26
Jun
beatit

HTC's marketing of Beats Audio on its One Series handsets has rapidly become a joke among critics and internet commentators alike. And that's probably putting it nicely. The fact that the entirety of the Beats "enhancements" found on aforementioned phones has been zipped up and packaged to flash on any Android 2.3+ handset has, at least in the collective minds of the internet, exposed the Beats partnership for what it is: equalization software and a fancy logo.

hugebeets

I've used all of HTC's One Series products aside from the One V; that is to say, the One X, XL (AT&T One X), and S. The XL and S both really impressed me with the quality of audio they produced, and as something of an amateur sound junkie, I appreciated this fact. When I got my hands on the international version of the One X with NVIDIA's Tegra 3 quad-core processor, my ears did a double-take. It wasn't just different - it was worse.

Is there something wrong with my headphones? Am I just imagining the difference? Maybe I should try listening to a different song. Perhaps I've been listening to my music too loud lately.

For weeks, these thoughts have absolutely nagged at me. I tried to convince myself I was hearing things that weren't there - that I was having some sort of strange self-perpetuating placebo effect. Then, when I was reviewing some headphones over the weekend, I started to listen to some of my go-to comparison tracks through my One X. Suddenly, all of my headphones sounded a lot more similar than I was used to. And almost everything sounded harsher.

It was like the One X was taking my songs and making them less pleasant. I actively avoid turning the volume up too high because sound becomes grating and unsettling, especially at high frequencies. High notes almost elicit that feeling like nails on a chalkboard when I enable the Beats mode. It's not like it's unlistenable, but music is simply less relaxing to listen to, and after a while, I have to stop and take a break because of it. This isn't one of those "well, that's like, your opinion, man" things - my One X is doing something bad to my music. Going over to my stereo receiver with my PC's sound card pushing audio is like unclenching my jaw after 30 minutes, my ears actually feel physical relief at the difference.

Why The Difference?

Anyway, before I bore you to death with my ramblings on how it sounds, I can say with very high confidence that the Tegra 3 version of the One X has noticeably inferior audio compared to the One S or XL. And the reason for that is actually pretty concrete: the Tegra 3 version of the One X (the one being sold all over the world) has a different audio chipset than the XL version being marketed in the US (the AT&T One X).

If you're familiar with the concept of a system-on-a-chip (an "SoC"), you know that it involves integrating a number of components onto a single piece of silicon. It saves space and energy, and is a big part of why smartphones have been able to get so thin and powerful so fast. The audio portion of the chipset involved in pushing sound to headphones includes, to simplify it, two major components: the DAC (digital to analog converter) and the headphone amplifier or "driver." They're packaged together into something called an "audio hub."

adac

What an audio hub looks like. Exciting, I know.

Qualcomm's S4 chipset uses Qualcomm's proprietary audio hub, the WCD9310. This chipset is found in the US versions of the One X, One S, and even Samsung's Galaxy S III (only the international Galaxy S III will have a Wolfson DAC, sorry guys). And it's a really good audio chip. NVIDIA's Tegra 3 SoC uses (probably) a Realtek DAC of unknown model. What I do know is it's not a very good one.

But audio is one of those things where anecdotal evidence is rarely accepted by skeptics - and for good reason. Sound is a lot like wine, a good blind test can make fools even of renowned experts. However, almost anyone can taste the difference between a bottle of two-buck Chuck and the top-shelf stuff. And between that, there's still a lot of room where with patience most people can learn to distinguish the five-dollar swill from the good cheap stuff. Just like there is great cheap wine versus okay cheap wine, there's good mobile audio, and then there's passable mobile audio. The Tegra 3 One X falls into the latter camp.

Don't take my word for it, though, the folks at GSMArena have saved me the legwork and compiled enough empirical evidence on the matter to help put it to rest: placed next to the competition, the international One X pumps out sound that is inferior, and it's even inferior in some ways to phones that came out 2 years ago.

The Numbers

Before I start doling out the data, you need to know a couple of things about audio characteristics. One of the key measures of the quality of audio output components comes from something called the dynamic range. This probably makes some sense even if you don't know exactly what it means. This is a measure (one of several) of, basically, the audio output source's range in which it can produce sound without causing significant distortion, versus the "noise floor" - the amount of noise when no audio is being pushed through the system. The human ear has something like 130dB of dynamic range - more than a lot of studio equipment. Which is to say, it's very sensitive. The average MP3 track, even at 128Kbps, has around 96dB of dynamic range (for a "16-bit" track).

