Audio matters: late 2019 video data point

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In my video stabilisation feature here, I was asked in the comments to do a test of audio capture in video mode - i.e. how good are modern microphones in smartphones? The short answer is: very good. Gone are the bad old days of Nokia being the only manufacturer that cared enough about audio to put decent high amplitude microphones in its smartphones. See below for video and audio proof.

As I've said before, two years ago, 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 five 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 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 Huawei P30 Pro (terrific at zoom gimmickry, how will it do for audio?)
  • the Apple iPhone 11 Pro 
  • the Google Pixel 4 XL
  • the Moto G7 Plus (by way of something really budget in the round-up!)

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, partly for scientific reasons, I settled for the repeatable 'treat'(!) of my trusty and very loud 12 string guitar at point blank range (around 30cm), as you'll see and hear below. If the phones can capture this without distortion at this range then they should be OK with anything else 'live'.

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 - and listen for the 'noise floor' at the end of each clip, as the strings stop vibrating and the music fades to nothing. (For once, you don't need to click through for full video resolution, you're only listening to the audio here!)

Some notes:

  • As before, 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 (now with Ozo audio, though I didn't have a sample to test here) and Lumias are still right up there, but some of the competition have now caught up.
  • All the phones here capture in stereo. I know that sounds like it should be a given, but it wasn't two years ago, last time I tested. Stereo capture was unusual and more phones captured in mono.
  • I'm declaring by far the cheapest phone here the winner. Surprisingly so. The Moto G7 Plus captures at high dynamic range and with incredible fidelity, AND a noise floor (hiss) that's as low as the iPhone 11 Pro. Which is some compliment!
  • Second here is the iPhone 11 Pro, with terrific volume, fidelity and an almost zero noise floor.
  • Third is the Lumia 950 XL, with the loudest captured audio, spoilt only by some background hiss.
  • Fourth is the Huawei P30 Pro, which does a competent enough job but again spoilt slightly by a higher noise floor/hiss.
  • Last (of five tested) is the new Google Pixel 4 XL - its audio is loud enough, the fidelity and dynamic range pretty good, but the noise floor is high and there are static-like audio glitches as the music dies away. Not good enough Google. Again.

I certainly didn't expect a £250 smartphone to win. The G7 Plus amazed me - showing how good microphones are, even down at the bottom end of the phone food chain! (The G7 Plus also has an optically stabilised camera and stereo speakers, it's a good bet if you're after something inexpensive.)

Of course, taking into account video quality, stabilisation, zoom, and more, the iPhone 11 Pro wins easily overall. Right now, if video capture in all situations is your priority and you want to match or exceed what the Lumia 1020 and 950 can do, then the 2019 iPhones are the ones to head for.