and provide a good sparkle to music. We were really impressed by how Sony was able to get the right level of high-end frequencies, without making them sound sibilant.
Sony Xperia Z5 Soundstage: The soundstage is very good and is especially impressive due to its instrument separation, which is fantastic. We found the tonality and imaging to also be truly amazing.
(Learn more about the next Sony flagship, the Sony Xperia Z6.)
We were impressed by most of the phones we tested, with a good overall sound reproduction in most cases. We only felt the OnePlus 2 had a bit of trouble in reproducing an accurate, realistic sound via its external speaker.
It came to no surprise that the four phones with dual front-facing speakers all sounded better than the single firing-designed speakers. This made the Google Nexus 6P, HTC One M9, HTC 10, Marshall London and Sony Xperia Z5 stand out from the rest of the pack. Despite them having all different sound signatures and qualities, it was a much better listening experience with the speakers facing us, rather than the speakers being concealed at the back or at the bottom of the phone.
In conclusion, we felt that the Marshall London had the best blend of low, mid and high frequencies to provide an impressive and yet powerful sound. If external speaker sound is important to you, then the Marshall London should be the phone that’s top of your to-buy list. An honourable mention goes to the HTC 10 which was able to provide a fantastic speaker reproduction through its dual-speakers. See all smartphone reviews.
In order to test the audio quality from the headphone jack, we chose various earphones and headphones in order to get a good impression of the internal sound chip of each phone. The majority of our testing was mainly based on the harschacoustic SH-2 custom IEMs and the modded Denon AH-D2000 headphones.
In the sections below, we also tried to list the audio codec or chipset versions found within the phones. It was often hard to find, especially with those that didn’t have a separate codec interface installed and were using the on-board SoC (system on chip) audio module.
In order to make this review also useful for busy commuters, we've included the listening level in which the tests were performed at. This is not an indication of the level at which you should be listening, but rather the levels we selected for our testing. This allowed us to compare the various phones at the same perceived output level.
For example, some phones had to be really pushed to their maximum volume, whereas others were happily outputting the same perceived volume but at 60 per cent of their total volume. This means some phones can go louder than others and their drivability (audio power output) is better than those that had to be cranked up to be heard. Also see: Best Android phones 2016.
Furthermore, to make the internal audio reviews even more relevant to those that plug their phones into amplifiers (such as a car’s aux input jack), we tested to see if we could hear any interference or distortion when the phones were in an idle state. Some phones are known to cause audio interference and problems when their processor is clocked down to a low power saving mode (for example when the phone’s screen is turned off). All the audio tests were performed without an amplifier, but for the ‘Amp Test’ we used the DigiZoid ZO2 v2.3 with high-gain mode enabled with bass contour set to zero. The amplifier was connected to the phones with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm Custom Art silver braided interconnect cable.
Finally it should be said that despite some phones having the same audio chipset, they can sound a little different. This comes from the manufacturers tinkering and optimising the audio chipsets themselves. This isn’t via the Android software, but rather via the low-level hardware coding that is performed on the audio chips.
Each phone will be split into several sections: Internal Audio Chip, Amp Test, loudness level, lows (sub-bass and mid-bass), mids, highs and soundstage (including decay, instrument separation and tonality).
Note: We know output impedance is an important subject among audiophiles; however we didn’t find any phone to have overly large impedance. We estimate the average output impedance per phone to be between 1-5 ohms, but don’t have the hardware equipment to back up this claim.
The iPhone 6s produced a fantastic overall sound, where its mids and highs were absolutely phenomenal. The iPhone 6s did come in a narrow second in the standings of the best sounding phone of 2016 and was unfortunately beaten to the top spot by the Samsung Galaxy S6, which had a much better soundstage reproduction and was less prone to interference and distortion. (Also read our full iPhone 6s review.)
Apple iPhone 6s Internal Audio Chip: Apple/Cirrus Logic 338S00105 Audio chip and Apple/Cirrus Logic 338S1285.
Apple iPhone 6s Amp Test: We found there was a slight bit of interference and small static sounds that were audible when the screen was turned off, which was disappointing.
Apple iPhone 6s Loudness Level: 75-80 percent - We found the iPhone 6s to be sufficient in loudness for most people, however if the phone were to be used with headphones that require more power, an external amplifier would be required to fully drive them.
Apple iPhone 6s Lows: We found the sub-bass didn’t extend that well, but found the mid-bass to be well controlled and have the right amount of impact.
Apple iPhone 6s Mids: The mids heard on the iPhone 6s are extremely well presented and have an accurate tonality to them. We found the realism being portrayed in the mids to be one the best out of all the phones we tested. They did not feel recessed nor pushed back and had just the right amount of emphasis to them.
Apple iPhone 6s Highs: Apple did a fantastic job here with the highs. The quality portrayed in the highs is absolutely spectacular. The iPhone 6s had the best high-tone frequency response out of all the phones we tested. It extended well, and had the right amount of sparkle. This did mean they were marginally sibilant, but that did not cause us any problems.
Apple iPhone 6s Soundstage: We found the soundstage to be the weakest sound trait of the iPhone 6s. We found the soundstage to be somewhat lacking in both width and depth, meaning the music didn’t feel as engaging as we would have liked. The decay also left us wondering why the iPhone 6s sounded different from most of the other phones we tested. It unfortunately had some sort of background noises that were very hard to hear, albeit present.