More dynamic range is better, because that means the audio output source is able to produce a larger range of sounds without distorting them. It's by no means an end-all, but good audio equipment has a strong dynamic range.

Dynamic range comparison (more is better)

  • HTC One X (T3): 80.6dB
  • iPhone 4S: 91.3dB
  • HTC One S (S4): 90.6dB
  • Galaxy S III: 90.2dB
  • Galaxy S II: 90.2dB
  • Galaxy S: 90.6dB
  • Nexus One: 85.8dB

Now, if you're familiar with the Nexus One and Galaxy S II, you know they didn't produce fantastic sound. And both of them outperform the One X for dynamic range. The One X gets absolutely pummeled by every single phone in this comparison. In the "noise level" test, a similar sort of range measure, it also loses handily. It's not even close. You'll find numerous other comparisons on this page at GSMArena, all of which the Tegra 3 One X loses when compared to its major competitors.

But I'm going to put one more here that I think explains the unusual harshness (and frankly, unpleasantness) I've experienced on the One X - and that's the IMD+ noise measurement. This is, to put it simply, a measure of an audio output source's tendency to create, as a part of the process of digital to analog conversion, noises at frequencies which are not harmonically similar to the actual audio recording. These noises sound bad - they're out of place and disrupt the natural harmonic qualities of music. It's like hearing someone play a piano that's slightly out of tune with itself, it makes you wince a little.

This is as opposed to harmonic distortion, which the human ear actually finds somewhat pleasant in limited quantities, and helps provide speakers and headphones some of their aural character (this is where those fuzzy words like "brightness" and "warmth" start to come into play). So, here are the numbers for the bad kind of distortion:

IMD+ noise comparison (more is worse)

  • HTC One X (T3): .459
  • iPhone 4S: .071
  • HTC One S (S4): .065
  • Galaxy S III: .090
  • Galaxy S II: .647
  • Galaxy S: .329
  • Nexus One: .088

The Galaxy S II is the standout loser here, but the One X isn't far off by any means. And the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S III, and even the One S, absolutely obliterate the One X is this test. No one measure spells audio doom for the One X, but the fact that it is worse in every one one of GSMArena's tests compared to the 4S and GS3 (many by large margins) is just kind of sad. And it's that across-the-board failure that leads to the mediocre audio experience on the One X. It's not awful, but I invite anyone to do a side-by-side comparison with an iPhone 4S (or 4) or One S. The difference is definitely noticeable.

For lower-fidelity audio (eg, Spotify, Pandora, other internet radio services), it's probably going to be less obvious, so keep that in mind. But with a VBR MP3 or a FLAC file played at moderately high volume, you're going to hear it.

In summary, HTC's "amazing sound" marketing is at best a stretch, and at worst, outright misleading in regard to the Tegra 3 One X. Just saying it doesn't make it true, guys. Chock up another point for the Galaxy S III in the (international) superphone battle.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Akbar

    Its the Tegra 3 chipset

    • http://www.jeroenheijster.com/ Jeroen Heijster

      Did you even read the article? "
      NVIDIA's Tegra 3 SoC uses (probably) a Realtek DAC of unknown model. I do know it's not a very good one. "

  • triangle8

    Interesting analysis.  I have never really gave this much thought.  I think the other part of this is having good headphones, which I can't say that I have at the moment, but maybe I will try out the Nocs that you tested out.

  • makapav

    Well written article of high quality.

    • Siypion

      i see what you did there.

  • passerby

    You should be comparing the "(headphones attached)" values instead as that is likely the most common case for smartphone users. Although it's not the case here, sometimes the audio output of one device performs better than the other one with headphones, even though the "other" device performed better with an active amp.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      I am comparing the headphone attached values.

      • passerby

        My appologies. I didn't check the actual data on GSMArena (which should be linked, IMHO, and if it already is, ctrl+F "gsmarena" doesn't highlight any hyperlinks, nor does doing that for "source") and assumed that you took the active amp values since it wasn't specified in the article that you took the headphones attached value.

        • passerby

          Haa... I see that GSMArena's article is indeed linked here.
          "You'll find numerous other comparisons on this page at GSMArena,"
          Coffee break it is.

          • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

            Beat me to it. ;)

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

          Sorry. It's actually linked in the first paragraph under the first block quote.

