So I'm getting a new smartphone at the moment to replace the old Samsung Galaxy S, the first one. The number one things I'm looking for is sound quality trough the headphone output. I don't play games, I don't use the camera, I don't need superfast CPU, a lot of RAM or memory, all I wan't is a well made, easy to use smartphone that does all the basic features, but has excellent sound quality.
My Galaxy S has been doing pretty well, I've been using it for music every day for past 2 years, lately with my Sennheiser IE4 earbuds, which are quite good, slightly bass heavy, definitely not a flat frequency response, but fun, smooth and refined, and absolutely non-fatiguing, which is crucial when I travel for 3-4 hours and listen to music all the time pretty much.
The phones I compared were the iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, S4mini and Sony Xperia Z. I only had a brief listen to each of them, maybe 5-10 minutes each, in a relatively quiet environment, definitely earbuds blocked out all the noise so it didn't bother me at all. It was not a scientific test, I didn't compare phones side by side, volume matched, with same music, etc. I just used the music that was on the phone at the time and tried to decide which one sounds best to me. I'm not gonna go into a lot of detail here, I'm just going to briefly give my impressions, this is not a in-depth review. Also note that all EQ's and settings were turned off, just plain music playing.
iPhone 5 - I expected a lot from this, since it was the No.1 on my list of the "I wan't it now" phones. But I have to say, I was slightly surprised and maybe even disappointed. I don't think it sounded as good as the iPhone 4S I listened to last week which really did leave a good impression. Now of course, this was not a A-B comparison between the two, but I'm sure the 4S sounded warmer, more full and musical, or engaging, and it definitely has a more powerful headphone output. Also, imaging and sound separation was something that impressed me on the 4S, whereas it really didn't stand out on the 5. As for power, with the 4S most music was on a perfect volume at about 40%, on iPhone 5 I had to go up to 60% to be satisfied, but it has enough power to play way too loud, so its not an issue. But, iPhone 5 sounded somewhat dull. Not lacking clarity, just lacking dynamics and punch so to speak. Nothing popped out of the music. I guess you could call it neutral, but it was slightly boring to me. Not as good as I remember the iPhone 4S sounded, but still better than average. There was also no hissing or noise out of the headphone jack, which is not the case with my Galaxy S, which does have audible hiss when not playing music.
Also I absolutely love the rest of phone. The build quality really is stellar, its perfectly sized, not too small, not too big, fits the hand as it should. Screen is gorgeous, so clear and colors are beautiful. Its also to my judgement the fastest of the bunch when using it. It just seems that bit more fluid and responsive when going trough menus or options. I just like it. I never had an Apple product, but I totally see why so many people are die hard Apple fans, it does have so much appeal that it makes you forget about specs, and its all about user experience, and thats where it comes out as No.1, without a doubt. Yes, there is virtually no custumization, but who needs it when phone is perfectly customized out of the box and everything is exactly where you expect it to be.
Soundstage and imaging 7/10
Overall sense of sound quality, or resolution 8/10
Samsung Galaxy S4 and S4 mini - Boy do these suck when it comes to sound quality. Yes I said it. I was hugely disappointed by both of them, S4 Mini more than S4. Honestly, my Galaxy S sounds better, there is no other way to put it. Both have an overly warm sound, muddy, congested, virtually no imaging to speak of except for the strong left / right panning of the sounds. Poor soundstage depth as well. Wall of sound going trough the middle of your head type of soundstage. Bass was muddy and lacked extension, it was not very punchy, mids lacked transparency and were very congested, highs brittle and just weird, too digital sounding. Headphone output was silent, no hissing, but it had less volume compared to the iPhone 5. I could listen to S4 Mini on max. volume with no problems, while the S4 was loud enough, still not as loud as iPhone 5 though. As for the differences between S4 and S4 Mini, to me its irrelevant, because S4 was only slightly better, but still pretty bad, under average. So you're pretty much getting different flavours of bad with either of them. This is very disappointing to me since I expected the 4th gen Galaxy to be very superior to first gen in every way, and it is, except for the sound. Dealbreaker for me. Its the sort of sound I'd expect from a budget entry level smartphones, not a high end top of the line model.
Both are great phones though, S4 is ridiculously big for me, so I would never buy it, but S4 mini is perfectly sized and seems like well done device overall if sound quality is not crucial. Build quality on both is improved over my Galaxy S, but still both feel like toys directly compared to the iPhone. Home button feels loose a bit, volume button is also kinda cheap feeling.
