Dynamic Range

The dynamic range of the phone indicates the difference between the loudest possible sound and the background noise. The more residual noise in the background, the lower the dynamic range. Phones with more powerful amplifier sections will typically produce a greater dynamic range. The residual noise level is often constant, so as the overall volume level increases the difference between the music and the noise increases as well.

The best performer here is the iPhone 5 again, with 92.214 dB of range. The worst is the Nexus 5 with only 89.332 dB. A difference of 3 dB is not something I would concern myself over. If we see a phone or tablet that drops down below 80 dB then I will start to show more concern.

Crosstalk

Crosstalk, like dynamic range, is just a number here. This is the measurement how much signal leaks from one channel into another. If an instrument should only be in the right ear, some of that signal will leak into the left ear, but we want that as low as possible. The results are expressed in -dB, or how much quieter one ear is than the intended ear.

On the Note 3 we see a wonderful crosstalk measurement of -117.2 dB so the sounds in one ear are -117 dB quieter in the other ear. This makes them impossible to hear. The worst is the iPhone 5, with only -75.624 dB of isolation.

Stepped Response

The stepped response uses a 1 kHz 0 dBFS tone but measures output level from maximum volume to minimum volume. We can see how large the volume steps are and how many there are. It doesn’t produce a number we can use, but it ties back into our other results. For a good example, we can look at the Note 3.

We see steps that are around -5 dBu each. The final level is muted and just the background noise of the device. Each step is clean and even but as we get lower and lower we see noise start to intrude. This is the background noise starting to become audible in the signal. The flatter the levels are, the quieter it will be. Now, let us look at the Nexus 5.

Notice at the very top how the right and left channels do not overlap. That is the clipping we talked about at the very beginning. It isn’t until the 4th volume setting that the level difference is down to nothing. Because of this, I would consider the top 3 volume settings of the Nexus 5 as ones that should be avoided. They each have enough THD+N introduced into them that it will sound poor, and one ear will be louder than the other.

Maximum Level and Frequency Response Nexus 5 and LG G2 Issues
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  • DanNeely - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    I'm curious how well your Grado headphone's are holding up? I bought a pair of SR80's for use at work last winter; but the wire started to develop damage a month or two ago. If I move the wrong way while wearing them I can get brief bursts of static in one ear, and can mute that ear by pinching the cable just above the Y. I suspect the damage was caused by the post in the headband allowing the earcups to spin freely, combined with the unmarked cable making it hard to notice anything less than a half dozen or so revolutions of twist. I'm wondering how much of this is bad luck on my part vs poor design/manufacturing. Reply
  • Marovincian - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    I had similiar concens with my Grados (actually mine are Allesandro ms1i). I sent grado an email suggesting that they put a stripe on the "Y" wires so that you could more easily straighten them out. They said that they would pass it along to their design team. Then they sent me a free T-Shirt. Classy company for sure. Reply
  • ManuLM - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    Quite a good initiative thanks, it is too hard to get these numbers nowadays.

    I would suggest you guys build up a database over time of phones performance (see headphoneinfo awesome job for instance).
    I also suggest that you add to your test the maximum output delivered (power or voltage swing into load). This is interesting, because if a phone clips at high volumes, but its output power is 10dB above the others in average, then the normal user will simply not see the drawback (altough I admit this is initially poor job from the company in tuning the audio system).
    It also helps to chase the brands which deliver lower output power, that can turn to a problem on more demanding headphones (high impedance requiring higher voltage swing). Some users will fancy some extra power on their headphone output (even if this might not be safe for their ears).
    Last point, some high-end IEMs have quite low impedance, that demand fairly high current specially in the high energy low frequency, creating bass roll off. A simple frequency response check on a low impedance IEM would show this.
    Reply
  • RandomUsername3245 - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    I like the idea of audio testing, but I am disappointed by the methods used in this article: why would you bother testing a device at maximum volume when you know it is clipping badly? You should reduce the volume to a setting where it does not clip and then continue the review. You can then report the maximum useable volume setting on the device.

    The maximum volume on an iPhone is reported to be in excess of 100 dB. Listening at this volume for even a short period (15 minutes) on a consistent basis will permanently damage your hearing. Why not test these devices at reasonable volume levels?
    http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/...

    (hopefully not too flawed analogy follows...)
    If you are comparing two overclocked computers for maximum performance, you set them to their highest stable clock rate and then benchmark. You do not set one to a clock rate that causes continual crashing, and then report that it failed several of the benchmarks. I think this is comparable to audio review for the clipping cellphones. You might argue that the device should support any user-accessible volume level, but historically it is very common for audio amplifiers to allow users to adjust the gain until the output clips. Apple is an unusual case that limits the user to only access non-clipping gain settings.
    Reply
  • ManuLM - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    audio systems are tested at max performance (there are many reasons for that, including the fact that when you sell something, all usage range of the system should be good), so analogy with OC is not ideal.
    I agree with you though that testing at nominal volume could help, as an adder only of max volume testing
    Reply
  • eio - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    yes, power of drive is a good factor in a benchmark. but performances at different loads should not be compared directly. Reply
  • eio - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    a ideal test may have several series of performance graphs with several steps of incrementing loads... Reply
  • RandomUsername3245 - Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - link

    Late reply...

    Like I said in my previous comment, it is common for audio amplifiers to allow you to adjust the gain past where the amplifier will start to clip. You should never expect a car stereo or home theater amplifier to allow you to run at maximum gain without clipping, so why should you expect a phone's headphone amplifier to behave differently?

    The proper way to run this test is to adjust the amplifier to maximum non-clipped gain and then run the test.
    Reply
  • willis936 - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    The day has finally arrived? Good data with some surprising results. I think I'm mostly surprised at how well all of the devices perform. I think dynamic range is perhaps the most important test here simply because most people won't be listening at max volume on headphones and pushing the noise floor down as low as possible is important for quiet listening.

    Were these tests done on the AKG K701? That is well known as a difficult to drive pair of cans without an amp. If a phone can drive those loudly with good measurements then it's certainly good enough for anything I'd use it for. Testing should be done worst case and if there's time more typical cases. When using my phone as a line out I'll typically leave it 3 steps below max because I expected there to be output stage power issues (seen as dramatic clipping on LG's stuff :x) on my phone. Any lower and as you noted the static noise floor lowers the SNR.

    I was a little surprised at the weak channel separation in the otherwise amazing iphone. Channel separation is already a p big issue. Even with expensive headphones it's easy to test and ballpark a crosstalk of worse than -60dB by ear just from the jack to the drivers.

    I'd like to make a request for some data of testing devices (1 iphone and 1 iconic android per year?) going backwards to see a progression (or maybe lack thereof) of audio quality in smartphones over the past 4 or 5 years.
    Reply
  • willis936 - Sunday, December 8, 2013 - link

    Oh, and thanks for the excellent write up and all of your hard work! I'm looking forward to future data. Reply

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