First Click: The bliss of 'good enough' audio
August 17th, 201612
Does LG’s promise of “Quad DAC” audio in its new V20 smartphone get you all fluttery in your tummy? I’ll play the odds and guess no, because like me you’re a fairly mainstream consumer. Still, there’s an enthusiastic niche of ear-havers that’s very interested in DACs, and amplifiers, and the audio formats that underpin their listening experience. And honestly, I feel truly sorry for anyone cursed with hearing so refined as to crave audio produced by equipment that can cost degrees of magnitude over anything available at Best Buy. It's a cruel joke played by the audio gods intent on luring audiophiles to financial doom with their siren song. Blessed is thou, sayeth I, who can enjoy compressed MP3 audio streaming over an iffy cellular connection to their aptX-less Bluetooth earbuds. Audio ignorance truly is bliss.
The problem for LG is that the promise of better audio has never been enough on its own to create a mainstream hit. There was a time when fans of Creative Labs swore that the Zen MP3 player sounded better than the iPod due to the inclusion of a more powerful amp and better DAC (I could never hear the difference, personally). And we all know how that competition turned out. Likewise, have you ever seen a Pono in public? What about one of Sony’s high-resolution Walkmans? No, you haven’t and that’s my point. Granted, those are niche devices that were never meant to appeal to the mainstream consumer, but the V20, like all smartphones, is very much a mass-market offering. Modern smartphones already have DACs that, for the most part, fulfill the promise of “good enough” audio. So, will I really benefit from the V20’s four DACs? Will I notice the improved sound quality over the din of the city? Probably not.
Nevertheless, LG’s V20 takes aim at audiophiles as a means of differentiation, as did the "engineered for audiophiles" HTC 10, HTC One A9, and LG’s V20 predecessor, the V10. Competing in smartphones is hard. Just ask Nokia, Sony, Ericsson, Motorola, and Palm. There was a time in the late aughts when Google left plenty of room for companies to differentiate on top of its fledgling Android operating system. But the OS is now mature, having reached the ripe old age of Nougat on the alphabetical timeline of confectioneries. Competitors like Symbian and Windows Mobile are dead, MeeGo was stillborn, and webOS is… powering LG TVs. Great for consumers — not so great if your company isn't named Samsung or Apple, who reap most of the industry’s financial rewards.
The vast majority of the world’s phones are now based on Android. That’s led to a homogenization of specs like processor, GPU, and RAM across devices, especially on the high-end, leaving precious little room for companies like LG and HTC to differentiate. It’s the reason Samsung builds all-glass and metal devices with dual-curved screens, water resistance, and a stylus; and it’s the reason companies like LG and Lenovo have embraced modular designs. But with LG’s G5 looking like an also-ran compared to Samsung’s top-selling Galaxy S7 series, it’s no wonder LG has returned with a new flagship phone promoting something its arch-rival isn’t: high-end audio.
Unfortunately, the average person on the go simply doesn’t care that much about sound quality — especially if it requires spending more money. We don’t use our phones to stream compressed audio through white plastic earbuds because we’re after the ultimate listening experience. We do it because it’s the cheapest and most convenient way to listen to podcasts or music in noisy environments like the gym, the office, or on the bus during the morning commute. Look at all the oblivious teens who huddle around smartphone speakers. It’s this "good enough" situational appeal that causes so many DSLR owners to take most of their photos with smartphones. Sure, the DSLR will take better pictures, but can you really be bothered to lug it along everywhere? I can’t, and it’s the reason my bulky (but very impressive) over-the-ear Audeze headphones are usually at home next to my Nikon.
Upgrading to better headphones is the surest path to better audio. And as I wrote last week, you don’t have to break the bank to improve upon the headphone pack-ins bundled with your phone. But if you’re willing to pay a few hundred dollars, then by all means, consider dropping $300 on Vlad Savov’s favorite portable headphones, the Beoplay H6 from Bang & Olufsen. Then you’ll be ready to hear for yourself what difference, if any, a more powerful amp, a better DAC (or four of them!), and higher quality music sources might make. Just be sure your phone has enough storage if locally stored lossless audio files make a difference to your ears.
If the V20’s "Quad DAC" promise is meaningful to you then buy it. But for most people it’s little more than a checkbox feature that’s up against Samsung’s incredible hardware design and increasingly useful software tweaks (like the Note 7’s GIF capture tool) that everyone can enjoy. Still, it’s early days and knowing LG, the company will be drip-feeding us features until the V20 is revealed in full on September 6th. So let’s hope its new flagship has a better pitch than audiophile DACs. LG’s future as as smartphone maker could depend on it.
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