(Find out more about the next iPhone, the iPhone 7.)
The BQ Aquaris M5 houses Wolfson WM8281 audio chipset, which provides the phone with fantastic sound quality traits. We were impressed by the inclusion of this chipset in a relatively cheap phone, especially considering flagship phones still use SoC audio chipset modules, over dedicated DACs like the Aquaris M5. (Also read our full BQ Aquaris M5 review.)
BQ Aquaris M5 Internal Audio Chip: Wolfson Microelectronics WM8281 DAC.
BQ Aquaris M5 Amp Test: We noticed an extremely hard-to-notice hiss when used with an amplifier. As it was very hard to notice, we aren't too worried about it.
BQ Aquaris M5 Loudness Level: 55-60 percent - we were extremely impressed by the Aquaris M5's ability to drive high impedance headphones through its ability to produce loud-enough volumes at 55-60 percent volume.
BQ Aquaris M5 Lows: We were impressed with its sub-bass and mid-bass reproduction, which was extremely well done. We did however find it to slightly cut-off in the lower sub-bass frequencies.
BQ Aquaris M5 Mids: Unlike the Marshall London which houses the same audio chipset, we were impressed by its mid-range reproduction which was forward-sounding and very well presented. There was a slight V-shaped, warm sound signature, but that is something we've found to be a common trait in Wolfson audio chips.
BQ Aquaris M5 Highs: We found the highs to roll off slightly at the top end frequencies. However, the highs have a nice sparkle and therefore provide life and soul to music.
BQ Aquaris M5 Soundstage: The soundstage is a slightly mixed bag, where we found it to have good width, and great imaging, but felt the depth and instrument separation could have been a little better presented.
The Google Nexus 6P was easily one of the best sounding phones out there, with an amazing mid and high-range frequency response. Its soundstage was also really well done, where it produced a great open sound. Unfortunately, the Google Nexus 6P was let down by the slight interference when used alongside an amp and required to be used at extremely high levels in order to be really used. (Also read our full Nexus 6P review.)
Google Nexus 6P Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810 - Presumed to be using the Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec.
Google Nexus 6P Amp Test: There was a very small amount of distortion with a little bit of hissing while on idle. After around 10 seconds of the phone being idle, a clicking and popping sound occurs.
Google Nexus 6P Loudness Level: 90-95 percent - We found that the Google Nexus 6P had to be really turned up to a maximum volume to be really used, which makes it a poor choice for commuters that might be using their phones in a loud environment.
Google Nexus 6P Lows: The sub-bass doesn’t extend much and is unfortunately cut-off, whereas the mid-bass is really well presented by having a fantastic control and a good slam.
Google Nexus 6P Mids: The mids on the Nexus 6P are very well presented, where they convey a great reproduction. We found the mids to sound clean and not that recessed, which was a surprise in comparison to most of the other phones out there.
Google Nexus 6P Highs: The highs were also well presented, where they weren’t rolled off and were well extended. Furthermore, they had a really nice sparkle to them which added something extra to the songs. It should be noted that the Nexus 6P did have a little bit of sibilance, which wasn’t a problem for us, but with earphones or headphones which are more sensitive it could cause problems.
Google Nexus 6P Soundstage: The soundstage is absolutely sensational, where we found the instrument separation to be top class for a smartphone and the tonality to really complement the phone’s overall sound signature. We found the imaging to be really fantastic.
(Find out more about the next Nexus 6, the Nexus 6 2016.)
The HTC One M9 provided a decent internal audio sound reproduction but was slightly let down by its average low-end performance and its soundstage. Furthermore, we felt that the phone did incur a little bit of distortion when playing certain songs that had more of a high frequency focus. Overall, the HTC One M9 was nothing to get too excited about, but did provide a decent internal output. (Also see our full HTC One M9 review.)
HTC One M9 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810 - Presumed to be using the Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec.
HTC One M9 Amp Test: There was a very small amount of hissing and interference when the HTC One M9 was used alongside an amplifier. The hissing and interference was hard to hear, so we felt it was negligible for most users.
HTC One M9 Loudness Level: 75-80 percent - We found the HTC One M9 to be sufficient in loudness for most people, however if the phone were to be used with headphones that require more power, an external amplifier would be required to fully drive them.
HTC One M9 Lows: We found the sub-bass to reasonably extend well, but does cut off in the lower sub-bass regions. Despite the HTC One M9 portraying a decent mid-bass slam, we did feel that it could have been improved with a little more control.
HTC One M9 Mids: Its mids are well presented but due to the slight hiss and distortion there is a slightly odd reproduction that is conveyed in the mid-range frequency.
HTC One M9 Highs: The highs are very well presented and extend extremely well. We found them to provide a good amount of sparkle, which did lead them being a little sibilant.
HTC One M9 Soundstage: Its soundstage is average and we did find it to portray a duller, more boring sound signature. The HTC One M9 portrays a decent decay but due to a slight bit of distortion has some odd blimps when playing high-tone frequencies. We felt its overall soundstage could have been a little wider and slightly deeper sounding to provide a better overall audio listening experience.
