13
May
wm_IMG_5855

A 14-page XDA thread, thorough analysis by an audio engineer, and a 100+ comment Reddit thread have revealed that some of Samsung's Galaxy S4 handsets are experiencing serious sonic problems with certain headphones.

Headphone audio on smartphones is something we rarely think too much about, because, well, most people don't really care. As long a smartphone produces sound that is listenable and loud enough, your average Joe isn't particular concerned about the quality. But according to a growing number of individuals, some Galaxy S4 handsets powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 chipset are basically unusable with certain headphones.

The problem typically manifests itself as a particularly unpleasant "clipping," which most people would describe as crackling, buzzing, or popping. This may not sound quite so horrible at first blush, but listen to the short clip of some headphones in the Soundcloud widget below to hear it for yourself (recorded by an XDA member).

Now, imagine that much louder, and laid over your favorite song. Not so great, right? If my phone were experiencing such an issue, I'd be sending it back / replacing it without question - this is is a serious concern. The general consensus has been that the issue affects low-frequency sound on headphones with low impedance, but given the wide variety of headphones claimed to be affected on XDA - ranging from over-ear studio-style Sony and Yamaha products to high-end Logitech Ultimate Ears in-ear buds - that theory sounds pretty circumstantial.

XDA member Jensign conducted an in-depth study of the Galaxy S4's audio output with low-impedance headphones, and found that an anomaly at a specific volume level occurred, resulting in a "buzzing" sort of sound. It's unclear if Jensign's problem is actually the same as what other individuals are experiencing though, even if it clearly is a significant issue in and of itself.

10ohmload

Image via Jensign.com

Some posters on Reddit and XDA have indicated buying an adaptor (basically, what's typically called an airline attenuator) that increases the effective impedance of affected headphones solved the issue for them. If you want to read the engineers' discussion about whether or not this is a hardware issue, I'd suggest this particular comment thread on Reddit.

The real puzzling part, though, is that it doesn't seem to affect all handsets - only some. I tested my AT&T Galaxy S4 (which is a Qualcomm variant known as SGH-I337) with 7 pairs of headphones, both in-ear and on-ear, and could not produce any kind of distortion or clipping at any volume - even the magic "11" setting that seems to produce the distortion found in Jensign's tests.

Numerous posters have indicated retail display models (which, admittedly, are a slightly different hardware variant in some countries) don't experience the distortion, and at least one person reported the issue vanished when he received a replacement handset.

So, what's the problem, really? It's difficult to say. Given the wide variety of headphones affected, and the limitation of the problem to Qualcomm variants of the S4, my guess at this point remains hardware. Smartphones are a mish-mash of currents and frequencies, and audio components can be particularly sensitive to various types of interference when improperly shielded. It's entirely possible we're looking at a manufacturing defect here, that something in the actual chipset (eg, the headphone amplifier) of some devices has been poorly isolated or is physically defective. But it's also possible we're looking at a software issue, and I don't want to discount that explanation - I'm no audio engineer.

Samsung's response? Some have said Samsung has been willing to take the handsets in for software updates and headphone jack replacement, but that this hasn't solved the issue. Others have been utterly stonewalled, with Samsung suggesting that their headphones are "incompatible" with the Galaxy S4, which is probably the worst excuse they could come up with in this situation.

Regardless of the root of the problem, this is definitely on Samsung to solve - let's hope they figure it out.

XDA, Reddit, Jensign.com

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yowan.r Yowan Rdotexe

    Who would even buy the Crapdragon 600 version which is basically a rebranded APQ8064 when the Exynos 5 version is clearly superior? Americans.. As always with their carrier branded bloated devices..

    • Nick

      its a good thing all americans all have $600+ to spend on those non carrier branded bloated devices

    • imneveral0ne

      You sound like an iPhone snob, just against American networks. Non-Americans, as always thinking their better....

    • Bojan Gutic

      Most Americans don't have a choice dude. It's either pay $200 for the phone from your carrier or $700 unlocked.

      And quite frankly, most consumers don't give a crap which processor their phone has.

    • http://www.facebook.com/duckofdeath Hans Pedersen

      This is not a phone exclusively sold in the US. It's the most common version globally of the GS4. I've got one myself here in Ireland, and I must admit that the DAC was my biggest concern with the Snapdragon processor, as Qualcomm doesn't seem to prioritise this at all. But, luckily, I haven't had any issues with the sound quality. It's not audiophile class, but it's good enough for a pair of €200 earphones.

    • TY

      Could you please provide evidence on the statement that "Exynos 5 version is clearly superior (than the Snapdragon 600 version)"? Although the benchmark scores of the Exynos version is higher, Samsung themselves claimed that "for consumers, there is no real difference between the two". Both versions have great daily-life performance. Moreover, most devices with Exynos 5 does not get 4G LTE (except Korean variants).

      • http://www.facebook.com/duckofdeath Hans Pedersen

        My guess is he's referring to the sound quality, and on that point it's probably true as the Exynos variant uses a Wolfson audio codec.

    • SetiroN

      Oh you know, that minor thing called LTE in return for an otherwise imperceptible 10% higher benchmark score.

      • http://www.facebook.com/yowan.r Yowan Rdotexe

        The rest of the world doesn't care about that gimmick LTE

    • imneveral0ne

      Haven't I heard about way more lag in the international version?

      • terrell

        I know I have my good man.

    • João Deiró

      Actually, many people would, since the international i9505 variant is the only one carrying 4G...

      • http://www.facebook.com/yowan.r Yowan Rdotexe

        The i9500 supports all 20 LTE bands fyi. I've used and tested it locally.

        • imneveral0ne

          So it supports Sprint/Verizon/AT&T LTE Bands, along with their 3G bands, and their Voice bands?

        • SetiroN

          BS. While the SoC theoretically supports LTE, it requires an external radio chip and circuitry that the phone itself doesn't have.

          Troll.

        • João Deiró

          Nope. In Brazil, for instance, i9505 is the only one that supports LTE.

    • Dylan Patel

      You mean Snapdragon 600, the first processor with the new Krait 300 cpu cores, but same GPU.

  • Leif Sikorski

    I don't have any issues with my S4 either. The headphone performance of the S4 is really good. If someone has the problem I would get a replacement unit - it's not "normal".

  • 2Kings

    if it is a hardware issue, it should remain when you flash a custom rom, that's what i would try..
    if it's gone, it cant be the hardware.. right?

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

      ROMs and kernels have been flashed, hasn't helped those with the issue.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000003999549 Mike Harris

        So it's definitely a hardware issue, right? I mean, is there something else that could cause it that I'm not thinking of (or not knowledgeable enough about), like the bootloader?

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

          There are plenty of black-box firmware pieces that aren't touched by a custom ROM or kernel.

    • Floss

      That depends on whether or not the custom roms are heavily based on the same bad custom code or not. But if people are exchanging their phones and it goes away, it probably is a hardware problem.

  • Jay

    Maybe it's because of Kanye West...

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004201535721 Mark King

      Quite Possible, Kanye was too good for certain devices.

      • imneveral0ne

        Kanye is terrible...

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004201535721 Mark King

          I don't know about that.

        • Dylan Patel

          How?

          • imneveral0ne

            Have you listened to his music?

          • Dylan Patel

            Yes, some of it is pretty good.

  • Reuben

    Hi David, may I know what headphones you have tried your S4 on? From what I know, it is a universal problem in all production units so far (at least, I haven't come across a report of a single i9505 that does NOT suffer from this issue using low-impedance IEMs, though it could be the silent majority at work). Demo units for some reason seem less affected, though I've come across one 9505X that distorts like mad too.

    As for the rest of the comments, I doubt exchanging your units will help. Initially I did a 1-1 exchange with my telco, but the new set had even MORE distortion at the same volume, so I rejected the exchange. Sent it in to Samsung's service centre for five days, and came back with a new motherboard and screen (no idea why they changed the screen), but same freaking problem, though perhaps a little less noticeable.

    Updated to the new ME2 firmware today and nothing.

    Anyway, thanks for at least bothering to cover this issue! :)

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

      Well, it doesn't occur in either of my review units. I'm pretty sure they're production hardware, too.

      • Reuben

        I understand, what I meant was what are the 7 models of headphones/earphones you tested them on? This is so that we can do a test to corroborate your findings as well, or if yours don't experience problems while ours do, we could use that as leverage against Samsung that our units are faulty.

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

          Let's see.

          Etymotic Research hf2 (in-ear, 16 ohms)
          Grado SR80i (on ear, 32 ohms)
          AKG K374 (in-ear, 28 ohms)
          Nocs NS200 (in-ear, 16 ohms)
          Nocs NS400 (in-ear, 16 ohms)
          Sony MDR X10 (over ear, 24 ohms)
          RHA MA-350 (in-ear, 16 ohms)

          • Reuben

            Thank you. I wasn't able to find details about the RHA MA-350 but for the rest of the 16ohm earphones you tested, they do not dip below 16 ohms at all in the bass range. Maybe that's why you couldn't reproduce the problem. For most production units out there, impedance needs to dip below 15 ohms (though this number might vary, some handsets have problems even for 20 ohms) for this crackling to be noticeable.

            This is most apparent with balanced armature IEMs, which have a varied impedance curve. Many of them dip to below 10 ohms in the bass range, which is where the problem is most prominent.

  • Floss

    I'm really starting to feel like I just need to make sure my next phone doesn't use Qualcom. I know my HTC One XL (ATT version) has similar problems where certain audio cables cause issues where other don't.

  • Matthew Fry

    Thank you for highlighting issues like this. Because they still haven't fixed it yet, the Nexus 10 comes to mind; where Google has said, "If the device reboots while running a specific app, you need to talk to the app author," as if it was completely normal for an app running in a sandbox to reboot the device.

  • duke69111

    Why don't the users just turn off Samsung's retro 1950's sound in the settings. /s

  • stu

    Which songs have you all had distortion on or was it with all music.
    As I have u.k version (4 core) and Ive not noticed any problems yet!!

  • Jack

    do the headphones in question have a preamp pushing the output above 0db? Or do they have an app doing a similar thing? That is the only way you are going to get clipping. Perhaps it is not a clipping problem but a hardware fault in the phones headphone output.

  • Freak4Dell

    "Others have been utterly stonewalled, with Samsung suggesting that their
    headphones are "incompatible" with the Galaxy S4, which is probably the
    worst excuse they could come up with in this situation."

    Another day, another step forward for Samsung being the Apple of the Android world. That's as bad as the "you're holding it wrong" excuse.

  • http://twitter.com/andreimp Andrei Muresan

    I have no problem with my GS4 (it's the i9505 version). I used the "stock" headset plus 2 AKG headsets on in ear (AKG K375) and one over the ear(AKG Q460), none have distortion issues.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leon.dunn75 Leon Dunn

    Using beats headphones an clipping is terrible .. def a replacement or different phone altogether. Disappointing

  • http://twitter.com/gilroyneil gilroyneil

    It wont affect all headphones. Read the threads. It seems as though lower impedance headphones have the problem. Headphones above about 30 ohms are not affected.
    This means that most (but not all) premium in ear models are affected. Over the ear are likely not affected.
    E.g. All Sony XBA range will be affected. Klipsch X10 is NOT affected. It depends on the model.

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

      Read the article, and read the threads again - plenty of models are affected, some with extremely high impedance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mxrush76 Miguel Angel Huerta Vazquez

    Exactly is the problem that i have... with my sony headphones...

  • http://twitter.com/gilroyneil gilroyneil

    Yep. Its a terrible situation. When I called Samsung UK support they told me that they only support the In the box ear phones. I doubt this is company policy but the idiot I spoke to couldn't care less. I pray this can be fixed via software but I am suspicious.

  • rt

    Funny Funny .. It sounds like someone playing the music on a machine which is crushing a pile of cheap plastic :) appropriate really :)

  • Jim L

    [sarcasm] I don't see the problem. The phone has a removable battery and SD Card slot. Nothing else matters. [/sarcasm]

    With the HTC One not coming to Verizon I was planning to get the S4, but not if the device(s) I get have this problem.

