Best smartphones for audio

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Now that the headphone jack is starting to get left behind, it can be tough to find what you want in a smartphone. If you already have headphones you like, how do you navigate the morass of Bluetooth codecs, headset support, and dongles? You could get USB-C headphones, but that’s a lot of money for little return. Plus, that market is already slowing down considerably, or at least new releases are. Most phones on the market are near-perfect when it comes to wired listening, but our best suggestion is to grab one of the phones below, as they’ll provide you the best future-proofing on the market, with some killer features to match.

So if all phones are near-perfect, why make this list? The truth of the matter is, this list exists for people who want to to actually know what they’re getting into when they buy their next handset. There are phones that aren’t all that great when it comes to audio, and there are others that have some strange foibles in this department that could be a dealbreaker for you. But you can’t know that until you either buy the device for a lot of money… or read this article for free.

Editor’s note: this list was updated March 17th, 2020 to add more information about what consumers should know about phone release schedules.

What you should know

While objectively collected data is all well and good, it doesn’t exactly tell you everything you need to know about a phone’s performance. If you bought a phone in the last 3 years, chances are near 100% that it’s more than fine enough for you unless it lacks a feature you want. Now that digital media’s performance has started to sail beyond the limits of human perception, test results matter less and less—while features matter more and more. Very few (if any) phones will sound much worse than another with popular streaming services. And yes, I test this almost daily.

  Headphone Jack? Frequency response Dynamic Range Total Harmonic Distortion Noise floor Speaker volume
Apple iPhone XS Max No +0.1 / -0 dB 98.9dBA 0.0023% -99.5dBA 76dB
Asus Zenfone 6 Yes +0.05 / -0.17 dB 83.2dBA 0.001% -83dBA 82.2dB
Google Pixel 3 No +0.1/ -0 dB 99.3dBA 0.0026% -99.7dBA 75.5dB
Google Pixel 3a XL Yes +0 / -0.34 dB 99.8dBA 0.0023% -99.8dBA 74.4dB
Google Pixel 3 XL No +0.1 / -0 dB 99.2dBA 0.0026% -99.7dBA 76.8dB
Google Pixel 4 No 0 / -0.1 dB 102.2dBA 0.001% -102.2dBA
Google Pixel 4XL No 0 / -0.11 dB 103.6dBA 0.0013% -103.6dBA
LG G8 ThinQ Yes +0.01 / -0.06 dB 98.6dBA 0.0019% -98.6dBA 82.1dB
LG G8X Yes +0.04 / -0.12 dB 99dBA 0.0016% -99dBA 88.5dB
LG V50 Yes +0.02 / -0.16 dB 99.7dBA 0.00123% -99.7dBA 79.9dB
OnePlus 6T No +0 / -0.1 dB 97.7dBA 0.001% -97.6dBA 72.9dB
OnePlus 7 Pro No +0 / -0.1 dB 97.7 0.0009% -97.7dBA 72.9dB
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus Yes +0.01 / -0.06 dB 96.9dBA 0.0015% -96.9dBA 76.5dB
Samsung Galaxy S10e Yes +0 / -0.39 dB 96.6dBA 0.0025% -96.6dBA 76.5dB
Sony Xperia 1 No +0.01 / -0.06 dB 100dBA 0.013% -100dBA 89.3dB
Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 No +0 / -0.1 dB 101.4 0.0012% -101.3dBA 73.8dB
ZTE Axon 10 Pro Yes +0 / -0.1 dB 98.4 0.003% -101.3dBA 76.1dB

When it comes to wired listening: the lower distortion and noise are, the better the result. Similarly, the lower the deviation found in testing frequency response is, the less your audio will be altered. While some people like to artfully tune their music, any component that isn’t the headphones or the software playing back the music shouldn’t affect the signal at all. Only deviations + / – 3dB will be noticeable at all.

Our tests are overkill.

Few phones have issues here, but it’s not unheard of for a modern phone to have some weird issues here (cough the original Pixel cough). The frequency response test is more pass/fail than anything.

It’s going to sound trite, but every single one of the phones listed here is all what we’d categorize as near “perceptually perfect,” given their performance meets or exceeds what your average human can hear. However, they’re not actually perfect, and users with more power-hungry headphones may run into issues.

A chart showing the filter characteristics of the Apple iPhone X, Google Pixel 2, and the LG V30.

The Apple iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 (white, green) appear to use a filter to limit high frequencies at the outer reaches of human hearing. The LG V30 (pink, cyan) does not.