(Find out more about the next HTC One, the HTC One M10.)
Despite the HTC 10 utilising Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chipset to reproduce its internal sound, which is the same chipset found in the LG G5 (which didn't leave us that impressed), the HTC 10 is able to reproduce a fantastic overall sound quality, merely losing out to the Wolfson chipsets (such as the Marshall London and Samsung Galaxy S6) due to their more engaging soundstage. (Also see our full HTC 10 review.)
HTC 10 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, using Qualcomm’s WSA8815 Audio Codec.
HTC 10 Amp Test: There was no signs of hissing noise present with the HTC 10.
HTC 10 Loudness Level: 55-60 percent - We were impressed by the ability of the HTC 10 to drive high impedance headphones, through its loud output. We conducted our tests at the 55-60 percent mark, which was plenty loud.
HTC 10 Lows: The sub-bass reproduction was surprisingly good, with the HTC 10 being able to extend into the lower frequencies without cutting off too early. In comparison to some of the best internal audio phones we have tested, we found it to not extend as much - but this is nit-picking the HTC's sound. The mid-bass has a good impact, whilst also remaining controlled and not overpowering the mid-range frequencies.
HTC 10 Mids: Its mids are slightly recessed, but we were impressed by the overall reproduction and accuracy from the HTC 10. It's not quite forward-sounding, but will please most music lovers.
HTC 10 Highs: The highs are slightly rolled off at the top end, but do provide a great sparkle at the top-end frequencies.
HTC 10 Soundstage: The soundstage is the only factor in its internal audio reproduction that was slightly disappointing. We felt in comparison to the Wolfson chipset phones, the HTC 10 sounded a little flat and lacked width and depth. However, in comparison to other phones, the HTC 10 performs very well and we shouldn't take away what HTC have been able to manage through the use of the Snapdragon 820 chipset. We would have therefore liked to hear a little more depth and width in its soundstage reproduction, but were left impressed by its instrument separation.
The LG G3 suffers from huge internal audio problems, with distortions, interference and random clicking sounds when a 3.5mm jack is plugged in. The audio as therefore extremely hampered by the poor performance of the audio jack. Despite this, the LG G3 had a decent reproduction of the mid-bass and mid-range. Overall, out of the phones we tested, the LG G3 was one of the worst we came across. (Also see our full LG G3 review.)
LG G3 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm MSM8974AC Snapdragon 801 - Presumed to be using the Qualcomm WCD9320 Audio Codec.
LG G3 Amp Test: The LG G3 suffers from massive interference that’s even audible without an amp and used with slightly sensitive earphones. We were extremely disappointed with its problems and furthermore found that the phone produced a double clicking noise each time a 3.5mm jack is plugged into the phone. This frustrating and annoying feature cannot be disabled and becomes a distraction when plugging in a jack into the phone. Furthermore, we found the phone to produce huge computer hard-drive sounds when being used alongside an amplifier - this comes from poor shielding of the audio jack from the processor and internal components of the phone.
LG G3 Loudness Level: 60-65 percent - We found the LG G3 able to drive everything we threw at it, which is impressive considering it’s only a smartphone.
LG G3 Lows: The LG G3’s bass was really divided, as we felt the sub-bass was not well extended and was cut-off. Whereas with the mid-bass we felt it produced just the right amount of slam and provided a good quality reproduction.
LG G3 Mids: The mids are a little recessed and slightly pushed back, but nevertheless are well portrayed.
LG G3 Highs: The LG G3’s highs are decent but we didn’t feel they provided the right amount of sparkle to our music. We felt that the highs lacked a little bit of life and extension (due to being rolled off) at the top-end.
LG G3 Soundstage: Its soundstage is a little closed, where we felt the songs were being slightly suffocated and not having enough room to breathe. With that said, we felt the tonality alongside the decay to be accurate and well presented.
(Find out more about the next LG flagship, the LG G5.)
The LG G5 is a huge leap forward for LG, with its ability to play 24-bit audio files and the fixed static/hard drive noises previously present with the LG G3 are fixed with the LG G5. However, its overall sound quality is rather mediocre for a flagship phone and can't quite compete with some of its competitors. (Also see our full LG G5 review.)
LG G5 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, using Qualcomm’s WSA8815 Audio Codec.
LG G5 Amp Test: The LG G5 doesn't have any inherent problems, like those found on the LG G3, but we did notice a small static pop sound when the screen was unlocked. This static noise was also present without an amplifier.
LG G5 Loudness Level: 85-90 percent - Unfortunately, the LG G5 had to be cranked up extremely high to be on par with other flagship smartphones. This meant that high impedance headphones would have trouble being driven by the G5 and those who want to listen to loud music will be limited Note: We would never suggest blocking out external sounds with loud music, as this will damage your hearing!
LG G5 Lows: The bass reproduction of the G5 was a disappointing, with the sub-bass not really extending and being cut-off in the lower frequencies, whilst the mid-bass had the right amount of impact, but didn't have the control we would have liked.
LG G5 Mids: Its mids are very well reproduced, with it being the highlight of the LG's internal sound quality. We found the mids to be forward sounding, like its speaker, providing us with an accurate and engaging mid-range sound.
LG G5 Highs: The highs are rolled off, but do have a nice sparkle to them. We would have liked a little more extension in its top-end frequencies.