Soundstage and imaging 3/10
Overall sense of sound quality, or resolution 4/10
Samsung Galaxy S3 - this was far better than S4. I don't know why this trend of degrading SQ with each new generation is at play at the moment, since S4 sounds worse than S3, and also iPhone 5 sounds worse than the 4. But anyway, S3 still has that typical Samsung warmth to the sound, but done well this time. Its not fatiguing, its smooth and warm, without being muddy or congested. Volume is also stronger than on the S4, as well as imaging and soundstage. However, its still not as good as the iPhone 5. It comes close and its quite similar in sound signature, but its lacking that last bit of refinement and clarity. It also doesn't outclass the Galaxy S, its only slightly better. The rest of the phone is fine. To be honest, I don't feel much difference between it and the S4. Slightly different, but same thing pretty much, I would not upgrade from S3 to S4 in other words. It has an excellent screen, its quick, responsive, but overall too big for me, a phone that doesn't fit into each pocket is a bit no-no for me.
Build quality is the same as on the S4, high quality plastic, but ultimately lacks the tactile quality and the feeling of solidity you get from the iPhone. Overall, its sort of a rudimentary phone on the market at the moment. S4 is only more expensive, so I don't see a reason any average person would go for the S3 instead, but again, I would not bother upgrading from S3 to S4.
Soundstage and imaging 5/10
Overall sense of sound quality, or resolution 6/10
Sony Xperia Z- I saved for the last. I expected it to suck, because I've read on head-fi it had a poor DAC inside and it doesn't sound good. Well...I was VERY impressed. It was hands down the best sounding device here, no question about it. It has an extremelly punchy sound. A lot of authority, it seemed to have really grabbed the earbuds by the balls and swing them around. Its neutral, with a sense of clarity others just didn't have. The soundstage was also the biggest of the bunch, no doubt. This is all with all the settings turned off, remember. Now, there are two major settings you can play with. Thats clearaudio+ and the clearbass+. Both settings are very effective and done right. With clearaudio enabled, it does exactly that. It makes the sound more clear, but NOT by making it brighter. The effect it actually has is it increases the soundstage, separates the sounds better, and that way you hear them more clearly. Its hard to explain in words...but it just works. I dont know exactly what the setting does, but it made the Arne Domnerus Jazz at the pawnshop sound more alive.
As far as the clearbass goes....damn this thing is a must-have for all modern music. The way this thing boosts bass without touching the rest of the frequencies is mind blowing. Its SOO punchy and digs deep. When I started listening to some electronic music my legs almost started to move, it felt a rush trough my body, thats how exciting the sound is. I don't get this with Beyerdnamic T1's in a desktop setup. This sound Xperia Z produces is not neutral, it can be if use turn off all the settings, but once you try them, you wont turn them off, guaranteed. It does exactly what Sony tells in their marketing, it allows you to listen to music in "soulshaking clarity". And as sceptical I was, I have to agree. It really did blow the other 4 phones away in...every way. It has this great clairity, this live quality about music. Its so dynamic, punchy, exciting, without being bright.
As for the power, it had plenty, the volume was a bit higher than on the iPhone 5 when both were on 50%. But sound was so good that the Xperia Z, which was before I tried it the last phone on my list, now jumped onto the first position. I will also test it again with some other headphones, full sized ones. Probably the AKG K550 or DT770pro 80's, just to see how they handle the full sized headphones. But considering these both work fine out of the Galaxy S, and all phones here had much more power and volume with IE4's, I assume they will have more power for the full sized headphones as well.
So... a bit more about the Xperia Z. The screen is just...WOW. Its literally like taking a FullHD TV, and compressing it down to the size of a smartphone. Just gorgeous, the resolution is so high its hard to believe anything can get better. There is absolutely not a hint of any pixelation or grain to the picture. The ONLY drawback is the viewing angle. Other phones here don't change the character of the picture when you look at the screen from the sides. Picture gets darker of course, but colors dont change. On Xperia Z they do. When you look at it from up or down, when you bring the top of the screen further or closer to your eyes, the color changes a bit. Colors become a bit grey-ish and blacks get brighter. Sort of like on a laptop screen. Its not a big deal, because whenever you use the phone, you look straight at it, not from an angle, but if you have OCD and you're very particular about that, you wont like it. Its not a big deal, its not very noticeable, most people wont notice it, and to be honest, I knew about the issue before I tried the phone, I've read the reviews, so I specifically tried it out on my own, and I did find it a bit disappointing, but again, its a minor issue considering how mindblowingly beautiful the screen is when you look at it directly or from a small angle.
Build quality is also stellar on the Xperia. It might even be as good as the iPhone. Its definitely more durable with the rubberized edges, rather than having glass edges like iPhone. Still doesn't feel as premium as the iPhone, but its close enough to be a question of personal preference, rather than absolute build quality. One more issue I have is the phone is too big. It just is. But in this case, considering the sound and picture quality, I think its worth it. Also, you can watch fullHD movies underwater...so...
Soundstage and imaging 9/10
Overall sense of sound quality, or resolution 10/10
Xperia Z had me so impressed that I'm thinking of taking the T1's with me as well next time. Just to see what happens.
Oh, and also, if you've tried these phones, please vote for your favorite in the poll.