04
Dec
MOT53727

We all use our smartphones differently. Some people rely on them for web browsing and apps, some for texting, and many of us still resort to making calls, you know, when we have to. Even within those categories, several patterns emerge and certain habits and practices have been developed. Many of us have long since abandoned using wired headsets for calling, but a lot of people still prefer them to keeping Bluetooth headsets charged or holding a 5-inch phone against an ear. Unfortunately, these simple wired accessories can also be plagued by bugs like anything else, and both the Nexus 4 and 5 seem to suffer from a pretty big one. It turns out that the recording level for these inline microphones can be painfully low, making conversations difficult, if not impossible.

1148-38795-s6o6DG7F4zEWJyD-upload

Symptoms

There aren’t a lot of variables here, just one clear and specific problem: the input gain on in-line microphones is incredibly low on the Nexus 5 and Nexus 4. People on the other end of a conversation describe the person talking as sounding like they are on the other side of the room. Sometimes, the problem can be so bad that the speaker can't even be heard.

It’s worth noting, this bug isn’t limited to making calls. Any application that takes sound from the inline mic is handicapped by this issue. Obviously, this can impede things like Google Now, voice dictation, and many other common activities.

2013-12-04_11-49-05
Sample recordings taken with and without headsets. Credit: MattPneumatic

Causes

At its core, the issue appears to originate in the Automatic Gain Control (AGC), a piece of software responsible for adjusting the input gain based on the quality of a signal. For example, if the line quality were very low and the incoming signal too quiet, the gain would be boosted to make it audible. It seems that the AGC is becoming confused and reversing the effect. A few users discovered the likely culprit after using apps with the ability to disable the AGC while making recordings.

Another contributing factor - or possibly the whole problem - may trace to something as simple as inconsistent wiring of the headset jacks. Believe it or not, there are two slightly different standards for those tiny little plugs: OMTP and CTIA. An original standard was created years ago by the Open Mobile Terminal Platform (OMTP) in an effort to unify accessories for use across handsets from all OEMs. This is the standard originally created and used by companies like LG, Samsung, Blackberry, and virtually everybody else. The newer, but nearly identical wiring arrangement appears to have been created by Apple and supported as a standard by CTIA. Yes, this is one time we should all get angry, because this is really stupid...

CTIA_OMTP_Pinout

Many headset manufacturers initially began producing iPhone-compatible variants alongside the originals. However, as those headsets became dominant, many of the OEMs have switched their hardware to CTIA to conform to market demands. The Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, still uses the OMTP pin out pattern, as do all phones manufactured by LG and a few other OEMs. In most cases, this doesn’t matter because software drivers can be written to detect and automatically adjust to the type of jack, but it’s possible this functionality was forgotten or malfunctioning in the code for the two Nexus handsets. If handled improperly, this difference could explain the low input gain. Take note, this is speculation and may have nothing to do with the problem.

Workarounds

The options for workarounds are a bit limited, but there are a few. The best, but most expensive option is to replace your current wired headset with one known to be working, or move over to Bluetooth headsets which don’t suffer from this issue. The wired headsets that have been reported by others to work are the Yurbuds Inspire Talk Sport and many of the V-Moda models. If you happen to live in a country where LG also distributed the mic-equipped earbuds, they also seem to work quite well.

For a cheaper alternative, some people have tried OMTP-to-CTIA adapters. Oddly, the results have been mixed. In some cases, it seems to completely resolve the issue, but others report it can make things worse. These adapters are very cheap, but given the hit-and-miss nature, they might not be worth the trouble.

If your existing headset is equipped with a button for hanging up on a call or otherwise controlling audio playback, there is a creative hack that might work for some people. By holding down the button when first plugging in the jack, a connection is shorted and the phone is tricked into believing the headset lacks a microphone. When making a call, this results in pushing audio through the earbuds, but enables the speakerphone on the handset. This isn't suitable for everybody, but it might be a good workaround until a proper fix comes.

Wrap-up

In a dash of perfect timing, an announcement of a fix for the Nexus 5 was posted in the Google Product Forums at exactly the same time I was writing this article. Unfortunately, the statement isn’t clear if there will also be a fix for the Nexus 4, but given the obvious similarity, there’s no good reason to overlook it. Even if this is a driver issue, as it likely is, the same fix should work across both handsets.

A release date for the patch hasn’t been divulged, but it’s likely to come with the next OTA. Since updates typically flow pretty steadily in the first couple of months after a major release, this issue should be resolved fairly soon.

Sources: Google Product Forum 1, 2, 3, AOSP

Cody Toombs
Cody is a Software Engineer and Writer with a mildly overwhelming obsession with smartphones and the mobile world. If he’s been pulled away from the computer for any length of time, you might find him talking about cocktails and movies, sometimes resulting in the consumption of both.

  • runderekrun

    Nice and sloppy Google. Jeez you guys need a beta release bad.

  • Rick Wilson

    Also, for Nexus 4 users with bluetooth devices using 4.4 KitKat, there are connection issues & instability. https://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=63056

  • Dennis Ulijn

    Always call with my Nexus 4 and Apple's Earpods. Sometimes get the remark that the volume of my mic seems low, but not more on 4.4 than i had it on 4.3.

  • Cherokee4life

    I read the first 5 words of the title and got sick to my stomach. My Nexus 5 just arrived at my house today.....

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/cody-toombs/ Cody Toombs

      Read the last 3 ;)

      • Cherokee4life

        haha yeah but then I realized I never use headphones so it doesn't matter either way. :)

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/cody-toombs/ Cody Toombs

          Hahaha! Ok :)

          Don't worry, I've got a few more bug watches lined up for the N5 ;) Aside from the sound issue I covered last week, everything looks like purely software issues that just need to be worked out. Overall, I've been pretty happy with the N5.

  • The_Chlero

    At first I was upset because Google refusal to update the GNex to KK 4.4, now, after all these news telling how bugged is 4.4, I glad they didnt.

    • abobobilly

      I don't think it actually stopped people from upgrading their devices to 4.4.

      Plus, these bugs will soon be fixed anyway. I won't worry about these.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/cody-toombs/ Cody Toombs

      This particular issue has nothing to do with KitKat (not to say there aren't plenty of others). The Nexus 4 had this issue a year ago and the GNex didn't have it then, so it looks to be an LG-specific issue. That's why I'm inclined to think it's got to do with the different audio jack pin-out and probably needs a fix to the audio driver.

    • Brian

      This has nothing to do with kitkit so good going there buddy.

  • Guest

    just use a custom kernel. for example faux-kernel and use faux-sound. works perfect for me on my nexus 4! http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2008222

    • Francesco9482

      may you help me in setting the correct parameters in fauxsound app? Because it didn't solve the problem for me. thanks

  • Bob G

    Sadly, the more things like this pop up, the less I want to remain on the Nexus brand.

    • evertjr

      Because every other brand have perfect phones that does not have a single issue, right? Please, stop.

      • mustbepbs

        He's got a point. Every Nexus device I've owned (GNex, N7, N72013, N10) have had glaring issues and overall lack of support from Google. It took Google an entire year to give a crap about the N7 and the poor IO speeds, let alone all the QA issues with the device (this also applies to N72013). It took them months and months to deal with the random reboots and memory leak of the N10, and even then it still has lag issues. The GNex speaks for itself.

        Nexus devices are beta products, just like everything else Google does. I'll never buy another Nexus device because Google doesn't give a damn about them.

        • http://twitter.com/anishbhalerao Anish Bhalerao

          There was a time when there were GLARING gaps between versions of Android running on Nexus v/s other OEMs.
          Example: 2.3.6 v/s 4.0.4; 4.0.4 v/s 4.2.2.
          That made Nexuses famous as shit. We have come to love THOSE Nexuses.

          But now that-
          1) OEMs are pushing OTAs as quickly as within 2-3 months to be on par with the latest AOSP release from Google, and
          2) Android has developed to almost very close to its quality saturation anyway (now TOO much of a difference between 4.3 and 4.4, as compared between 2.3 and 4.0-
          - Nexus devices have started losing their sheen, which was the insta-updation and halfway pricing for top-drawer specs.

          Google's approach towards the daily required software, like the Camera app, has been so damned lazy, devices with worse hardware on board sometimes get the better of Nexuses these days.

          I'll never say never for buying another Nexus. I know I will, esp bearing in mind the pricing. But unless Google pulls up its socks, I can see Nexus lines becoming a moot point of the Android ecosystem in the next 2 years, tops.

          • evertjr

            Nexus devices are made to showcase Android, what the creators want it to be. Just like iOS are made to iPhones and iPads. The fast updates are just consequence. I have owned many android phones and the only phone that just gave me piece is the nexus, everything just works just like I expect it to, of course it could have a better camera and speakers but it works, all the time, and its not bad at all. The interface is smooth and beautiful, every app and game I try works great. All this is what make a great experience.

    • Roh_Mish

      These are not Nexus issues, they are issues in android rel. 4.4

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/cody-toombs/ Cody Toombs

        There are stacks of complaints about the Nexus 4 having this issue since it was released with 4.2. This problem has absolutely nothing to do with changes in 4.4.

        If the problem is related to the pin out of the jacks, it's either always been in stock Android, but it wasn't noticed since the previous Nexus devices came from HTC and Samsung (both companies matched Apple's pin out prior to releasing their Nexus handsets), or it's an issue that was overlooked in the drivers released by LG. There are plenty of other possibilities, but very few explain why only the two LG phones seem to be affected.

        • Roh_Mish

          But get much less sound with kitkat than on 4.3

    • YuppApplesFault

      If you read the article closely you'll notice it's Apple's fault, not Google's, they screwed up the standard and made their exclusive own... again.

  • Simon Belmont

    I haven't run into this issue, but then again I don't use wired headsets (Bluetooth for me). I'm glad that a fix on the way shortly, though.

    Looking forward to a bunch of bug fixes in Android 4.4.1. Can't wait.

  • John Smith

    earpods mic works fine with my Nexus 5. the problem is the built in mic on my Nexus 5 - people say i sound garbled or they can't hear me. this is a known issue. the prevailing theory is that it's caused by bug in noise canceling software.

  • Steve Bollinger

    My other post got eaten?

    Apple didn't invent the CTIA standard and Apple uses the older standard (you call OMTP), same as Samsung.

    Many companies are switching to CTIA because handsets sold in China must work with CTIA headsets and headsets sold in China must be CTIA headsets.

    See here:
    http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5144

    The regular white-ringed one is like a Samsung headset (OMTP as you say) and the black one is CTIA. The black one is only sold in China.

  • BuddyRo

    Is anybody having problems with text messages disappearing on the notification screen ever since the 4.4 update my N4 has been doing that I turn my phone on to scroll down but before I even get to do that the notification disappears anyone have any suggestions?

  • dude

    Wow this is long overdue. Good thing Google is finally doing something about it.

  • Alex

    How about the buzzing in video recordings? I mean, it's a pretty serious issue. It's one of the most basic thing in a smartphone now adays yet google seems to screw it up on the N5

  • http://musephotos.wordpress.com/ GarySFBCN

    I use earbuds w/mic and the people I call all complain that the volume is way to low.

  • Robert Johnson

    I have a low-gain mic problem with my LG Tone+ (Bluetooth), it's been my only problem with an otherwise excellent product, but it's a significant one. This article makes me wonder if it's not a hardware issue after all.

  • http://twitter.com/anishbhalerao Anish Bhalerao

    Ok, now is this just me on my N4, or I have the company of other N4 users with this bug:
    Stock Android 4.4

    After pressing call in the Dialler/People app, it switches quickly to the in-call interface. But once the call ends, whether it was hung up / cancelled by me, or was hung up by the person on the other end, the in-call interface REFUSES TO DIE DOWN, sometimes for 4-5 seconds, sometimes until I press the Back button! At other times, it does switch fairly quickly.
    Reboots seem to be a workaround for this, but only momentarily. After 18-24 hours of active use, this issue is predominantly more probable.

    This NEVER happened in Android 4.2 / 4.3, as the switching between interfaces was quick, automatic and seamless.

    • Tejas Parekh

      I use an N4 and this is exactly the same thing happening with me on the calling interface, for 1st instance I thought its because of some third party apps but once i cleared all of them surprisingly the issue was still their.

    • http://twitter.com/anishbhalerao Anish Bhalerao

      Haha. People downvote abso-fucking-lutely these days.
      As if this was my "OPINION" and not an issue I've experienced.

      Facebook syndrome has spread EVERYWHERE.