LG G5 Soundstage: We found the LG G5's soundstage to be one of its weakest internal audio traits. We felt the soundstage was closed and negatively affected the overall sound presentation of the G5. Its instrument separation could have been a little better too. On the plus side, its soundstage had good width and depth.
The Marshall London produces a fantastic internal audio reproduction, where the sound is full-bodied and fun sounding. It did perform at a very high standard and felt it was slightly warmer sounding than the Samsung Galaxy S6, which takes our top spot in this phone comparison. This comes down from both phones utilising the Wolfson Microelectronics chips to reproduce their audio. We felt the Marshall London had a fantastic authentic feel to it, where the sound reminded us of the Marshall amplifiers used by many musicians. (Also see our full Marshall London phone review.)
Marshall London Internal Audio Chip: Wolfson Microelectronics WM8281 DAC.
Marshall London Amp Test: We did not note any problems with the Marshall London connected to an amplifier.
Marshall London Loudness Level: 80-85 percent - we felt the Marshall London would lack a little in loudness for most people, especially if the phone were to be used with headphones, where the phone would require more power from an external amplifier to fully drive them.
Marshall London Lows: The sub-bass and mid-bass reproduction was extremely well done. In fact, we found it to reproduce the most desirable basshead sound out of all the phones - with a great sub-bass extension and a strong mid-bass slam.
Marshall London Mids: Unfortunately due to the emphasis on the lows, the mids took a hit and sounded recessed and slightly pushed back. This created a V-shaped sound signature, which was nice for rock and R ’n’ B songs, but not really desirable for classical music, where there is a lot more emphasis on the mids.
Marshall London Highs: The highs do extend well and provide a nice sparkle, but are a little rolled off at the top end.
Marshall London Soundstage: The soundstage is well presented, but we felt the instrument separation and tonality could be slightly better presented. It was interesting to hear the sound signature to be presented in a Rock ’n’ Roll fashion, which led itself to provide a warm and fun sounding phone. This does have its downside, where the output sound is neither accurate nor neutral sounding.
The Microsoft Lumia 950 has a decent internal audio output, but didn’t really leave us excited, due to its rather dull, non-imaginative sound. Furthermore, the phone also suffered from crackling issues when used alongside an amplifier, which didn’t help its performance. (Also see our full Microsoft Lumia 950 review.)
Microsoft Lumia 950 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm MSM8992 Snapdragon 808 - Presumed to be using the Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Amp Test: The Lumia 950 suffers from crackling noise and small pulse sounds whilst remaining on the lockscreen.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Loudness Level: 75-80 percent- We found the Microsoft Lumia 950 to be sufficient in loudness for most people, however if the phone were to be used with headphones that require more power, an external amplifier would be required to fully drive them.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Lows: We found the sub-bass to be a little rolled off, which was a shame as its mid-bass is well presented and has a nice controlled slam.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Mids: The mids of the Lumia 950 are quite accurate, with it sounding realistic and not too pushed back. We found the mids could have been a little better in their reproduction, but we were satisfied with the overall tonality.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Highs: Its highs extend well, perfectly complements the overall sound signature. We found that with its extension and little bit of sparkle, music was a little more enjoyable to listen to.
Microsoft Lumia 950 Soundstage: We found the soundstage to be a little closed and unfortunately hindered the performance of the sound, as it made the sound somewhat suffocated. On the plus side, we did find the instrument separation being absolutely fantastic, and alongside a great decay, created a good sense of depth and width to the overall sound quality.
The OnePlus 2 was unfortunately less impressive than at first plug-in, where its overall audio power output was extremely impressive, only to be let down by its overall sound quality which has a lot of room for improvement. We feel the OnePlus 2 didn’t deliver a good overall sound and sat at the bottom of our list for internal audio quality. It should be noted that the MaxxAudio settings are hidden within the settings of the phone and only accessible to be disabled when audio is playing. We fully disabled every adjustment and equaliser setting before conducting our tests. (Also see our full OnePlus 2 review.)
OnePlus 2 Internal Audio Chip: Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec with NXP TFA9890 audio amplifier
OnePlus 2 Amp Test: The OnePlus 2 suffered from interference when used alongside an amplifier. Similar to the LG G3, it also produced a small ticking noise when left on idle and a hard-drive noise when being used. This was disappointing to hear from the OnePlus 2 as we were expecting a crackle-free output after having partnered with MaxxAudio to create some software-side tweaks.
OnePlus 2 Loudness Level: 60-65 percent - We found the OnePlus 2 able to drive everything we threw at it, which is impressive considering it’s only a smartphone.
OnePlus 2 Lows: We found the sub-bass to not really extent that well and felt somewhat cut-off. Despite having a decent amount of mid-bass slam, we found the mid-bass to be also disappointing, as it lacked control and precision.
OnePlus 2 Mids: Due to having a little bit of a mid-bass slam, we found its mids to feel a little recessed and pushed back. We were disappointed not to hear it excel in the mids department.
OnePlus 2 Highs: Its highs extend well, but are slightly rolled off at the top-end frequency.
OnePlus 2 Soundstage: We found the soundstage quite closed sounding, where we felt the phone’s internal audio had very little room to breathe - due to it having a closed soundstage. We also found the imaging and positioning a little disappointing.
