Complete Guide to Android Smartphone Audiophile

If you’re an audiophile, you already own one of the best sounding music content. Whether its Vinyl, Audio CDs, SCDs, DSD, or even lossless audio formats like FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, you never look back to lossy formats like MP3. Admit it, you’ve spent enough to get the best out of your music but still sometimes rely on MP3s and low quality audio hardware on the move.

Related: Audio Improvements in Android 5.0 L [Audiophile]

Portable Music has always had its compromises. However, there are a number of portable media players that offer no-compromise audio, but at a price. You can spend a grand on PMP with accompanying DAC, and still carry a smartphone. There’s something wrong with this whole model, you don’t need another portable player, let android smartphone be your best friend.

android-dac-audiophile

What we’ll cover in this Smartphone Audiophile Guide:

  1. Android Audio Architecture
  2. Choosing the Android phone for Best Audio experience
  3. Choosing DAC for Android
  4. The right headphones for you
  5. Best Music/media players on Android
  6. Mods, equalizers

1. Android Audio Architecture

Android is Linux at heart, it uses modified Linux Kernel optimized for battery and memory. The app runtime lives in a highly optimized Java Virtual machine called Dalvik VM, advent of mastermind Andy Rubin and his team.

Linux uses ALSA, the most advanced sound engine every made by humans. Its not just advanced in terms of features, but also the best sounding. We cannot tell you how much better it is than the Windows Direct sound architecture found in Windows 7, 8, etc. Even with windows audio mods like ASIO4all, JACK, you simply cannot match the bit-perfect quality from ALSA system found on Linux.

We had been running Linux PC as our Audiophile system for a year now, and it simply beats every other OS ever built when it comes to bit-perfect audio. When we first made this move, we were couldn’t believe our ears, it was miles apart from Windows.

Android kernel uses ALSA as the base and wraps it to abstract the implementation details form the apps. It provides AudioFlinger interface to applications that interacts with Libaudio (HAL), hiding the unnecessary details, easing out Android developer’s life. What is accessible to android applications is the AudioEffect API for AGC, equalization and more. When paired with right hardware, Android can do wonders with audio.

android-audio-diagram-dac

Android samples all audio at 44.1khz using 16bits per sample. It can’t get any better than that unless you’ve a heavily modified kernel and a more capable external DAC.
However, certain apps bypass AudioFlinger and directly access ALSA for advanced audio functions, more on that later.

android audio architecture

2. Choosing the Android phone for Best Audio

This is the most important factor if you don’t plan to buy a DAC (pt. 3) to pair with your phone all the time. DAC will give you the best audio experience, but the good news is you don’t always need one. If you buy a top notch Android smartphone today, it would feature a decent DAC to keep your ears satisfied, unless you’re Pro grade audiophile.

A high-end Android smartphone ships with a DAC that sounds better than a cheap $100 portable DAC or any other media player in this range.

We at Geeknizer get to play around with lots of Android devices all the time. Since we always laid great importance to good audio, its right to say that we’ve tested almost all current generation smartphones. Our test have been purely experienced ear based + tone analysis for tonal quality of 100hz, 1khz, 2khz, 4khz, 8khz, 12khz, and 16khz and their harmonics.

In order of preference, the devices we recommend for best quality music:

  1. HTC One (Qualcomm’s Krait Audio + Beat Audio engine): Incredible dynamics, soundstage and precision, detailed vocals and highs. Impressive, and loud enough for most headphones.
  2. Galaxy S4 i9500 or Galaxy Note 3 International (Wolfson Micro WM5102 DAC) – Good mids, neutral highs, decent lows. Among the most neutral sounding smartphones with good soundstage
  3. XPERIA Z, Z Ultra (Qualcom S4PRO chipset audio): Heavy sounding, recessed mids, though not too bad, overall lacks volume. You will need external amp/DAC to power less sensitive headphones. XPERIA Z1 has lots of sound improvements over predecessors, but its still not better than S4.
  4. Galaxy S3, Note 2 ( Wolfson Micro WM1811 DAC)

Note: If you’re an iPhone user, you’re gonna love iPhone 4S,5, 5S for the decent DAC they have.