In our testing, we noticed that the phones with dongles (Apple iPhones, Google Pixel devices) refused to output sound at the specified sample rate. Why this happened we have no idea, but we were able to reproduce our results almost exactly between several different copies of each device with three testers. The upshot is that these phones should have an easier time dispelling IM distortion, the tradeoff is that it technically isn’t performing as well.

While you shouldn’t really be able to tell when you stream music, ultra-hardcore wired-listening-only audiophiles might not be satisfied with this. It’s just as well, because that crowd should avoid dongles if they’re using power-hungry headphones anyway.

Those who want to use Bluetooth audio will have to make sure that their phones and headphones speak the same language, or codec. If they don’t, then it’s highly likely you won’t be able to enjoy your music as well as you could. All phones are not created equal with Bluetooth support, and it’s worth knowing what codecs you can use on your mobile.

  A2DP AAC aptX aptX HD LDAC
Google Pixel 3
LG V40
Samsung Galaxy S9+
Nokia 8
Apple iPhone XS Max
OnePlus 6T
Razer Phone 2
Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Sony Xperia XZ3

However, software updates can change the checkmarks on this list, so prepare for it to change over time. Many of these phones will end up supporting aptX and LDAC through updates to Android over time, while Apple’s support remains beholden to a tough-to-predict update schedule.

The best smartphones for music are the LG V50, Razer Phone 2, and Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

I know, I know, but before you harangue me, you should know that my other day job is Head of Testing at Android Authority. So as you can imagine, I’ve gotten my hands, multimeter, and benchmarking suite on a boatload of phones that way.

Essentially, these three phones stand out in different ways, but we’re just going to be looking at the raw capabilities of each phone. On paper, the LG’s phones offer an outstanding wired headphone experience, where the Razer Phone 2 reigns supreme with front-facing speakers and top-of-the-line Bluetooth. The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus offers about the same performance, but if music is your main concern: save yourself some money and get the S10.

LG V50 ThinQ

The LG V50 is currently the best phone out there to listen with wired headphones, as its high amp output modes and quad DAC can drive even high-end headphones fairly easily. Its noise floor is somewhere around -100dB and its measured total harmonic distortion (THD) is extremely low under 0.001%. While many of these results are far beyond the limits of human perception, even minuscule errors can come to light under certain conditions. That’s why it’s always better to err on the side of better test results.

Better still, the phone can output a much stronger signal than other phones on the market, even running afoul of some esoteric EU regulations on phone output. While this is only a big deal for audiophiles with high-impedance headphones, it’s still good to know that your companion for the next two years can handle anything you throw at it. Really, the only way the LG G7 falls short is that it doesn’t support Sony’s LDAC. But unless you own a set of high-end wireless Sony headphones, this isn’t a problem. Most premium wireless headphones nowadays support aptX and aptX HD—competing higher-fidelity codecs. You’re highly unlikely to hear the iconic Bluetooth hiss, and you’re definitely not going to notice much—if any—degradation of audio quality.

A photo of the LG V30 with its sound control screen displaying.

The LG G7 offers a dizzying array of controls over your sound.

If you like to use your phone as a portable boombox, first: get a damn Bluetooth speaker. Second, the LG lineup all have a decent downfiring speakers. Not only is the speaker decent, but the 2019 phones also have a “boombox” mode, allowing you to place your phone on an item with an open cavity (think: acoustic guitar, cup) and use it as a pseudo-amplifier. It’s pretty neat if you don’t want to carry extra accessories around with you, but it won’t replace a better speaker.

Of the available phones here, the microphone of the LG V50 is the best, sporting a complicated setup with redundancies and the ability to record 24-bit/192kHz audio files and 24-bit, 48kHz output for video (taken from the LG V30). While that’s definitely overkill, having that much extra data allows you to tweak the audio in post-production if you so choose. However, in some modes you’ll wind up recording only mono, so keep that in mind.

Razer Phone 2

Unfortunately, the V50 oddly doesn’t have forward-facing speakers, so if you care about sharing video with your nearby friends: the Razer Phone 2 is the mobile for you.

Though it doesn’t have a headphone jack, the Razer Phone 2’s use of Android Pie has given it all of the Bluetooth features of the Google Pixel 2. As it has much better speakers, and Dolby Atmos support through its dongle, this phone edges out the Pixel 3 and takes a spot on the best five handsets.

A photo of the Razer Phone and its dongle.

Android Authority The Razer Phone has rock-solid speakers, and the dongle offers Dolby Atmos support for wired headphones.

Razer may not be a household name when it comes to smartphones quite yet, they do go out of their way to make a statement with audio. Though it doesn’t have a speedy update schedule like the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Razer’s handset does have the latest and greatest when it comes to wireless listening. Only a new codec or transfer standard will change that, so subsequent updates to either the Pixel 3 or Razer phone will be unlikely to change much.

While the wired performance is merely “really good,” dongle-haters will still find the accessory frustrating. However, adding the Atmos support allows a simulated surround sound effect that’s only offered on the Galaxy S10 Plus otherwise. Given the price difference between the two, the Razer option has a higher value if you’re okay with the dongle. Unlike Apple’s ditching of the headphone jack, Razer at least offers a damned good tradeoff for going dongle-only for wired listening.

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus

As far as killer features go, the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus has a lot going for it. Not only does it offer all of the features provided by other phones (outside of the high-impedance auto-adjust and quad-DAC), but it has a really clean output and decent speakers. On top of that, being able to support just about all the Bluetooth codecs out there well is an A+ in our book.

Though none of the shortcomings of the onboard DAC and amp are what we’d term “audible,” they’re definitely ever-so-slightly behind the LG V50. However, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t appreciate the headphone jack’s appearance on the phone and the fact that it offers features to entice more users. If it weren’t for the LG V50’s ability to drive more power-hungry headphones, this handset would take the top spot.

The rest of the specs on the Galaxy S10 Plus are fairly standard, and the performance is rock solid. We aren’t impressed by the speakers, but then again: we’re not impressed by any smartphone speakers out there. We do like the ability to tailor frequency response at a system level to filter out sounds you can’t hear (based on age), and the Dolby Atmos support is tops for wired headphones. The auto-upscaling feature is of dubious merit but is a very cool thing to have in your back pocket.

Rotten Apples

I’m just going to come out and say it: Apple is bad for the audio market.

Not only is their Bluetooth subpar, but their war against the 3.5mm jack has also led to the most foolish smartphone design memes of the day. It really irritates me that people look to them as some sort of market leader, when they really only fit the description if you’re looking at how much tax they dodge in the US.

Apple iPhone XS Max

I don’t want to recommend Apple’s iPhone for anything audio-related, but I’m forced to because not everyone will abandon their entry into Apple’s walled garden after investing so much into things like the Apple Watch, AirPods, or HomePod. There are some advantages, however, like Apple’s H1 chip allowing for much more stable connections with other Apple peripherals and Beats headphones. Unfortunately, the advantages offered by such a chip are likely going to be left in the rear-view mirror once Qualcomm’s competitor gets off the ground.

Though it’s really not a great look, the iPhone XS Max has to be on this list simply because of Apple’s market share. It is not one of the best phones for audio, it is simply the best iPhone for audio.

On a budget? Try the Pixel 3a XL

While the Pixel 4 is, unfortunately, missing a headphone jack, Google surprisingly resurrected on the budget version of their flagship phone for…reasons. Still, whatever their explanation we’re glad that it’s back because having a headphone jack is a huge leg up if you want to make this list. As convenient as Bluetooth is it just isn’t up to snuff yet when compared to wired, and since this is a best audio smartphone list a headphone jack put you ahead of a lot of the competition by default. Sure, you miss the dual-front firing speakers on this model, but the ones here still hold up pretty well.

Google Pixel 3a XL

To get the price of the Pixel 3a XL down, Google had to cut a few corners—so you won’t be getting the latest and greatest specs and features. It’s rocking a slightly older Snapdragon 670 and the phone is made of plastic instead of glass like its more expensive sibling. This means that you’re missing out on wireless charging and it’s also lacking a waterproof certification so if those are must-have features then this phone might not be for you. What you do get is the same great camera that you’ll find on the Pixel 3 and, of course, a headphone jack that did surprisingly well in our testing. For the price, the Google Pixel 3a XL is almost impossible to beat.

While the Google Pixel 4 is by no means a bad phone, not having a headphone jack means it can’t really do well on this list because it’s missing the most-used connection type out there. So yeah, the 3a and 3a XL are better for audio applications, even if the speakers of the Pixel 4 are technically better.

How we tested phones

Using a dedicated interface, we used a 3.5mm to 2×1/4″ TRS connector Y-cable to measure the output of each phone. By using a piece of software called Audio RightMark, we’re able to measure things like dynamic range, distortion, noise, frequency response, and more. By logging these results, we can compare each phone against each other under the same test conditions with the same test files and the same equipment.

A photo of the Scarlett 2i2 audio interface, which SoundGuys used to test current phones' headphone jacks and dongles.

It’s a simple setup, but it works.

While you may think that this test is very involved: it really isn’t. There’s a lot of information you can glean from a simple 96kHz/24-bit test file, and in fact that’s all we used. We load the file onto the phones, play it back, and record the results. We did not use a higher-bitrate/higher-sample rate file because the data would mislead you into thinking it’s necessary. It’s not. CD quality sound is “only” 44.1kHz/16-bit, and that’s more than sufficient to satisfy the perceptual limits of the vast majority of humans on Earth. Our tests are overkill.

Because we didn’t test the stupidly high-bitrate/high-sample rate files, there’s a certain limit on how well each unit could have performed. While there’s some debate as to what reviewers should be testing at, I personally go with roughly double the highest common settings that most people will use. In this case, something that would meet or exceed CD quality, because no streaming service can do that currently.

A chart showing the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus' near-perfect frequency response performance.

With almost no deviation from the test signal, the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus offers excellent performance free of errors.

Speaker testing is fairly rudimentary, but without the availability of a truly anechoic chamber, we can only provide gross SPL of each unit at one meter. Additionally, any measurements we would normally give you would undoubtedly be wildly inaccurate in your normal usage, simply because their sizes and configurations lend themselves to interference from:

  • air temperature differences
  • outside noises (auditory masking)
  • holding the phone in your hand
  • nearby objects reflecting sound
  • phone speaker features requiring a cavity to perform as intended
  • phone speakers not adhering to any sensible standards and firing in different directions

By playing a pink noise sample at full volume, we can measure this with an electret microphone pointed directly at the phone. The front-facing units, on the whole, perform better than those on the bottom of the phone, given the sound is actually directed at the user. But trust me when I tell you, virtually all speakers tested suck out loud. You do not want them to be your primary, secondary, or even tertiary means of music consumption.

Obviously, the existence of extra features and other concerns like Bluetooth have to factor into our decisions, and we did that as well. However, these are generally present on the flagship phones and few others. While our testing pool was artificially limited, companies have to shell out big bucks for licensing Bluetooth profiles and codecs. It ends up being generally true that the less expensive smartphones will also only cover a few codecs, where the flagships will cover nearly all of them.

If you can wait on getting a new phone, always wait

Even though the release schedules are going to start slowing down now that the market is absolutely oversaturated with smartphones, a good rule to follow is only buy a phone if you absolutely need it. I say that, because these things are getting refreshed every 6-12 months, and sales happen often when new releases come out. Obviously, not all new releases are good for audio, but unless there’s some major feature you’re pining for, most smartphones will be pretty good anyway.

Also, never ever buy a phone at release if it’s close to Black Friday or the holiday season, because even new releases go on sale for these events. There’s no sense in overpaying for something if you can have it for cheaper.

In the short term, many manufacturers like Samsung are finally shedding the headphone jack, so options are starting to dwindle if you care about high-quality audio. If you need a headphone jack, the Pixel a series is due for an upgrade sometime in May, though there’s no official confirmation of this. While Motorola, LG, and many of the brands in the Chinese market have headphone jacks, extremely few phones have even passable speakers.

Why you should trust Chris

Chris is the Executive Editor of SoundGuys, and the Head of Testing at Android Authority. When it comes to collecting objective data, many companies have employed his services as a laboratory daemon to test all sorts of things. With a background in research methods and journalism, he’s a very unique blend of technologically-qualified and integrity-obsessed curmudgeon. Consequently, his full-time job has been analyzing consumer electronics for over 7 years now, and he continues his quest for data-driven analysis and reporting in the tech sphere.

With a background in research methods and journalism, he’s a very unique blend of technologically-qualified and integrity-obsessed curmudgeon.

In his time in the industry, he’s had to research his covered fields (displays, audio, imaging) to the point where he’s considered an expert in the field. If he’s saying something about the best products, it wasn’t an off-the-cuff statement or decision. There’s no way it took him less than 10 hours to arrive at that conclusion.

Disclosure: We may receive affiliate compensation in connection with your purchase of products via links on this page. Even though we may receive compensation, we always give our honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experiences on each product. See our ethics policy for more details.

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