04
Jul
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If you've been itching to use your USB DAC with your Android phones and tablets, get ready: USB audio-out support is coming to our favorite mobile OS, finally, in this fall's "L" release. Android has been without native USB audio support (some OEMs have added it in, but at the moment it's rare) since, well, ever, and the main ticket in the Android issue tracker has been there nearly two-and-a-half years. How do we know the feature is coming? Because that ticket just got closed. And it showed up in the giant "L" of new Android features at I/O, too.

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If you have no idea what this all means or why it is potentially important - don't worry, unless you're into audio equipment or a music creator, this probably isn't exactly breaking news. But for those people, this is a pretty big development. iOS has long been the favored mobile platform of audiophiles and musicians, in part because the OS has a large (and often high-end) ecosystem of third-party audio accessories that take advantage of the platform's extensive USB audio support. This includes things like DACs - digital-to-analog converters.

If you're not versed on what exactly a DAC (in the product sense) is, it's just a fancy name for an external sound card, basically. Instead of using a PCI interface, though, it connects via USB to an audio source (be it a computer, tablet, or phone) that sends the raw digital stream of sound data into the DAC which then converts it to an electrical signal (sound), and in the case of portable DACs, amplifies it, and then out it goes through a 3.5mm jack and into your headphones. All modern computers, smartphones, and tablets have DACs, too, they're just internal.

Why use an external DAC? The quality of the conversion and amplification are likely substantially higher than what your smartphone is capable of (not to say Qualcomm's latest Hexagon DSPs are anything to scoff at - they're pretty great), and in the case of powered DACs, you're able to drive headphones of much greater impedance than your smartphone would be able to handle. In all honesty, they generally only make a truly noticeable difference if you're stuck with a mid-to-low range DAC on your smartphone, or if you're using an extremely high-end set of in-ear monitors / very high-impedance over-ear headphones.

Anyway, in order to use a DAC with an Android device, you'll still need a couple of things. First, an OTG cable is necessary (like this guy). And if your DAC needs USB power, you'll probably need to route it through a powered USB hub, too. Second, your phone or tablet actually has to support USB OTG functionality which, while widespread, is not universal (the Nexus 4, for example, doesn't have it). Chainfire's USB Host Diagnostics app can check your device for compatibility, but if you're on Android 4.4 or running the "L" preview - good luck, Google majorly gimped the ability to check USB host info in Android 4.4.

Android Issue Tracker

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.

  • Ben Said

    Cool, now start putting in good audio equipment into the Nexus line. Man, the audio quality through headphones suck on my Nexus 5.

    • ProductFRED

      Are you sure you aren't just using bad headphones? Qualcomm's DACs are actually among the top rated in Android phones (a little behind the Wolfson DACs that come with Exynos chipsets).

      • Ben Said

        Well I'm using the Klipsch S4i, which sounds pretty good through everything else. The quality is just about reasonable and the volume is just low. At maximum volume I can still hear people talking around me.

        • andy_o

          People automatically shouldn't blame the DAC for bad sound, there are a lot of weaker links. In fact cheap DACs have been transparent for a long time.

          If your problem is just low volume, it could be an impedance/sensitivity thing or an amplifier thing, but it's likely not the DAC. You can get around this by getting an amplifier which with an external DAC probably you'll get too, but there doesn't need to be a DAC, you can just get an external headphone amp. Not ideal, but it doesn't mean the DAC on the N5 is crap, just the amp.

        • theunknown

          I have the Klipsch S4A (II) and what I found that that I need to tweak the EQ in whatever music app I am using to reduce this issue.

          But if you are speaking about a system wide change then I guess you will need root and enable a audio kernel module like Viper Mod

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

      Then there's an issue with your phone or headphones. The Nexus 5 has the exact same DAC / amp combo as every other Snapdragon 800 and 801 device on the market, and it's an excellent setup.

      • Ben Said

        The maximum is just really low, compared to every other device I used- Moto X, iPhone, Galaxy phones etc... I used that volume booster app and it did boost the volume but the music just seemed a bit distorted and not as clear as before.

        • http://www.littlegreendude.com/ wollac11

          Some earphones just aren't that sensitive and require a stronger output. If you're rooted you can increase the headset (and/or speaker) output volume. This actually increases the hardware's output power, not like the volume booster apps which are digitally increasing audio volume and often cause distortion. See here: http://forum.xda-developers.com/google-nexus-5/themes-apps/mod-headphone-speaker-volume-boost-t2532788

          • Ben Said

            Oh, I did not know about that. Thanks for providing a link, will test it out :)

          • Stanley C.