What not to Buy:

  • LG, Toshiba, Panasonic, Motorola smartphones. We had bad audio experiences with almost all devices we heard from these manufacturers. LG with Nexus 4 is above the others with S4PRO audio, but still it couldn’t make it to top 3 on our list. LG Optimus G2 claims 24bit 192khz DAC, but to be honest it doesn’t deliver audio quality.
  • Any chinese android phone.
  • Old android phones.

In case you plan to add a DAC to your smartphone, it doesn’t matter what phone you choose, just make sure it runs Android 3.1 or later for DAC to work.

3. DAC for Android Smartphone

If you’re serious about audio, you need one. Smartphones would never level out against a $500 portable DAC, not anytime soon. But if you can live with a $100 DAC, you might already be impressed by current generation android devices.

There are wide set to choose from, among popular ones are Fiio E7Meridian ExplorerAudioquest DragonFly DAC. The ultimate decision boils down to your budget, portability and features. If you would be using high impedance headphones (good headphones have high impedance), you would need an external headphone amplifier or DAC (or both) to power those.

Glacier DAC with S3, great couple

Glacier DAC with S3, great couple

Connecting DACs to Android phones are easier than ever provided you run Android 3.1 or newer (Honeycomb, ICS, Jellybean). All you need is a USB OTG cable to plug your external DAC. Almost all 2011 or newer android devices feature USB Host profile support.

Here is a video of connecting DAC with XPERIA Z using standard cheap OTG cable

And S3/Note2 connected to DAC

(Forgive this guy’s ignorance, he has no idea, he’s using cheap cables, and gimmicky Bose audio.)

Head-fi forums are great place to discover reviews for USB external DACs. You can expore the forum, ask questions, research what suits you. Here is a review of 9 portable DACs, 2 of which have been tested with Android

Update: There’s a new Audiohpile grade DAC on the Horizon called the GEEK. Available as pre-order at MustGeekout.com, the DAC claims to be the best you can get for under $200. The product comes from the legendary $12,000 Da Vinci DAC maker, and company claims its better than competition at a lower price. You can hook it up to PC, Android, iOS.

geek-dac

Tarandeep Singh:
Gavin my fear is that your promotions target too much of a normal Music listener. Would it be an audiophile grade DAC? You had been using Beats headphones in videos, that was discouraging.
and how much better is it than Macbook pro’s DAC?

Gavin Fish:
Hi Tarandeep,

We used Beats specifically so non-audiophiles would consider a purchase. But Geek is definitely audiophile grade. If you want more info on our company, and the devices we make, please visit http://lightharmonic.com/. Also, for measurements, you can visit our blog at http://mustgeekout.blogspot.com/.

It’s MUCH better than the DAC in your MBP.

Comes in 3 flavors: 450mW, 720mW, 1000mW. I have pre-ordered 720mW, ships in January 2014.

How to connect ANY DAC with Android

If you’re on older version of android (pre-honeycomb) you’re pretty much out of luck unless you update via custom ROM or official update. Once you’re on Android 3.1+, most of the USB DACs would plug-n-play when connected via OTG cable.

However, if it doesn’t work, try the app called USB Audio recorder Pro, it will help you configure your external DAC with sampling rate, bits per sample, channel config and other settings in teh first run. There after you’re good. There is also a free version of the app available in the app description. give it a try before you buy.

usb-audio-recorder

Further reading: Head-fi android DAC discussion, portables, portable amps, DACs, reviews, images.

4. Choosing the Right Headphones

As per your personal taste, you might like in-ear ear-buds or over the head headphones. Headphones come in two broad variants: Open and closed. Former have better detail but are not quiet for the surroundings, Latter have less soundstage but are more portable, you can wear them anywhere.

In-ears usually don’t need an amp as they have low impedance and high sensitivity. On the contrary, headphones can range from 10ohms to 600ohms. Higher the impedance, more powerful external amplifier you need to power them. Usually with phones like Galaxy S4, S3, Note 2, a 40ohm, 90db sensitive headphone does just fine unless you’re a volume freak. Any impedance above, sensitivity below needs amplification of some sort.

