Having a good set of speakers on your smartphone is important. You don’t want to be that person who blares their obnoxious music at full volume on a crowded train, but you do want to be able to hear a hands-free call clearly. Your phone’s speakers also come in handy when you’re showing a couple of friends a YouTube video, or if you want a bit of ambience in the pub’s beer garden.
This is the latest instalment in Gizmodo Australia's big Smartphone Buying Guide rolling-out Mondays and Wednesdays in October.
What Makes A Good Phone Speaker?
We’ve used our hands-on experience and research to determine which current smartphones have the best built-in speakers.
We’re not talking about Bluetooth accessories or portable speakers here — this is purely to determine which phones have the best built-in speaker or speakers.
It has to be said that a good phone speaker is somewhat of an oxymoron. Phone speakers are, by definition, tiny and hidden away, which is not a good recipe for high-quality music or audio playback. To a point, all phone speakers are equally crippled. Some phones stand out from the pack, though, with speakers that belie their small size.
Most pivotal in your purchasing decision should be the position of the speaker on your potential new phone. Phone speakers are universally highly directional - they always sound best when pointed directly towards the listener. Because of this, a phone with a front-facing speaker setup will sound better than a downward-firing speaker, which will sound better than a rear-firing speaker, if all other factors are identical.
Proponents of rear-firing speakers point to the fact that when placed on a table, the sound reflects upwards and outwards towards the listener. This is not a good solution, requiring more power for the same effective volume and stealing away the clarity of less directional lower frequencies. It’s better to have a phone with a downward-pointing speaker aimed directly at the listener, while a front-firing setup is better again.
Beyond the speaker design, what you’re looking for in a smartphone’s speaker system is volume, clarity, and fullness of sound. You want a phone that can handle playing at full volume without distortion, and you want that volume to be loud enough that it will keep a small crowd of your friends happy.
More subjective is the quality of a phone’s sound. Smartphone speakers generally have no problem producing clear high-end treble frequencies, but struggle with mid-range and lower bass notes. As a general rule, the bigger the phone and the bigger the speakers, the more capable they are of producing a wider range of sound.
With that in mind, and after extensive listening to a host of different models, we’ve picked out our favourite five phones based on their integrated speaker setups.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Being quite a large phone, the Galaxy Note 3 has the advantage of a lot of room to hide a powerful speaker in. The Note 3’s speaker is now aimed out the bottom of the phone rather than through the back panel, giving it better, more directional sound when the phone is sitting flat on a table.
Samsung’s most powerful phone also houses its best speakers, handily beating out the Galaxy S4 we compared it to for maximum volume and overall sound quality. The Note 3’s speaker doesn’t have a great deal of bass or mid-range oomph, but it’s crisp and loud enough to keep us happy.
Speakers: Voice 70dB / Noise 66dB / Ring 78dB
Apple iPhone 5S
Only one of the two grilles on the bottom of the iPhone 5S houses a speaker - the other is for a microphone - but you could have fooled us with the quality and volume of the sound from Apple’s latest handset.
The iPhone’s downward-firing speaker can’t compete with the HTC One for convenience, but in our opinion it comes second only to the HTC One for the richness and warmth of its sound, bettering almost all the other phones we tried out for an overall listening experience.
Speakers: Voice 68dB / Noise 66dB / Ring 69dB
The One’s BoomSound speakers deserve your attention mainly because they’re front-facing. Having your music or a speakerphone call actually directed towards you is a god-send for clarity and volume, and having two speakers arranged in a separated stereo configuration genuinely does make music sound more realistic.
A lot of the HTC One’s audio nous comes from its Beats Audio equaliser setting, which boosts low frequencies for stronger bass while also tweaking treble notes slightly. We never saw a reason to disable the Beats tech on the One — it sounds great with it turned on.
Speakers: Stereo with built-in amplifier. Voice 69dB / Noise 66dB / Ring 75dB
Nokia Lumia 1020
The Lumia 1020, like the Galaxy Note 3, wins a mention for its speaker based on its capacious body. The Lumia 1020 is somewhat thicker and larger than other phones that share its 4.5-inch display, and that means there’s a lot of room inside for a high quality speaker.
Nokia’s current flagship impressed us with the overall volume level that its speaker, mounted on the lower edge of the phone next to its MicroUSB port, was able to produce. It’s also clear and handles a decent amount of mid-range sound alongside sharp treble.
Nokia's new 6-inch phablets were just announced at Nokia World, and we'll have to wait and see if their size actually improves the sound on offer.
Speakers: Voice 69dB / Noise 66dB / Ring 72dB
Sony Xperia Z1
The new Sony Xperia Z1 has a single speaker grille that runs along the base of the phone, and it’s larger than competitors since the Z1’s USB port is located on its side. It’s a huge improvement from the tiny slit cut into the bottom right edge of the original Xperia Z, which didn’t sound very good at all.
We didn’t find the Xperia Z1 especially loud when looking directly at the screen, but the trade-off for this is that at even up to maximum volume, its speaker remains clear and free of distortion, with decent overall sound quality.
Speakers: Voice 65dB / Noise 62dB / Ring 65dB
What's your favourite phone from a built-in speaker perspective?
The new HTC One mini: small in size, not in power: