LG made an impressive entrance at MWC this year, unveiling its all-new modular flagship phone, the G5, which allows you to clip customized modules into the bottom of the handset. Along with an upgraded camera module, the Hi-Fi Plus, a decked-out, hi-res DAC/amplifier module created in cooperation with Danish audio specialists Bang & Olufsen, is a real treat for audio nuts. Still, while we’re quite impressed with the new G5, LG’s flagship phone is far from the only hi-res option on the block.
Phones with high resolution support — those able to support audio files with higher-than-CD quality resolution — have been bouncing around the market for years, including models from Samsung, Sony, and many others. Though Samsung has been very tight-lipped about the Galaxy S7’s innards, it has been rumored to be loaded with high-end components, and Sony’s Xperia line, which boasts hi-res audio pedigree, is (finally) making its way to the U.S. in 2016. As such, we decided to take a sonic snapshot of the G5, the Galaxy S7, and Sony’s Xperia X ‘Performance’ to help those looking for more audio muscle to literally cut through the noise.
Before we get started, though, a couple of quick notes: While hi-res support allows for a much higher-quality sound source, hi-res alone does not a fantastic listening experience make. The impact of other hardware found in the audio chain cannot be underestimated. A great DAC on its own will make an improvement, but it must be paired with a great amplifier to reap the most benefit. Also, done well, premium audio can make any audio you play sound much better, not just hi-res audio files — you’d be shocked at how good Spotify’s 320 kbps streams can sound under the right conditions. Finally, it must be understood that we had very limited access to all three phones, in a noisy hall, playing different tracks from each company’s stock list. As such, the following is a first-impressions assessment only, not a full-on appraisal.
Since the G5 is getting all the sonic attention, we figured it’s as good a place to start as any. The G5’s Hi-Fi Plus module (with B&O Play) has a lot going for it, and not just the cool form factor of slipping it into the bottom of the phone. First off, this is a quality piece of audio equipment, including chips from ESS’ lauded Sabre line in the 32bit Sabre ES9028C2M DAC, and the Sabre9602c amplifier. What’s more, the module can be used on its own as a standalone DAC/amp via USB connection. That said, the Hi-Fi Plus doesn’t come part and parcel with the phone, so we’ll have to wait and see just how expensive this modular upgrade will be.
We had three tracks available to us in 24bit/192kHz resolution, including Winning Streak by Glen Hasard, a solid cover of Use Me by Korean artist Woong Sang, and Take Me On by A-ha (yeah, we know). Even with that limited selection, our short experience was impressive. The sound was rich and silky smooth, and the details in the subtle nuances of vocals rang clear and full. Snare drum sounded forward and clean, but also textured with a thick punch, and there was some ruddy warmth in the bass. Overall, the experience felt more like what you expect from stalwart pro audio designers, and we think it’s a sound to likely appeal to longtime audio fanatics and casual listeners alike.
Unlike the G5’s more outsourced audio components, Sony sticks to the hi-res hardware its been making for years now. We know the phone supports 24bit/192kHz files, but specs co-mingle with Sony’s proprietary tech names like LDAC (for high quality audio streaming) and DSEE HX (designed to upscale lower quality audio). Sony doesn’t disclose much DAC or amplifier info, though the Xperia X Performance’s chips are likely born from the same gear it plants in its many hi-res portable audio players. I’ll also add that the volume key on the Xperia X Performance is, strangely, located right where you set your left pinky, which was a bit annoying in our hands-on encounter.
A stalwart backer of hi-res, the sound signature of Sony’s hi-res gear — from the excellent SRS-X9 wireless speaker to its flagship NW-ZX2 Walkman — share a common sonic theme, characterized by a snappy, forward sound that’s crystal clear and lighting fast. That’s likely due, in part, to the company’s Clear Audio + technology. The time spent with the Xperia X Performance characterized that sound even further, bursting like sunlight off the hood of a shiny-new Corvette. Part of that was likely related to the tracks available, including the shiny pop of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, and Chris Brown’s Fan of a Fan; but even the jazz tune That’s It! (from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) shared the peppy flavor. We’re generally a fan of the subtler, warmer sound we heard from the G5, but those who hold sharp clarity in the highest regard may edge towards the Xperia X experience.
It’s almost as if Samsung, like Apple, doesn’t feel the need to try very hard in this fight. After all, Galaxy sales have been killing it for years. As for specs, we learned nothing from the reps on the show floor, probably because none of them were prepped for such audio-centric questions about a phone. We did, of course, reach out to our contacts at Samsung, but as of publishing, we’ve yet to get confirmation of hi-res audio support. We’ll update this section once we learn more.
The sound impressions here are, at best, incomplete. The songs available for demo were not only sourced from compressed Google Play files, but all of them were loops from instrumental-onlymusic sources like funk and electronica. We can say that, if the S7 does have any fancy amplification or DAC components inside, it wasn’t readily apparent in our first impression. Sound was pretty vanilla with no real standout moments, like you’d expect from any standard handset (including the iPhone).
That’s our quick and dirty sonic impression of three of the most anticipated phones hitting the market this year. At this point, we’re calling the LG G5 the winner, but ouropinion may change once we learn how pricey the H-Fi Plus add-on module will be. We look forward to spending more time with each phone after launch, as well as others, so stick with us, audio fans — and happy listening!