  • Jzisson

    Simple solution is to install Poweramp or jetAudio apps.

    • passerby

      No, because this is a hardware issue.

      • Jzisson

        Exactly, so either find a software solution out a new phone.

        • ajerman

          You're not understanding. It's a hardware issue, so regardless of what software you use, the quality is going to be poor. You can put any software EQ you want on the system, but if the DAC is crap, it won't make the slightest bit of difference. A software EQ can (questionably) increase the quality over stock, but only within the limits of what the hardware is capable of.

    • Thracks

      This is a hardware DAC issue. It cannot be fixed by software.

      • Asatchmo

        Don't knock it till you've tried it.

      • sammy richard

        better U give a try first.. More reasonable than HTC music player....

    • sammy richard

      Completely agree.... But poweramp for OneX needs to be filtered a bit... May be they will do in next ver....

    • http://twitter.com/Kopitea Jordan

      it does not matter what software player you install, it is still going to sound inferior due to bad DAC onboard. End of story

  • Fifth313ment

    David Ruddock, shouldn't that include the HTC EVO 4G LTE? I think you should add it to the article as it's the same chip as the HTC ONE XL & S. Or am I wrong? I know the sound on my EVO LTE is amazing, but I had flashed a Beats mod on my OG EVO and it sounds almost as good. Not quite 100% but darn near close enough not to warrant the Beats certification, lol. :)

  • randyfromreno

    Yea, sounds like a hardware issue. But Beats is nothing more than an over-hyped Equalizer. There are many available that are just as good or better.

    • http://www.jeroenheijster.com/ Jeroen Heijster

      I agree with you there. Most custom roms for the Galaxy S II include beats, I hate it because it isn't a good equalizer for metal/rock.

  • Pete Patron

    You should include the HTC One XL in the comparisons or at least lump together the HTC One S, One XL (aka AT&T HTC One X) with the S4 chip as it may lead people to believe that their AT&T HTC One X (the renamed One XL) is the HTC One X (international). We have AT&T to thank for this confusion, I know, but the community can help to clarify that misconception.

    • Asatchmo

      A helpful follow up article on the hardware side would be to identify which smartphones use the Wolfson chip, and on the software side which music player, eq's , sound processors software improves native audio the most.

  • hanbeeg

    Great article!
    I'm glad I've chosen the less-marketed One S as my next phone, instead of the One X...

  • Hard2Bee

    Every time you mention "One X" it should be prefaced with "international" so that the article is clear as to which device you are referring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=610886609 Barnassey Thomas

    Actually the tegra series uses a wolfson audio DAC. 

    • Resytep

      nup, tegra 2 did, they went with something else for the 3, article proposes Realtek

  • John

    Good article and though you have published all the scientific evidence, after listening to three different albums with my international one x I don't have any issues with the audio. So am I deaf? (lol)

    • http://twitter.com/Kopitea Jordan

      unfortunately yes you are.... those who truly knows how to appreciate quality audio would be able to tell the difference. Personally as a G Note user currently, previously coming from an iPhone 4. I can tell you how inferior is for the sound quality on G Note when compared to iPhone 4. Normal listeners may not be able to tell since all music sound the same to them. Unfortunately those are simply the people who will don't know how to appreciate a $2-300 earphones when compared to stock iPhone earphones. And I'll be honest... from an amatuer audiophile pov, Beats headphone sucks too. Or at least in their price range, they are probably one of the worst around. They definitely do not worth those money they are asking for. Anyway this article is great. Appreciate the time that the writer took to explain. This give one more reason to avoid HTC One X.

  • AdamLange

    Android Police, can u simply ask HTC officially whats going on? should Intl HOX users demand device replacement due to false advertising? I'm feeling screwed by HTC and it's HIGH END device.

  • acrox999

    It WON'T make a difference. I repeat, IT WON'T MAKE A DIFFERENCE. If you think installing another software might make a difference, don't fool yourself. It is just a placebo effect. I, who owns an X10 (I don't know what sound chip it uses) can tell you this. I've tried various softwares, from stock music player to Rockbox, they're all the same. Because I know the DAC in this phone isn't a good one. Sound distortion can be easily heard (I am using the ATH- M50 hradphones).

    In the case of this post, the hardware itself is bad, installing another software won't change a thing. The only solution is to get yourself an external USB DAC (and an amp if your headphones is hard to drive), and a GOOD mid/high-end head/earphones or speakers to hear the difference.