            This works in Nexus 7 with stereo speakers? would like to make this change in my device.

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

          Yeah, I wouldn't use a "volume booster" app.

          Also, the S4i has a somewhat unusual 18 Ohm impedance rating (most earbuds are 16), meaning they'll sound quieter on pretty much any mobile device. Like Wollac says, you need stronger output, and the Nexus 5 seems to have a comparatively low volume cap set in the firmware.

        • acejavelin

          If you use a custom kernel, like Franco or Hellscore and boost up the headphone gain, a simple +3db gain on my Nexus 4 brings the volume up to match any Apple device.

        • ehTuBrutus

          Go into settings on Google Play Music and turn OFF the equalizer. It made a huge difference on my Nexus 5

      • abobobilly

        Still doesn't beat a Voodoo Sound experience. Its no point buying a very expensive pair of ear plugs, just so you could improve the sound quality from a crappy DAC. Never liked Snapdragon's DAC in the first place.

        Wolfson DACs are the real deal.

        You can use a crappy (read:cheap) pair of ear plugs on a Voodoo Sound Mod and it'd be a lot more wonderful as compared to Wolfson DACs. Sadly, the newer (wolfson) chipsets are not coming with Voodoo enhancements (or am i mistaken?). Supercurio seems satisfied with Snapdragon DAC :(

        • Ambroos

          Snapdragon DAC really isn't that bad. I have some Sony MDR-7550 studio monitors (in-ears, quite accurate and neutral), and there's little difference between the sound on my Xperia Z2 and my X-series Walkman (which has been lauded for it's audio quality).

          Sure, Wolfson DACs are great, but the difference isn't all that big. Dynamic range is usually slightly lacking on Snapdragon DACs, but hardly anyone will notice.

    • z0phi3l

      Stop using that Beats garbage, get a decent set of headphones and you'll be fine

      • Ben Said

        Don't worry, I'll never use that crap, I'm using Klipsch S4is and they're decent for the price.

        • n_a_v

          I love my S4's. On my third pair though. The first two wore out after almost exactly a year. Thank goodness for a 2 year warranty and easy return policy.

    • Erik Tomlinson

      My N5 sounds fine, and I'm really picky (like... really picky to the point where everyone around me wonders what the @#$% I'm talking about when I'm making adjustments to my speaker positioning or whatever.)

  • http://www.littlegreendude.com/ wollac11

    Pretty sure I can think of a more common place use for USB audio for most people than a USB DAC connected via an OTG cable. MicroUSB docking speakers.

    We now can have universal USB audio docks which could use this to take digital audio via the USB port with the convenience of a docking connector such as the one on the iPhone (without using a separate 3.5mm AUX cable or bluetooth connection). I know some Samsungs have this already but this would be universal. Imagine something like Phillips great Fidelio android speaker docks but without having to pair up the device via Bluetooth.

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

      With Android devices having microUSB connectors all over the place, the chance of Android docks catching on is low, because designing around that is not fun. (How do you deal with something like the S5, which has a port cover?) Also, docks are dead - everything is Bluetooth or Wi-Fi streaming audio now. Dock-in audio is a dying market for all but a few hanger-on audiophiles and old people who don't understand wireless audio.

      • sarthak

        From the pic,it looks like you are a grado fan.Which model is that?I love my 225i.

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

          Just the 80i. I absolutely love them, and when the cables inevitably twist themselves to death or they develop bad static / rattle (as it seems all the 80s eventually do), I'll probably upgrade to the new 325e.

          • Walkop

            Slide pipe cleaners onto the ends of the cable, it can really enhance their durability and extend the life of the cable.

      • http://www.littlegreendude.com/ wollac11

        Have you seen the Fidelio line? They cope with Most Android devices just fine despite their different locations, size and orientations.

        Also, you say docks are dead and I agree they are in decline (I use wireless streaming myself) but for people who want something to charge the device and have speaker output say for the bestside or in an outdoor summer house they will work pretty well.

        Wireless streaming isn't the best for all people or all use cases. Bluetooth streaming does not give the best audio quality and neither does it provide any device charging.

        I am not saying I think they will be a massive thing but a lot more people are using audio docks with their devices than external USB audio DACs!

        • andy_o

          I don't think this USB implementation is gonna provide charging either. The Android device will act as the USB host, I'm not 100% sure but I don't think a host can receive charging current. iOS devices cannotbe charged when doing this particular use, for example. But with iOS there's the "made for iPod" accesories which use a proprietary connection for this which works best for this.

          • Tze Kian

            If you want to listen to music and charging, you should check out the Android AOA 2.0. AOA 2.0 design to support USB audio and some custom communication between android phone and connected car audio. For AOA 2.0, Android phone don't need to switch to USB Host.

            https://source.android.com/accessories/audio.html

  • RamitSuri

    Does this also bring the capability to control music on phone via car music controls when phone's connected via USB to the car ? IPhone does this and this is the only thing that would make sense to people like me who are not creating music.

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

      I don't believe so. Apple devices connect to vehicles with a proprietary communication scheme, the only way an Android device can connect to a car via USB is for mass storage. It can't actually control anything, and the car can't control it other than basic file operations.

      • RamitSuri

        No it isn't the proprietary scheme. I've seen the most basic of in car music systems in India, able to control iPhone's music. So I'm pretty sure it's something the iPhone has rather than the music systems.

        • Tarun Pemmaraju

          As far as I know, it is a proprietary Apple technology, the same one used in old iPod docks and such. I think it has just become extremely prevalent and widely supported.

      • Joris Griffioen

        Not mass storage, MTP.

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

          Yeah, that.

  • Nick Stringer

    So how does this differ from the USB connection which was on the G1? Apart from being micro rather than mini USB.

    Not being picky, just curious.

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

      I'm guessing HTC just built in USB audio as a feature in the G1.

    • slimdizzy

      That was analog audio over a usb cable (adapter needed for headphones or HTC proprietary ones). This is true usb audio like what you would see a pro DJ using his macbook/iphone/ipad for. digital signal from the same port.

  • Dead Mason

    Wasn't this built into 4.1? I might be wrong, but I remember some sites mentioning this as a feature of 4.1, and: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Android_version_history#Android_4.1_Jelly_Bean_.28API_level_16.29

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

      Yeah, it seems that was some kind of feature that required specific implementation from the accessory OEM, too, it didn't "just work" like standard USB audio should. This appears to be a more universal solution.

  • slimdizzy

    I hope DJ equipment companies get on board (NI, Pioneer, etc). Would boost that whole scene dramatically. Also live musicians will love this.

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

      There's nothing to get on board with - if it has a USB input, an OTG cable plus a device running L and it should just work. USB audio implementations only really vary on the front-end - the packaging is universally readable at 16-bit / 48KHz (higher bit depths and frequency require driver support generally).

      • Someone from the other side

        Not true. Tenor 1022 chipsets (which any self respecting USB DAC should use) work with all major USB stacks at 96/24 without any drivers.

  • erikiksaz

    Wonderful.

    I've been using a Fiio E18 on my Moto X for a couple months now and it's awesome, albeit with certain bugs. Sometimes with the DAC plugged in, I lose the ability to shut off my screen. It works about half of the time. The other half I rely on some gravitybox modded quick settings tiles to get the screen to shut off.

    Hopefully the internal OS support will kill all the bugs.

    • terminator1515

      If you want loud (triple the volume with no distortion) sound for your car(without buying expensive amplifiers or new speakers) or to use with ANY devices/systems; simply go to Radio Shack or any electronics/online store and buy an external amplifier for less than $20 and is the size of a lighter (2AA batteries). Always used this for all devices and works great! :)

  • BeardedcornBread

    I'm guessing no one noticed the Grado SR80 headphones in the pic...

  • Jaybuz

    I'm guessing this is used to transfer the audio to the car when using Android Auto.

    Sounds cool.

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

      Why would you think that? Android Auto is wireless.

      • Ryan Steddy

        I'm sure during I/O when they were demoing Auto in that fake car the man had to plug it in?

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

          Ugh, you're right:

          "For now, wired is the only option, but Product Manager Dylan Thomas said that the Android Auto team is in the process of evaluating wireless solutions."

          If it isn't wireless by the time this hits cars, just wow, I would not want a USB cable dangling out of my stereo or have to stick my phone in the glovebox every time I want to use Auto. That is 100% bad UX.

          • usamaisawake

            I do it now anyway to charge the device. I wouldn't want this to be wireless for a few reasons: plugging means my phone can charge, I get better quality audio (USB audio) and the interface on the screen should have less lag. Wireless compromises all 3 of those things.

