We're now able to round this musical journey off with a cadence that -- we hope -- does justice to all the handsets we've tried. The main conclusion is quite straightforward: tests one, two and three all deliberately gave preferential treatment to the loudest phones with the least distortion, which resulted in a unanimous victory for the iPhone 4S. By extension, some of that glory also belongs to the iPhone 4, which as far as we can tell possesses virtually identical audio circuitry.
The iPhone 5, meanwhile, joins the ranks of smartphones which generally sound great but which aren't especially well-suited to those audiophiles who want to stick with high-impedance headphones. In terms of pure audio quality, it was above average in the subjective tests and probably deserves to tie in second place with the global HTC One X, which has its own peculiar but attractive sound.
We need to ask Apple why it has now joined in with other manufacturers in limiting the volume on its newest handset. It's possible that there are very good reasons, such as avoiding the risk of hearing damage. Or perhaps restricting the headphone amp is seen as a way of maximizing battery life. Either way, it's curious that some manufacturers seem to be moving in the exact opposite direction: for example, we're told the voltage has been bumped up on the headphone jack of the forthcoming HTC Windows Phone 8x specifically in order to cater for hefty headphones, which leaves us very keen to give that phone a listen.
As for the majority of smartphone users who prefer low-impedance or closed-back headphones that are designed for mobile devices, and that are better suited to an office environment or public transport, then the first three tests aren't especially relevant. The only test that really matters is the fourth one, which broadened the scope of comparison.
If you demand a flexible OS, then Android shines in that area. If you need a sensible price for at least 32GB, then a Galaxy S III and iPhone 4S stand out as the smartest options in the US, alongside the global HTC One X and PureView 808 in other lands (or on import). If battery life is all-important, pick the iPhone 5, Galaxy S III or AT&T HTC One X. But if you want a phone that really shines on all of those criteria, then we'd have to recommend the Samsung Galaxy S III. Although it didn't win us over to the same degree as the global One X in terms of subjective audio quality, it excels in every other respect: it's a great smartphone with the advantage of LTE in the States (missing on the iPhone 4S, for example), it can be heavily tweaked with apps and third-party mods, and it's every inch an audiophile device.
With a weird, confusing ending...
Edited by sulkoudai - 10/2/12 at 9:36am