(Learn more about the next OnePlus flagship, the OnePlus 3.)
The Samsung Galaxy S6 has a fantastic internal audio output, where it came to no surprise to find it using the Wolfson WM1840, which provide it with its unique meaty sound signature, whilst remaining accurate and not overly V-shaped in its sound reproduction. We felt the Galaxy S6 combined a little bit of every frequency and made it work really well. It definitely wasn’t the best mid or high-tone frequency reproduction we tested, but the way it could combine them all and with the lows left us no choice but to award the Samsung Galaxy S6 as the best-sounding phone of 2016 for its internal audio. (Also see our full Samsung Galaxy S6 review.)
Samsung Galaxy S6 Internal Audio Chip: Wolfson Microelectronics WM1840 DAC
Samsung Galaxy S6 Amp Test: When used alongside an amplifier we were able to hear very minimal interference, which occurred when on idle. As the interference was minimal we felt it was enough to be negligible.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Loudness Level: 55-60 percent - We found the Samsung Galaxy S6 able to drive everything we threw at it, which is impressive considering it’s only a smartphone. It was easily the most powerful phone output we experienced out of all the other smartphones that we compared it to. It was positive to see this from Samsung, as it allows people to use their headphones or higher impedance earphones with the Galaxy S6.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Lows: The standout feature on all Wolfson chips are the incredible bass reproduction they carry. This went without saying that the Samsung Galaxy S6 had a fantastic sub-bass extension and a great mid-bass slam. We did feel the mid-bass slam was slightly uncontrolled, but its overall reproduction of the lows was fantastic to hear.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Mids: Its mids were a little pushed back, a little like the Marshall London sounds, but by not such a great degree. We felt the mids were a little recessed and created a little bit of a V-shaped sound to the phone’s internal output. It’s safe to say that the Galaxy S6 has a warm and a little more fun sound to it in comparison to the iPhone 6s or the Google Nexus 6P, which were both excellent in their mid-range reproduction.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Highs: We found the highs to extend really well, and provide a fantastic sparkle to the music we were listening to. Furthermore, unlike other phones that had a good high-tone response, but sounded a little sibilant; we found the Galaxy S6 to extend well, without being sibilant, which was a pleasant surprise.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Soundstage: As stated above, we felt the sound signature was a little V-shaped. We found the instrument separation and tonality to be good, but what really stood out was its accurate reproduction of the music, which was extremely well received.
We found the Samsung Galaxy S7 to be a slight step down over its younger brother, the Galaxy S6. The sound signature was similar, although had a different sound signature. This comes from Samsung ditching the Wolfson DAC and replacing it with Cirrus Logic's CS47L91 Audio Codec, which is found in the G930F (Global) and G930FD (Southeast Asia) models that use the Samsung Exynos 8890 chipset. As a note to our US readers who have the Galaxy S7 G930 variant, it would presumably use Qualcomm's WCD9335 Audio Codec, which will sound different to our internal audio tests below. (See our Samsung Galaxy S7 review.)
Samsung Galaxy S7 Internal Audio Chip: Cirrus Logic CS47L91 Audio Codec
Samsung Galaxy S7 Amp Test: When used alongside an amplifier we were able to hear very minimal interference, which occurred when on idle. As the interference was minimal we felt it was enough to be negligible.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Loudness Level: 80-85 percent - Over the Galaxy S6, it was much less capable to drive higher impedance headphones. We were slightly baffled as to why Samsung decided to have the volume increments actioned by the volume rocker, to change the phone's volume by an estimated eight percent over the five percent increments it previously had on the Galaxy S6. This results in sound being either a little too low or loud, at least to our ears.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Lows: Unlike the Galaxy S6 which boasts amazing sub-bass capabilities through its Wolfson chipset, the Galaxy S7 has a good, but less impressive reproduction. We found the sub-bass to extend well, but not as deep as the Galaxy S6. On the plus side, we felt the mid-bass was slightly more controlled and didn't overpower the mids, due to a punchy and accurate reproduction.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Mids: Despite having a Cirrus Logic audio codec, we found the mids to be a little pushed back, creating a V-shaped sound signature. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it creates a more fun sounding phone and combined with the lows, provides a good combination.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Highs: The highs are a little rolled off at the top end, but do have a nice sparkle to them. We would have liked an in-between highs reproduction of the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S6, where we found the Galaxy S6 to be a touch on the sibilant side, whilst the Galaxy S7 is rolled off.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Soundstage: We found the Galaxy S7's soundstage to lack width and depth, but have good instrument separation. There are settings which allow you to tinker with the soundstage reproduction, but as we are testing the raw chipset and codec quality in our best sounding phone round-up we cannot factor these tweaks. For more information about the adjustments, read our full Samsung Galaxy S7 review.
We found the Sony Xperia Z5 neither good nor bad. It sat somewhat in the middle, due to its rather disappointing soundstage and impressive mids and highs. We felt Sony did a decent job in tuning all the frequencies for a majority of listeners, but felt the mids were a little artificially boosted, creating a somewhat unnatural and dull sound. (Also see our full Sony Xperia Z5 review.)