Our Audio Technica M50 that we use with Galaxy S4

Google and headfi forums are your best friend while choosing headphones. Choose any among Audio Technica, Shure, Grado, Sennheiser, etc. Stay away from brand gimmicks like Bose, BEATS audio.

5. Best Music/media players on Android

Audio player has a significant role in making your music sound good. If you search for music player on Play store, you would be overloaded with 1000s of apps, however, we couln’t find more than 2 to put in our shortlist.

  1. PowerAmp: By far the most powerful, yet versatile music player on android. Its not bit-perfect but supports wide audio formats including FLAC. It even bypases some of the AudioFlinger APIs, and makes direct control to hardware using ALSA. This makes it sound better than most other apps we’ve tested.
  2. Neutron Music Player: Does 32bit/64bit audio when plugged with capable external DAC and supports lossless audio and his loaded with features. Its not as pleasing as poweramp in UI, but performs better.

poweramp-s3-audiophile-dac

6. Audio Mods, Mixers/Equalizers

Purists would totally disregard idea of sound enhancers, but few people claim to have better results with them. In any case we will let you decide if these enhancements help or make things worse.

  1. Voodoo Sound, Voodoo audio plus, Voodoo louder (Samsung only) apps provides enhancers, equalizers, pre-amp tuning, etc. Worth checking out if you feel these can tune the soudn to your needs
  2. BEATS audio (by HTC) has been ported to every Android phone out there. Simple app installation makes it beats compatible.
  3. Acid Audio Engine: The most appreciated audio enhancement for Android phones. It claims to be better than others, and we would agree.
  4. Sony clearaudio Plus, Cyanogen DSP, Dolby Digital Sound, Sony Xloud, Eizo Rewire Pro, Acid Audio Parts: All are available on XDA forums.
  5. Other Equalizers

We don’t recommend these enhancers unless you’re fan of heavy and powerful music or are an audio expert who know how to tune your audio to make it sound right.

Audio Formats & Storage
Last but not the least, be prepared to buy a large storage capacity sdcard like 64GB. They don’t cost as much and are worth it for storing your lossless audio formats.

Most important: Enjoy your music, stay ahead of the curve!

Know a better app/mod/tip that would improve this guide? Tip us in comments.

We write latest and greatest in Tech GuidesAppleiPhoneTabletsAndroid,  Open Source, Latest in Tech, subscribe to us @geeknizer OR on Facebook FanpageGoogle+.

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  • Deniz

    Holy moly, this is by far the best article I ever read about audiophile audio on Android devices. Thanks a lot!

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  • Linco

    great article….thx…. but now i’m very curious about your opinon on iphone 5/4S sound quality compared to these android phones….I’d really appreciate if you could reply at least with a few words 🙂 ….keep up the good work… cheers

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  • Linco

    great article….thx…. but now i’m very curious about your opinon on iphone 5/4S sound quality compared to these android phones….I’d really appreciate if you could reply at least with a few words 🙂 ….keep up the good work… cheers

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    • sorry for late reply. The best DAC is on 4S followed by 5. Apple somehow decided to cut slightly in quality in iP5, but difference isn’t much noticeable.
      To be honest HTC One and iP4s were quiet close to each other to my ears HTC One wins in sound stage and clear mids. That doesn’t mean iPhones were bad either, but the transparency of sound was better with HTC One. S4 and others would be very comparable to iPhones.

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  • Sujan

    The Best Article I’ve found related to Android Audio 😀

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  • Newbie

    Very nice article. You suggest not to buy old android phones. I wonder if samsung i9000 mounting a wolfson WM8994 audio hub should be considered an old phone and discarded. Thanks

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    • I recommend using an external DAC with such a phone, this DAC was good in its time of smartphones, but in no way pro-level.

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      • Acoustica

        Great article. Have you tested VooDoo Driver + WM8994? How have you come to a position to make these recommendations?

