Why the humble phone loudspeaker needs to be just that: LOUD

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As I sit at my desk looking at around a dozen smartphones of all shapes and sizes (hey, I'm a journalist, and privileged that way), running four different mobile OS platforms, I find my decision on which to use as my main phone based on a number of hardware factors (screen size, form factor, camera) that you'll probably empathise with, plus one that you might not expect. At the top of my list of characteristics for a perfect smartphone is a loud, high quality loudspeaker. Yes, really.

The Lumia 800 speaker

Putting a "loud, high quality loudspeaker" at the top of a wishlist for a new smartphone may sound odd, but I bet I'm not alone. I've certainly lost count of the number of top smartphones of all persuasions which I've liked generally but which I've reluctantly had to pass on because the loudspeaker wasn't up to scratch. Recent examples include the Google Galaxy/Nexus S, the Nokia N86, just about every HTC handset, the Nokia C7 and of course the ultimately disappointing venerable Nokia N97 and N97 mini.

Which is not to say that a number of recent phones haven't had speakers which are good enough, but more of that later.

So why is having a decent speaker important - I hear you ask? After all, HTC have sold tens of millions of Android smartphones with only one acceptable speaker among the whole range. I suspect that people who bought those devices have just had to live with ear piercing tinniness since day one - they really would have been better off with a different manufacturer in this regard!

Here then are the use cases, direct from my own daily experience:

  • Listening to podcasts while doing chores around the house - washing up, cooking, and so on, even gardening. All are somewhat tedious and podcasts make the time go much more quickly. Listening on headphones is an option, but then you're locked away from sounds you need to hear in the world around you - doorbells, landline ringing, children calling out, over timers pinging, and so on. I just put my phone down on a safe surface, playing away, and enjoy...
  • Listening to internet radio, under similar circumstances. When I've run out of new podcasts to listen to, essentially...!
  • Making phone calls in 'speakerphone' mode. I don't make all calls this way, but it's very handy a) because I irradiate my brain a lot less, b) because I can get on with something else while chatting, with both hands free, and c) I'll often have other family members who want to chip in on the call!
  • Making video calls, where a really clear speaker is nigh-on essential, if only to avoid distortion effects and leak back into the microphone, confusing  the audio for the other party.
  • Driving with sat-nav instructions guiding me to a destination. For most cars, especially at speed (e.g. on a motorway), it's very hard to hear audio instructions from most smartphone navigation packages.
  • Hearing an incoming/ringing call. I've lost count of the number of calls I've missed because I've not heard the phone ringing because I'm in a busy shop or pub or club.

I'd hazard a guess that at least two or three of the above ring (no pun intended) true for you, too? So why do we put up with phones with inferior loudpspeakers? I've often ranted about the inferiority of LED flash for phone cameras - and got nowhere with manufacturers, who apparently don't listen to me. More people need to complain, with me, about poor speakers, in order to improve our experience with some or all of the tasks listed above.

There are two distinct attributes for a speaker (well, three if you count whether there are one or two speakers!): volume and quality. It's no good having a really great sounding speaker, tonally, if it's so quiet that you can hardly hear it. And it's no good having a really loud speaker if it's so tinny that it hurts the ears. 

The Nokia C7/701 speaker

The Nokia C7 - though note that in this case the 'second' speaker is a cosmetic affectation - there's only actually one!

You'll be wondering, of course, where the device you own (and its speaker) fits in the grand panoply of smartphone hardware as at January 2012?

The following isn't anywhere near a definitive list, but it's a representative selection - I have tried quite a number of smartphones in the last five years and would rate them in the following order, with the loudest and highest quality speaker at the top and the quietest and/or tinniest at the bottom.

  • Nokia 5800, X6 (stereo speakers, amazing quality and volume)
  • Samsung i8910 HD (stereo)
  • Nokia E90 (stereo)
  • N95, N95 8GB (stereo)
  • Nokia N82, N96 (stereo)
  • Nokia X7 ('stereo', actually just two speakers next to each other!)
  • Apple iPhone 4S
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
  • Nokia N8
  • Apple iPhone 4
  • HTC Touch Pro 2
  • Nokia 1800 (thrown in for comparison, ultra-budget phone available for near-free!)
  • Motorola XT720, Milestone, Droid, DEFY, Milestone 2, etc.
  • HTC Titan
  • Nokia E72
  • Nokia C7, E7, E6, 701
  • Nokia N86 (stereo)
  • Samsung Galaxy S II
  • Sony Ericsson Arc, Arc S
  • Nokia Lumia 800
  • Samsung Galaxy S, Nexus S
  • Nokia N97, N97 mini (stereo)
  • HTC HD7
  • HTC Desire S
  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus
  • HTC 7 Mozart, Sensation, Desire

The Nokia X6 speakers

The amazing boombox speakers on the Nokia X6...

Comments welcome if you'd like to proffer a candidate phone speaker as best or worst, or if you too have a pet use case that hasn't been mentioned yet. Or perhaps you disagree vehemently and think a decent speaker is an irrelevance?

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 11 Jan 2012