Sony Xperia Z5 Internal Audio Chip: SoC (system on chip) Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810 - Presumed to be using Qualcomm WCD9330 Audio Codec
Sony Xperia Z5 Amp Test: We found that the Sony Xperia Z5 had a little crackling and popping sounds when used alongside an amplifier. We also noticed a pulse sound that occurred after the phone was connected via a 3.5mm input.
Sony Xperia Z5 Loudness Level: 75-80 percent - We found the Sony Xperia Z5 to be sufficient in loudness for most people, however if the phone were to be used with headphones that require more power, an external amplifier would be required to fully drive them.
Sony Xperia Z5 Lows: Its sub-bass was a little cut-off, which was a shame as we found its mid-bass to be well presented, despite being a little uncontrolled.
Sony Xperia Z5 Mids: The mids were impressive on the Sony Xperia Z5, where we felt the mids were being slightly boosted and had a good frequency. However, we did find it to sound a little artificial in its reproduction.
Sony Xperia Z5 Highs: Its highs extend well, which really complements its soundstage as the sparkle has a nice resonance with the phone’s internal audio output.
Sony Xperia Z5 Soundstage: We found the soundstage to be somewhat lacking, due to it being a little closed in its reproduction. The sound signature of the phone was a little dull, albeit its slightly artificial mid-range reproduction. On the plus side, we found the instrument separation absolutely excellent.
(Learn more about the next Sony flagship, the Sony Xperia Z6.)
To conclude, the phone with the best internal audio quality is the Samsung Galaxy S6, due to its Wolfson Microelectronics WM1840 Audio Codec. The phone could produce fantastic quality audio. We noticed a very minimal amount of distortion and a good overall frequency reproduction through the lows, mids and highs. It should be noted that the Samsung Galaxy S6 does have a slightly warmer tone over phones such as the iPhone 6s. However, due to its fantastic bass extension and even its tonality the Galaxy S6 was able to produce some of the best sound from a phone. It should be noted that both the Marshall Londo and BQ Aquaris have fantastic audio DACs, with both sharing the same Wolfson WM8281 audio chipset, which provide a great internal audio reproduction. The HTC 10 also impressed us with its SoC performance of the Snapdragon 810 chipset.
Most people will use their phones without an external headphone amplifier of any sort, and this also boded well with the Galaxy S6, as it was able to easily drive our earphones and most of our headphones to a reasonable level. In comparison, some phones, such as the Google Nexus 6P struggled to drive low impedance earphones, let alone slightly harder-to-drive headphones that had higher impedance. This is why the Samsung Galaxy S6 is our recommendation for its fantastic internal audio capabilities.
Sub-bass: This is felt as the bass rumble, in full-blown subwoofers this is the bass that makes your desk rumble/shake, depending on the power! A good sub-bass response extends very deep - giving you a longer and more accurate bass reproduction. As a note: Sub-bass is heard in higher-end audio equipment. As it’s harder to distinguish, a lot of manufacturers that want to cut costs on their speakers and amplifiers tend to cut off the bass extension - resulting in a short, cut-off bass tone.
Mid-bass: This is the bass slam - the more noticeable bass frequency found in almost every audio equipment. The best way to describe it would be the bass that comes from a drummer's kick drum on stage.
Lows: Lows are known as the bass - it’s a combination of both the sub-bass and mid-bass frequencies.
Mids: The mid-range frequency, the “in-between” of the low and high frequencies. This is everything from a range of instruments and vocals and can sometimes be split up again into the lower midrange that transit off of the bass and contains most male vocals and the higher midrange that projects most female vocals. If the midrange is boosted and reproduced correctly, it can add a sense of clarity to songs - this is where a lot of portable amplifiers tend to focus on and where the term “cleaner sound” came from.
Highs: The sparkle in your music (cymbals and high hats for example) comes from the highs. The better the highs are, the more sparkle you’ll have. Sometimes you might be treated with too much high end frequencies, thus leading to sibilance. A good extension of the highs can lead to a more open soundstage.
Soundstage: The soundstage is almost as the name suggest. It refers to the positioning and placement of the sound relative to your ears. A visual comparison of soundstage would be comparing an opera hall and a small 5x5 room, where the latter would provide a narrower, more closed soundstage, whilst the opera hall would reproduce the exact opposite. ?It should also be noted that depth and width are coupled with the soundstage, where the depth refers to the amount of vertical space that is being produced and the width is the amount of horizontal sound that’s being heard.
Sibilance: The “hiss” noise or prolonged “Ss” sounds found in certain earphones that have a spike at a certain high frequency. Sibilance isn’t exactly a bad thing, but when there’s too much of it, it can become irritating and problematic for sensitive ears.
Instrument Separation: The term is pretty self-explanatory, but when talked about in audio equipment refers to the way instruments sound in different positions. Often when music is recorded, or films are edited the sound engineer/producer will make a certain sound intentionally come from a specific direction. When coupled with the soundstage, the instrument separation aids in the immersion of the music.
Decay: The decay is often described with the choice of materials used in headphones or earphones. Its definition isn’t set in stone, but is used to describe the way sound frequencies bounce off materials and ultimately resonate.
Imaging: This term is used to describe the way the music is portrayed - poor imaging means the sound that is being reproduced isn’t accurate. Imaging is often linked with the soundstage and the decay, as it goes hand-in-hand with these two terms.