  • Edward

    If the Galaxy S4 has this problem I wont buy it. I plan to buy the
    Galaxy S5 the next year but if this problem persist i'll buy a HTC or
    Sony.

  • s4 user

    tested with bowers and wilkins p5 and it worked perfectly fine. sound is crisp and no clipping on the heavy bass songs.

    Dr dre's studio headphones worked well too.

    so far the cheapest earphones that has minimal to zero clipping on max volume is the iphone 5 earpods which sounded way above average sound quality, strong bass, comfortable (compared to the s4's bulky earpiece.)and pocket portable. and its loud when you put it on max volume.

    on the downside, you cant adjust the volume/ fwd/ rw/ pause. Just go to any electronic store and get a external volume control cable and that will do the trick.

    at the time being, apple's earpods will temporary help until samsung release the solution.

  • Bart -NL-

    My Galaxy S4 is clipping and it's very annoying. I went back to the store 2 times to change the handset so it's my 3th S4, problem still not solved. I've tried serval types of earphones but most of them seem to have the problem. The demo handsets in store don't seem to have the problem.

    The S4 from a friend of mine is working just fine with the SAME earphones that are clipping in mine! (Philips SHE9800)

    However when I used his headphones on my S4 (senheiser in ears) there was no clipping at all! Very strange issue though, I'll hope that Samsung is solving this very soon.

  • Kastelo Edward Palma

    I currently have Galaxy S4 and have encountered this "bug". I'm not sure if this is a hardware or a software issue but GS4 having such a powerful chipset should
    be able to handle any task without breaking a sweat -- so I'm leaning on it being a software issue.

    I encountered this after I applied my bass-heavy eq while playing JT's Mirrors and I was on my Urbanears Plattan. I noticed the cracks when the screen turned off. Then when I woke it up, it was gone. Just to add, I wasn't running anything load-heavy in the background, I think. I'm on EDGE connection at that time, auto-sync, power-saving mode, air-view, air-gesture, multi-window and blocking mode turned on. I don't think this should put too much stress on the device. What I did is close all background stuff and clear the memory, and reboot (maybe 2-3 times) then it was gone. Tried playing the same file and never encountered the cracking again even I have tons of apps running in background.

    Saying this, I think Samsung needs to optimize their software. Replacing headphones shouldn't be a proper solution.

  • lbryce

    Can anyone comment on there being an issue of using the audion output through my car? I can't keep a connection from my phone through the 3.5mm jack. I don't have an issue with the sound quality, but more with the device acknowledging the cord. I've tried multiple cords with limited to no success. I'm positive the issue is with the phone as I have never experienced an issues with the car working with other devices (iPhone, HTC, etc). Please help - might my device be defective?

  • why ask for email

    I just brought a headphone for my 9505, the crackle is extremely annoying when the listen to base heavy music, i thought the headphone is defective and returned it... Now I know this is a s4, but unsure what headphone works.

  • Another muffed S4 user

    I've had this problem with my S4. I use PlayerPro, the music app, and when using my Skullcandy headphones, the music has a fair bit of crackling on it, especially if I use the bass boost feature at low volumes. Strangely, when I use the earphones that comes with the S4, the sound effects and EQ sound fine but they will only work for one song before turning themselves off. In other music players the EQ will turn itself off completely randomly with both the S4 earphones and my Skullcandy headphones. It's just really odd.

  • guest

    My S4 is having this problem even with headset that come with the phone.

  • Brian

    With over 13k followers on Twitter I have grabbed the attention of numerous people that I have issue with. Samsung is the latest. Here's the link to this problem or lookup (& follow) @DriverBrian on Twitter.
    https://twitter.com/DriverBrian/status/353520237477507074

    seems I'm getting stonewalled too

  • Michele Gurrado

    My new note 3 recordes some audio pops and crackling during video recording :(

  • B°wK3r

    Try installing acid audio but the device has to be a rooted with a custom recovery to flash via zip file