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  • Ardilla

    Hi! really cool article, i was wondering how the S4 MINI´s DAC compares to the S4´s

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    • Having used S4 mini review unit for 2 months, I would say S4mini has left out lot to be desired. S4mini is closer to Galaxy Mega (a low end device) than s4 in components.
      On the audio front,
      HTC One > Note 3 = S4 > S3 = S4mini = Mega > Nexus 4 = Note 1 > other LGs

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  • kasai

    Great article one of the best I have ever read. What would be a better choice between the moto x and the xperia sp? I know these are mid range phones, but with my budget this is the best I can afford. I could also go for the iphone 4s but I really dont like having to use itunes, and being locked into apples ecosystem.

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  • Yessar

    Hi, i’m using a nexus 7 with a custom rom for usb audio, if i use poweramp or neutron with 24-bit DAC will the audio output will be also 24-bit or it will be downgraded to 16-bit? thanks

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  • skalk

    You should also mention that there is now a USB Audio Player PRO in the Play Store. It’s made by the same guys and it’s made to be a music player not a recorder.

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  • Tracker

    First of all great article. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. However I don’t think lumping Voodoo Sound and Voodoo Loud in with the Mixers/Equalizers is accurate and I felt compelled to reply even though the article is 1 year old. Voodoo Sound bypasses the Android kernel way of handling the onboard DAC (of certain Wolfson chips) to fully unlock it’s potential. As far as I understand it’s closer to a hardware enhancement through a driver upgrade than a software enhancement (if you know something I don’t please enlighten me). Voodoo Loud simply removes the software limitation of the headphone jack output on certain Samsung devices that use the Yamaha sound chips, again closer to a hardware upgrade (description from the Play Store: “While this app doesn’t bring sound quality improvements like Voodoo Sound (hardware miss capabilities), its design is based on strong engineering and gives the best results your hardware can provide.)

    Bottom line is if you have a compatible Samsung device and you feel comfortable rooting your phone then it’s mandatory you install Voodoo Sound. The best headphones I own are the AKG 142HD and FWIW my favorite devices to drive them are in order 1. Samsung Epic with Voodoo Sound (essentially the Sprint version of the original Galaxy S) 2. HTC One M7 3. Toshiba laptop. Of course all of the Voodoo compatible phones are 3+ years old so the point might be moot, however if you are able to get your hands on one I dare you to compare them to any other Android device and say they are not superior. For reference although any Voodoo Android device would be better than any other one the consensus seems to be they would still be a hair short of matching the quality of and Iphone 4s.

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  • amitesh

    Hi. Great article. But you claim ALSA is superior to everything including ASIO, how can that be true if they are both bit-perfect. Also, what use is bit-perfect if there’s no audio players that can output bit-perfect like foobar2k for windows

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  • Great article… My question is this. Where do the Galaxy S5 and LG G3 sit on this list now? Couldn’t adding a DAC or headphone amp AFTER the smartphone also negatively impact SQ? Thanks!

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    • Don Joe

      Well, if the DAC or amp are worse than the ones in your phone, of course they could. 🙂 That’s why you look at specs and reviews before you buy something. But I very much doubt that adding a DAC with a SNR of 110 dB or better, for example, would make the sound worse than anything coming out of a contemporary flagship smartphone.

      However, you should note that the right way to add a DAC is not “after” the _whole_ phone, as you would take the digital audio out of the phone _before_ it converts it to analog using its own DAC. That’s why you connect an external DAC to the phone’s USB and not to its audio jack (where it’s too late to improve anything).

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  • faris

    have you tried viper 4 android for audio mod? it sounds good and has many settings. i’d prefer viper for audio mod in my android phone

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    • Viper claims so many things that look great on paper. They claim they process audio at very high sampling rates. In my real non-scientific tests I didn’t see any extra advantage other than boosting bass too good levels. Its good for punchy sound OS-wide, but no value-add for audiophiles. Prove me wrong, I`ll be a happy man.

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      • Lazar Prodanovic

        O it work very good but it’s not for a beginner’s & every phone & headphones along with auditory system need specific tuning. With right convolution matrix & hand written setting it really can make wonders.

