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.
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.
What we’ll cover in this Smartphone Audiophile Guide:
- Android Audio Architecture
- Choosing the Android phone for Best Audio experience
- Choosing DAC for Android
- The right headphones for you
- Best Music/media players on Android
- 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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 E7, Meridian Explorer, Audioquest 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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
- BEATS audio (by HTC) has been ported to every Android phone out there. Simple app installation makes it beats compatible.
- Acid Audio Engine: The most appreciated audio enhancement for Android phones. It claims to be better than others, and we would agree.
- Sony clearaudio Plus, Cyanogen DSP, Dolby Digital Sound, Sony Xloud, Eizo Rewire Pro, Acid Audio Parts: All are available on XDA forums.
- 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.