  • liquid6

    Yeah, I find the sound on my HTX one X ridiculously bad...couldn't believe it and I was coming from a nexus one.  I thought it was faulty, now I just know it's crap.

  • Supercalc

    What equipment did you use to test these phones?, a list of numbers linked to waffle and a schematic diagram  means nothing.
    Did you test more than one phone of each model, do the results very from phone to phone within the same model?

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      Did you even look at the source material at GSMArena? The process is pretty scientific and objective. Attacking the numbers is probably the worst criticism you could levy here.

  • http://twitter.com/nemo20000 nemo

    Great article.

    Has anyone done a full frequency analysis of these phones? It must be straightforward to put a test CD frequency sweep track into a lossless format and play it back on the devices and measure the resulting output.

    With the very greatest of respect to those with good ears, I’d trust that more than subjective listener opinions – they’re the kind of things that result in “directional wires” being recommended. :-/

  • Zach

    I'm curious as to how these compare to the first Beats phone, the Rezound. I own it and have this to say: Beats may be a cranked up equalizer, but it's still better than most phones without it. 

  • crabnebula

    David, I have a Rogers One X (with the S4 processor) and since I couldn't find any RMAA measurements for it, I tried doing my own. Strangely, they differ from what GSMArena measured for the One S, suggesting that there might be a hardware difference between the One S and the S4-based One X / XL...?

    See here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/608713/htc-one-x/30#post_8419982

    I'm curious as to what your listening revealed. Personally I hear notable hiss on my S4-based One X at low volumes with sensitive IEMm. It is quite evident when compared to my Nexus S with Voodoo.

    • http://www.thatsitguys.com/ Meleniumshane90

      They are using the international HTC One X. The One S/X US variant is using a different chipset it looks like. I'm trying to find what DAC they're using right now.

  • FTW

    I think the sound on my international HTC One X is awesome!

    • http://twitter.com/Kopitea Jordan

      thats because you have not heard what is good

  • VYAS

    Beats audio, as well as all the Beats headphones is the biggest rip off in the universe right now. So, dont be surprised at worse thnt mediocre sound quality. I absolutely love everything else about the HTC one X or XL. The biggest failure is sound quality.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jennifercreighton58 Jennifer Creighton

      I totally agree! I really wish I'd known all of this before I bought my One X! I was really hoping to be able to put my phone conversations on speaker, but I can't hear frig all when I do that! I wish I would return it/trade it in....I've only had it for a few weeks! =(

  • He115eeker

    You do understand Beats audio is more than just a file you can download and put on any phone right?

  • He115eeker

    they also use a plastic headphone plug to isolate feedback...and amplify the sound output to specific levels...

  • ggg

    Damn ya how can i fix this issue. sound on my FM radio is top poor i even jave to put a speaker on my rat to hear it

  • WhyoWhy

    Please know this: the term is to 'chalk a point' not chock. Chock is not a word in English. It comes from chalk, referring to writing something with chalk on a wall, like prisoner counting his days. Chock, dear Lord.

  • Lawk

    So by the numbers it looks like this is fixed in the HTC One X+ anyone know if HTC changed the DAC in it?

  • Frank Lin

    One X+ still has about the same dynamic range (sadly this seems to be a growing trend not just for HTC, Nexus 4 for example also has a pretty low dynamic range as well), but less IMD than even the Wolfson SIII. THD is much lower than the original T3 HOX but higher than the Wolfson SIII.

    http://www.gsmarena.com/htc_one_x_plus-review-845p7.php

    I think the sound is very good but not enough volume when I use my over-ear headphones and it sometimes feels a bit lacking in the treble (on the other hand the bass is very tight though). (it's fine with my IEMs though). I use the speaker boost app which gives a subtle boost I leave it at 25%, any more and my phones will start to have a rattling sound in some songs. Strangely Beats Audio is still definitely louder and this problem dos not occur.

    I can't be sure about how it compares to the original HOX, but some users still complain about hissing while others say it is much improved from the original. Some are saying that HTC upped the voltage on the headphone jack but there isn't any specific information on this.

  • smms

    I think the phone has a good sound, I use beyerdynamic dt880.

    see also:
    http://www.whathifi.com/review/htc-one-x

  • jcamachott

    Does anyone know if the HTC One - the new phone - has better audio than the One X?