          • Andrew Loiacono

            I agree completely, my device heats up enough from listening to music and navigation. Wireless transmitting to the head unit would only make matters worse. Some people even have wireless charging, which in my experience causes the battery to heat up more than standard charging.

            I'm not saying I wouldn't support the ability to make it wireless. However, I probably wouldn't use it.

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          • mobilemann

            i thought choice was a good thing?

          • NinoBr0wn

            I don't see what the problem is.

          • Brian Koppe

            I agree that wireless is ideal, but I suspect it's currently wired because of latency issues. They're being very careful about how interactions will work in the car, and any lag is an additional distraction. For what it's worth, I believe Apple's CarPlay is also wired, not that Google shouldn't aim to be better.

          • http://www.bordersweather.co.uk/ Andy J

            That USB cable as well as carrying the video, is also carrying data on the cars speed, GPS and array of microphones. Apparently the audio is via bluetooth. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vjntxXCUNA for the details direct from the designers.

          • http://turbofool.com Jarrett Lennon Kaufman

            Don't you already charge your phone through your car? This isn't particularly different, and kills two birds with one stone. Also, all the modern rental cars I've driven have their USB ports nowhere near the stereo. They're usually in the console, right around the cigarette lighter, where I'd be charging my phone from anyway.

          • hoosiercub88

            Yeah no.. Needs to be wired. Sorry.

    • Ambroos

      Nope. Android Auto uses MirrorLink if I'm not mistaken, which is a modified version of VNC over USB. This really is only for high-quality DACs. I doubt cars will have those.

      • Jaybuz

        Ah, you sound like you know what you're talking about. Have you got any links to the technical details?

        • Ambroos

          Unfortunately, no, it's an educated guess based on what I saw in the demos. The slight delay, the not-perfectly-smooth animations, ... All exactly how MirrorLink looks right now, and all typical for VNC.

          It's easy to implement on all phones (it's basically just an app that starts when MirrorLink is activated), it works well and is already supported on many cars which means it'll integrate easily in almost all car systems.

          Microsoft's rumoured Windows Phone Car solution uses the same principles, and many current Android phones already support MirrorLink anyway. Add a voice button and microphone channel leading back to the phone and you have Android Auto. It's that simple.

          Plus, it doesn't require any updates from the car side for changes. Everything just runs on the phone.

          • http://www.bordersweather.co.uk/ Andy J

            Demos are one thing - but did you actually see the IO session on designing apps for AndroidAuto which goes into great detail about how exactly it works, how they designed it and what challenges they encountered. It doesn't sound like it is "just MirrorLink" to me - there is A LOT of data travelling over that microusb cable for AndroidAuto.

      • Yar Nunya

        Some cars do, but I don't know about stock cars. When I put a decent sound system in my car this summer the stock cd player could not dial down the mids and it was heinous. This was solved with a mosconi 4to6 dsp inline between the stock cd player and the new amps.It is configurable via usb/laptop and you can do some pretty slick crap with it. This usb dac option should be amazing, 99% sure i'll be able to plug my m8 gpe directly into the dac via usb instead of the stock cd player via 3.5mm with resulting sonic glory with the ole' 128GB microsd full of flacs and tidalhifi.com.

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  • Joris Griffioen

    While this is a great development I don't expect any movement from the music gear industry.

    There are now a whole stack of guitar- and other effects on the market that have bluetooth/wifi/usb control. Please note: *control*, nothing to do with audio, and still none of them support Android. They can't even be arsed to pretend that they will develop it in the future.

    I hope they prove me wrong, but I've lost faith in that industry a long time ago.

    • Insomnium

      You are wrong. Lots of beginners and consumers would like to use their phones or tablets as a amp model/effect or even some quick on the road recording. There is a market for it on IOS and they do provide. There are people who do not have computers for this stuff and don't need one. And the only choice so far has been apple.

      I personally have better equipment, but would be intrested in getting some mobile on the go functionality from my android phone. I would never move to apple because of this as I don't really need it, but would be willing to spend some cash to get a half decent 1-2 channel interface and some mobile recording/editing/modeling/effect software.

      • Joris Griffioen

        You misunderstood my point. There is an enormous bias within the music industry towards iOS. Like I said there are a ton of music gadgets that don't have any special hardware/software requirements but somehow are all only compatible with Apple products.

        I'd love more connectivity in my gear. I'm just pessimistic when it comes to the music industry embracing new and open things.

  • Kurt Schultz

    Who cares! I just want to connect my damn phone to my f***ing vehicle!

    • usamaisawake

      It's coming. And with this feature the songs you listen to via your phone connected to your car will sound much cleaner and louder. USB Audio will be used in Android auto to deliver better audio quality.

  • ThomasMoneyhon

    Actually I believe this is incorrect. Over 2 years ago at I/O there was a company doing usb out audio as a dock speaker. Think it was a feature of either ICS or Jellybean

  • https://plus.google.com/108596272537415356460/posts Jason Farrell

    This is awesome news.

    If you buy an android device and its on-board DAC sucks, you can always plug in or dock with an external USB DAC, to "fix" the audio quality. The Galaxy S3 had an awesome DAC (Wolfson, iirc), but many other phones get crap.

    I've been using the tiny "Dragonfly" USB DAC for quite a while with my "noisy" PC, and it's a night and day difference (paired with good headphones) VS the motherboard chip (VIA iirc).

    Once 'L' drops I might have to look into switching from using microusb JUST for A/C charging + BT for audio, to some kind of usbhub/dock w/ audio, since I currently use my phone a lot while charging at my desk.

  • Austin Haggerty

    For all that need better audio quality with android phones, try using a custom kernel that supports an analogue headphone booster (like faux sound) and use viper 4 android.

    • Austin Haggerty

      Oh, and don't use beats, never use beats

    • .er.e

      I just want these important features to be native and to Android like with iOS. Why do I need rooting or doing difficult tricks as a user with my phone in order to have simple tasks like this?

  • http://www.alittlelost.co Sean Ashmore

    How about USB audio in? I.e. from a USB guitar. I see isochronous transfer is still not supported in the new 'L' SDK. Has anyone heard of any improvements in this area at all?

  • n_a_v

    does this mean that I can plug my phone into my car's usb port and play music through usb? this works with an ipod but Android only charges through usb.

    • sc4fpse

      This. This is relevant to my interests. I must know the answer to this.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      That's what I was hoping for big time with my G37, but no, didn't work. I'm guessing all that system in my car does is remote USB mount.

      • n_a_v

        dang...I've got a G25. The input in the center console works thumb drives and with my wife's ipod. i'm keeping my finger's crossed.

        • Yar Nunya

          It'll work with any FAT32 volume of relatively limited size. However, that will only work on older Androids. USB mass storage mode is what is in your car and mine and many others but was deprecated by Google in favor of the Media Transfer Protocol, aka MTP. It sucks.

  • IronBlood

    so this means that you can now use your own personal high-end microphones with a decent DAC to make actually good recordings?

  • Da Fuq

    Good thing Sony already has this feature!

  • fenda audio

    Sounds Great without usb support i can connect to the car...

  • dextersgenius

    Does anyone know if Android L supports using a DAC while charging simultaneously (using a Y-cable)?

  • Sir Perro

    There are several mistakes there in the article.

    A DAC doesn't "amplify" the sound or makes high impedance headphones work. A DAC converts a digital signal to an analog signal. An amplifyer makes an analog signal suitable for high impedance headphones/loudspeakers.

    DACs embedded on the mobile devices face huge thermal constraints. That's where an external DAC (powered by USB for instance) comes into play. Converting more faithfully/coloured way your digital stream to an analog stream.

    Let's say every DAC has a distinct "sound signature". It is important that sound signature (Or amount of background hiss!) doesn't cripple the output because you know, it's the first part of the chain, and all defects are carried over/amplified.

    There's nothing stopping you from connecting your phone directly to an amplifyer but probably there will be hiss, there will be inaccuracies, and there will be a lack of 96Khz/24bit conversion and that kind of stuff.

  • hoosiercub88

    So does this mean I'll be able to plug it into my USB port on my car and stream music through it like I can do with an iPhone/iPod/iPad? Because that's all I really want.

    • Insomnium

      No and maybe. This has really nothing to do with consumer listenning stuff, except for providing the ability to support some externald DACs/amps. And that is basically only needed if you have high/semi high impedance headphones. The ability to plug your phone to your car is all about if your car supports it. all that I wanna plug my phone to my car could have and has been done ages ago.

  • Insomnium

    Why are people talking about connecting to cars, when this update has really nothing to do about cars. It's about high end audio and audio production. (yeah games and toys too), but only place I could see this improving anything in a "car experience" would be that your nav could output you instructions a fraction of a second quicker.