DAC: Also known as ‘Digital-to-Analog Conversion’ - as the name suggest this is where a conversion that takes place within an audio device - where digital audio files get converted to analog sound that can be heard by headphones and earphones. Some phone manufacturers have opted to have a dedicated DAC, as it produces a more accurate sound.
Warm sound: Often used to describe a V-shaped sound signature. A V-shaped signature - so called because of the pattern created when a physical (or on-screen) equaliser is set this way - is created by an emphasis on the low end and high end tones, whilst the mid-range frequencies are pushed back. This created a sense of warmness to the sound - that makes it more fun to listen to.
Sound Signature: This is often described to be the unique stamp from a manufacturer. People will often refer to sound signature along with a name of a manufacturer (i.e.: The Wolfson sound signature). It can also be used to describe how the sound is being portrayed - as a warm/cold sound.
Rolled-off / Cut-off: These terms are used to describe the lows and highs. The low-end when not fully extended can seem cut-off, where a manufacturer has essentially not extended the lows. The term ’rolled-off’ works in the same principle, but is often used to describe the highs - where they sound soothed out, rather than extended.
Output Impedance: This very complicated audio term is often hard to describe. For the purpose of simplicity, output impedance in audio is the resistance and output that can be heard from an amplifier. In the case of a phone, this applies to the internal amplifier found within a phone. The output impedance can create an absence of bass or a skewing of the frequency response of a source, in this case a phone.
For our internal audio tests we used a variety of different equipment to conduct our phone tests. Also see: Best budget phones 2016.
The testing was mainly based on the harschacoustic SH-2 custom IEMs and the modded Denon AH-D2000 headphones, as these two allowed us to easily draw out the differences between the various phones. As noted in our introduction, the differences between the phones were heard on all of the earphones and headphones listed below.
All Android phones were used with the Poweramp app. Windows phones were used with the Groove Music app. Apple phones were used with the iTunes Music app. All phones also had their equalisers and audio changing features completely disabled - this was in order to test the hardware, rather than the audio-software of each phone. At the time of writing this article, all phones were updated to their latest available software (listed below).
• DigiZoid ZO2 v2.3 (high-gain mode enabled with bass contour set to zero) and used alongside a 3.5mm to 3.5mm Custom Art silver braided interconnect cable
Here is a small sample of the songs used to test the phones - They varied between a mix of MP3s and FLAC sound files at various bit rates and sample rates:
• ODESZA - Say My Name
• Yahtzel - High with Me
• I-Cube - Adore
• Madonna [Stéphane Pompougnac Remix] - What It Feels Like for a Girl
• Variety Lab - London in the Rain
• Armin van Buuren - Breathe In Deep (The Blizzard Remix)
• W&w - Manhattan (Craving Remix)
• John Legend - Who Do We Think We Are
• Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams - Get Lucky
• Ne-Yo - Champagne Life
• Bruno Mars - Uptown Funk
• Dr. Dre - The Next Episode (San Holo Remix)
• Apple iPhone 6s: iOS 9.2
• BQ Aquaris M5: Android 5.1.1
• Google Nexus 6P: Android 6.0.1
• HTC One M9: Android 5.1
• HTC 10: Android 6.0.1
• LG G3: Android 5.0.2
• LG G5: Android 6.0
• Marshall London: Android 5.0.2
• Microsoft Lumia 950: Windows 10 Mobile. Version 1511
• OnePlus 2: Android 5.1.1
• Samsung Galaxy S6: Android 5.1.1
• Samsung Galaxy S7: Android 6.0
• Sony Xperia Z5: Android 5.1.1
Read next: Best new phones coming in 2016.
- Reviewed on: 29 September 15
- RRP: £399 inc VAT
Focussing on core specs, the Marshall London isn't a very good deal at all. You get the kind of hardware (in some cases worse) available on phone less than half the price. However, this isn't the point of the phone. Buying the London is all about the brand, the style and music and on these fronts it delivers in amp shaped bucket loads. Marshall has made the coolest phone we've ever seen (we just don't have a rating for that).
Read our Marshall London review.
- Reviewed on: 18 January 16
- RRP: £599 inc VAT (32GB), £660 inc VAT (64GB)
Samsung's Galaxy S6 is the best Android phone of 2015 so far, although we've yet to see what's to come from the LG G4 and Sony Xperia Z4. It's fast, it's well built, it has a gorgeous screen and the software isn't overly intrusive. The fingerprint scanner is vastly improved, the heart-rate scanner a potential draw for some users, and the wireless- and fast charging welcome inclusions. We'd like to see the price come down (which we are sure it will) and it's a shame we've lost the removable battery, waterproofing and microSD support, but these are all things we can live with.
Read our Samsung Galaxy S6 review.
3. HTC 10
- Reviewed on: 9 May 16
- RRP: £569 inc. VAT
There's a lot to like with the new HTC 10 including a number of hardware upgrades across screen, camera and audio, plus a Nexus-like stock Android experience. However, we're not totally sold on the design and it's tough at the top these days. While the HTC 10 is a solidly good phone and a respectible upgrade for M9 owners, it doesn't blow the competition out of the water. The features which appeal the most are more niche than mass market.