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  • Leo

    Hi. Sony came out with the Xperia z3 compact recently and claim to the best in audio. Could you please confirm. Thanks

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    • I had brief handson with Z3 with inears it comes with. Audio was clean and had good soundstage. It might be nearly as good as Htc one M8/M9 but I would need more listening to conclude.

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  • Wise Deer

    Not pretending it to be audiophile or what, but that’s what worked on me.
    Sony Xperia Z2 –> Beoplay H6. That’s been that simple to me. I don’t know if it’s been luck, but it’s a stylish, classic designed combo as hell, and has a great imaging, good soundstage, and though some complained about the lows, I didn’t notice anything. Didnt find the need for an amp or DAC, and that’s great, since it’s very impractical. PS: Dont underestimate B&O. They may sell some products for style. But H6 has been an hit.

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  • CanuckHockey

    Great article! I have been searching the internet for a while now, but could not find an answer…my question being: having lossless audio files on my smartphone, is there a way to avoid needing a DAC by using the USB out converted to optical (I have seen dongle for this, not sure about fidelity retention) and plugging this into my receiver. I would think that this would send the lossless files straight to the amp in digital with no fidelity loss!? Would this work?

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  • William

    Very nice and informative article, but something doesn’t look right, first, LG G2 has one of the best sound qualities I’ve ever heard, and when it’s rooted with (dorimanx) kernel, I think it gets the best sound quality out there (with headphones), and why haven’t you mentioned Viper4Android? it’s really the best EQ 😉

    Outstanding article, and I’ve learned a lot.

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  • androidaudioaddict

    can you pls update the article to include xperia Z3 and note 4…? awesome article… thanks to you and your team…

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    • Sure will do that as soon as I get loaner devices

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      • Ivo Pavlik

        I am looking forward to your opinion about Z3 and/or Z3 Compact. If I’m not mistaken, they should use the same DAC and related audio circuits.

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  • Jerry Martinez

    i just wanted to point out that everyone should install the program DFX audio enhancer on all their computers. no im not paid by them it just works that good. especially if lots of your digital music is mp3

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  • wackenroader

    I recommend you remove the line “What not to Buy : Any chinese android phone” and include these Chinese smartphones : Meizu MX 4 Pro (SABRE ES9018K2M DAC+OPA1612 Amplifier)

    Vivo X5 Max (SABRE ES9601 DAC+OPA1612 Amplifier)

    ZTE Nubia Z9 (DSP CODEC AK4961)

    OPPO N3 (SABRE ES9018K2M DAC)

    Xiaomi Mi Note Pro ( SABRE ES9018K2M DAC + OPA1612 Amplifier+ADI ADA 4896 op-amp)

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    • And what from this list have a best sound and dac? Include in your list bbk vivo xshot , vivo x6, meizu 5 pro

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  • Hermann L.

    This article is a mix of some unverified infos mixed with a ton of approximation, you should delete it.

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  • Benj D.B.S.

    Thanks for the Article. However, we are subjective in the equalization part. Audio purists listen to straight lines. ”What not to buy” portion must be updated… Lots of ‘phones w/ audiophile cred. nowadays….

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    • Br. Michael M.I.C.

      Not to mention the absolute ignorance it displays, Like “do not buy..” phones with demonstrably superior audio to some of the recommended ones. Those with ‘golden ears’ are often mistaken, scientific measurement is not. This whole article should be deleted, not much good advice here.

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  • haha randomly came across this article – that’s my image (Totallydubbed) that you’ve stolen for the EHP-O2D and the modded D2Ks!

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  • nadryv

    Is there an update to this -really nice- article? I want my next smartphone to just have the best dac/audio quality.

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  • Nadryv

    Aint’it time for an upd.ate? It’d be just nice to have a suggestion for a phone able to deliver a decent audio in 2016

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  • Daneepee

    Samsung s3 using the boeffla kernel, Sony mrd 7520. Very satisfactory and cheap setup.

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  • Niet Bekend

    Jetaudio Music Player best music player for android since it supports up to 32bit 192khz files and has an improved audio (HRA) engine that drives to software and can improve the quality of your music played in other music player apps.

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