Testing smartphone audio capture in 2018

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I go into some depth when testing smartphone (stills) cameras, I even occasionally test smartphone video capture. But I rarely test the audio that's captured. Whether you're videoing some live music in front of you or just shooting video at a party, the louder, clearer and higher quality the better - audio is often more important than picture quality, I contend*. Here's a quick test of seven contenders, back to back, play along at home and let your own ears decide!

* one truism is that it's much easier to watch a video with poor picture quality and excellent audio than one with excellent picture and poor audio. Try it and see!

Now, obviously, I can only test what I have to hand, so this isn't an industry-wide comprehensive test. But I have included:

  • the all time classic, the Nokia 808 PureView (hence me posting this on AAS as well)
  • the Lumia 950 XL (heck, any top end Lumia would have done here, they all have the same HAAC microphones, so I could equally well have put in the 1020 or 930, etc.)
  • the Nokia 8, marking the return of Nokia to the flagship smartphone market and with 'Ozo' audio capture technology - can it live up to the standards of Nokias of old?
  • the ZTE Axon 7, running Android. This is the Chinese version with quad-DAC and high end everything, including microphones.
  • the Marshall London, running Android. The original audio-specialist phone, capable of recording Motorhead and playing it too through high fidelity speakers.
  • the Google Pixel 2 XL, the very latest Android flagship, though lower end here as it only records audio in mono (like the iPhone), possibly for wind protection and noise cancellation reasons.
  • the Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro, the highest end Windows 10 Mobile handset still sold. It has wonderful speakers, but the microphones are somewhat dull and unimpressive - as you'll see.

As you'll have noticed, many of these phones have high end audio - mics and speakers - reflecting that I tend to hoard such beasts, to the exclusion of less capable devices for multimedia. Hence no Samsungs, no iPhones. Oh well.

I'd been looking for a rock gig near me, even a pub band would have done, in terms of delivering a challenging volume to capture. But in the end I settled for the repeatable 'treat'(!) of my trusty 12 string guitar at point blank range (around 30cm), as you'll see and hear below. 

I was looking to capture the guitar's sound without distortion and with good dynamic range, in terms of hearing all the various strings and frequencies. Finally, I was looking at captured and encoding volume, i.e. how loud and effective would the soundtrack be? And to that end, I've left the volumes 'as is' in the montage below, i.e. nothing's been normalised or tampered with.

As you might expect, you'll need to watch/listen with good headphones on, to really appreciate the differences:

Aside from my rough and ready scoring in the video, I did come to a number of conclusions:

  1. I was astonished that none of the phones showed any distortion. Do the same test on most phones from, say, 2013, and only the Nokias might have produced a clean recording. But microphones have definitely become more capable in time. The HAAC (high amplitude) mics used in the top end Nokias and Lumias are still hard to beat, but the competition is gaining.
  2. The clearest, most vibrant audio capture here was by the Nokia 8, which uses three microphones and some proprietary 'Ozo' algorithms to produce a 'spatial surround' effect. As with speaker tricks like Dolby Atmos, it's very slightly 'artificial', but there's no doubting how dramatic it sounds, as your own ears can attest. In the scoring above, I gave the Nokia 8 the same maximum score as the Lumia 950 XL, but I did toy with the idea of giving points for stereo separation and/or ambience. If I had, the Nokia 8 would have won out overall.
  3. With my Windows 10 phone hat on, the IDOL 4 Pro's audio capture is disappointing, but I did note that it produced a quiet soundtrack when I reviewed it a few months back. I suspect that its stereo microphones aren't strictly HAAC and that Alcatel compromised by tuning the volume down a few notches so as not to distort when someone tried filming something loud.
  4. Even though the Nokia 8's 'Ozo' tech makes for the most vibrant audio experience, I still prefer the old classic Nokia 808's capture all round when shooting video, since it has the lowest noise floor, i.e. when no one is speaking or playing music, there's the least 'hiss'. This might be down to the OS, but more probably because of a) the lower speed chipset used, and b) the care and attention paid to components and shielding by the wizards on Damian Dinning's team at Nokia circa 2011.

Comments welcome, of course. Do you agree with my scoring? Were you impressed by the Ozo sound stage? Do you often shoot loud music with your Lumia and are you satisfied with the audio side of things?