Read our HTC 10 review.
- Reviewed on: 14 March 16
- RRP: £239.90 inc VAT
The BQ Aquaris M5 is a fantastic phone, which offers fantastic sound reproduction, impressive camera abilities and an untamed Android experience all for an affordable price. It's hard to fault this budget smartphone, which has only recently entered the UK market.
Read our BQ Aquaris M5 review.
5. iPhone 6S
- Reviewed on: 9 September 16
- RRP: From £539
We're really impressed by the iPhone 6s. It's fast, has a great screen and a good main camera. It misses out on some of the 6s Plus's features, including optical stabilisation, but most people won't really notice. In short, the iPhone 6s is a great phone, and it's even better now it's cheaper and the base model has 32GB of storage.
Read our iPhone 6S review.
- Reviewed on: 29 April 16
- RRP: £569 inc VAT
The Samsung Galaxy S6 was the best phone of 2015 and, although it’s still early days, the Galaxy S7 is a serious contender for best phone of 2016. Samsung has taken into account what its fans want, addressing the three main areas of concern: removable storage, waterproofing and battery life. It’s also upgraded the core hardware and photography gear, added an always-on display and some useful software. Right now the Galaxy S7 is simply unbeatable.
Read our Samsung Galaxy S7 review.
- Reviewed on: 28 April 16
- RRP: From £449 inc VAT
Originally, Nexus phones stood out for being excellent value at a price that was low, but not the lowest. They weren't an alternative to flagship phones, but they had the advantage of running stock Android and getting the next version more quickly. The 6P, though, is not only a flagship, but is arguably the best Android phone to buy at the moment. It won't suit everyone due to its size, nor those looking for a phone with dual-SIM slots or a removable battery. There's no support for wireless charging either. But the excellent screen, front-firing speakers, quick charging, great cameras, speedy performance and Android Marshmallow add up to make this a phone that's a pleasure to use. And yes, it's also cheaper than its rivals, so unless you think it's worth shelling out extra on the Note 5, Galaxy S6 Edge+ or iPhone 6S Plus, the Nexus 6P is the one to buy.
Read our Google Nexus 6P review.
8. HTC One M9
- Reviewed on: 18 January 16
- RRP: £579 inc VAT
The HTC One M9 is a genuinely desirable smartphone with the best design and build available in Android land, even with Samsung upping the ante. It's good to see the powerful Snapdragon 810 and more memory, however, some key hardware remains the same meaning M8 users are unlikely to be tempted to upgrade – and the old model is now an attractive buy at around £350. The fact the Galaxy S6 is the same price with more impressive specs is also not a good thing for HTC.
Read our HTC One M9 review.
9. LG G5
- Reviewed on: 5 May 16
- RRP: £529 inc VAT
The LG G5 is one of the most radical phones to come along in a while and we’re glad the firm has shaken things up with the modular design. The G5 is innovative and interesting with unique features but it’s a shame the design and build feels unfinished in areas. It’s a top-notch device which can hold its own with the best phones in performance and cameras, but it’s LG’s modular design which is the real selling point here. There is bags of potential but the future of this is unclear so it’s hard to be definite right now. The G5 is one of the best phones around but for completely different reasons to the Galaxy S7.
Read our LG G5 review.
10. Sony Xperia Z5
- Reviewed on: 29 April 16
- RRP: £549 inc VAT
There's no doubt that the Xperia Z5 is a solid flagship smartphone from Sony and an improvement on the Z3+. We certainly like the new frosted glass rear cover and the addition of a fingerprint scanner in that slim power button. The camera isn't great compared to the best phone cameras out there though, and you can get a better phone for similar money. The price has dropped, and it's now a decent-value waterproof flagship with a Micro-SD card slot. However, you can't use it underwater, and there are newer rivals which are better value, take better photos and have better performance.
Read our Sony Xperia Z5 review.
11. LG G3
- Reviewed on: 5 July 16
- RRP: £259 inc. VAT
When the LG G3 came in at under £500 we were impressed. A year on and a phone that packs amazing features including a Quad HD display and a camera with a laser auto focus is one of the bargains of the market. The LG G3 is surprisingly small considering the 5.5in display and we like the more premium design. It's another winner from LG, and well worth your consideration in 2015.
Read our LG G3 review.
- Reviewed on: 26 January 16
- RRP: £449 inc VAT
Windows 10 has arrived on smartphones and we're not exactly blown away. Loyal Windows and Windows Phone users will appreciate features like Universal Apps and while Continuum appears to be a real wow features, it requires a lot of extra equipment. The OS is buggy, too. The Lumia 950 itself offers some decent hardware, namely the screen, inside an uninspiring design. Unless you're set on the OS, there is a lot better on the market and for less money.
Read our Microsoft Lumia 950 review.
13. OnePlus 2
- Reviewed on: 8 March 16
- RRP: £249 64GB
The lack of NFC, a microSD card slot, a removable battery, and quick- and wireless charging means the OnePlus 2 is not a flagship killer. It does have some killer new features though, including USB Type-C, 4G dual-SIM support and some powerful hardware. At the reduced price of £249 (we don't recommend the 16GB OP2), it's an unrivalled deal.
Read our OnePlus 2 review.