      • Salaried tips

        You whining about one down vote has cost you another I'm afraid

  • Darkbotic

    @CodyToombs:disqus There's another bug that, when you have a headset connected and turn down the volume during a call and disconnect it, the volume level will persist in the earpiece and I'll be really low even when you try to turn the volume up (it will show up like you have it at the maximum when is not).

    To fix it, you have to connect the headset again, make a call and turn the volume up again...

  • http://www.LOVEanon.org/ Michael Oghia (Ogie)

    Thanks Cody!

  • Albert H

    I think it's a problem about development culture and the company itself. Why?

    Development culture: they are a big, gigantic group of hackers. Sure, they're corporate, but they tinker with things at will, breaking something or fixing something, usually both at the same time. So an "alpha" or "beta" version of their software is, to them, a usual thing. As developers, not consumers, they aren't as worried about bugs in their software, and as we know, that isn't a good way to go.

    Company: Google is a very web-centric (or really, software-centric) company with zero experience with device development. If you look at the history of Google, it's is VERY recently that they've stepped into the foray of hardware. Heck, Google Glass is, in all honesty, probably the only thing they've put R&D into developing. The rest have just been pretty contracts to random companies, complete with a name slap on top.

    Quite honestly, if you think of it this way, it's no surprise that Nexus 4/7 have been having issues - ASUS makes the Nexus 7 (and have been decreasing quality in their products for a while now), and LG makes the Nexus 5 (and aren't really known for making great Android phones... well, maybe except for the clone of Nexus 5, LG G2). In fact, I'm even surprised that Google does much support at all - they are really just contracting the HW work to other companies to save money. Since they don't design the HW, they don't have any motivation to support it.

    And the HW companies? They are lazy, fat cats who don't mind being lazy, even if it means having issues and such on day 1. As long as they get the money, they don't care. Bad hardware isn't tied to their profits, not unless they are supporting it themselves.

    Honestly, I'd be happier if Google decides to move their entire Nexus line to their shiny little division, Motorola Mobility, complete with the goodness of the Nexus line. Those guys have their hands deep in HW development, so they would know the innards well enough to develop solid drivers. Tech support is still iffy for Motorola, but hopefully it won't be needed if the HW/SW development produces great results.

    (Plot twist: Motorola's Ara project is the next Nexus!)

  • Hoggles

    I'm pretty confident the N5 was never tested once before release. Seems that way at least.

    Horrible camera quality, UI & functionality.

    Crackling, distortion on video recording.

    Speaker is hosed.

    Extremely low sound on headset mics.

    Whoever was responsible for the most basic standard of QC for this device, really needs to be fired. And then their boss too. Google & LG both... Truly pathetic.

  • Seldon

    I'm confused. I think Nexus 5 has CTIA standard. My Xperia Neo V headset (OMTP) doesn't work, and Xiaomi headset (CTIA) does. Are you sure you didn't take it wrong?

    • tanec

      I can confirm that Nexus 4 use CTIA standard, because i rewired one old Nokia handsfree witch was with OMTP and after switch GND and Mic position everythings work with my nexus.

  • Ryan Spencer

    I hope they will issue the update for Nexus 4. I have always wondered why my home theater audio is extremely low when using the 3.5 jack from phone to RCA in. I even went out and bought a new 3.5 mm jack to RCA Male cable to see if maybe my cable was bad. But same effect. Same thing in the car. However I did notice that once I switched out radios and started using Bluetooth the issue was gone. Still same problem on home theater. Great Article. Definitely appreciate the info and schematic.

  • Ryan Spencer

    I should also note that Apple sucks. What were they thinking in making a proprietary jack for there precious IPhone. It doesn't even make sense. Sleeve has always been ground. Always. Tip and ring. Why must apple always be different. Just like the whole NFC deal. Wow. Had apple not always tried to reinvent the wheel my Nexus may have never suffered this issue along with all the other manufacturers of Android devices. Sad indeed.

  • Halid

    Lets not forget that when you listen to music on aux or through headphones sound is almost half as loud as my htc phone. Why is that? Many complaints about this in forum and its just ignored by google. I use htc for music and nexus 4 for everything else. I will switch to galaxy 5 or new htc one next year.

  • Jeff Thomas

    Wait a minute, there is kit kat ROM for the HTC EVO 4G

  • xram

    It is Feb of 2014 and still no fix!