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For a fleeting moment, phone calls were magic again

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I finally heard HD voice in the wild, and it kind of blew my mind

I stepped off the packed plane at Detroit Metropolitan Airport shortly after midnight on Monday, a victim of delays in Newark precipitated by the holiday rush. I was tired. Traveling is always a hassle, doubly so when the entirety of New York City’s not-from-here population is trying to vacate the region in the span of just a few days.

Eager to crawl into a bed, I immediately called my dad, who’d been orbiting the airport for some time awaiting my arrival. Something strange and unexpected happened: his voice was not the usual muffled, analog-to-digital-to-analog facsimile that’s expected of a traditional phone call. It was crystal clear. At risk of sounding cliché, it was as if he was standing right next to me. I could easily make out the song that was playing on his car’s radio in the background.

It was so good, in fact, that I was momentarily distracted by it. Distracted by innovation in a phone call? Goodness, this is 2014. Be still my beating heart.

People sound real, they sound close

I’d stop short of calling it revelatory, but this level of voice quality — the kind of quality I’d expect from a Skype or FaceTime call — adds a dimension to the experience that’s hard to overlook. People are easier to understand, and perhaps more importantly, they sound real. They sound close. They sound human. You stop feeling like you’re talking to robot approximations of people. I think it has the power to change the kinds of conversations we have, and how we have them.

The decline of the phone call is a nuanced subject; there are many cultural and technological phenomena credited for it, not the least of which is the modern dominance of the text message. But I don’t think it would take many HD voice calls for most people to start strongly preferring them to traditional ones. Critically, it might occasionally prompt you to dial an acquaintance, business or personal, rather than sending an instant message or an email. It’s not going to reverse the trend, of course — I’m still going to send a text nine times out of ten, as members of my generation are wont to do — but it’s going to make that tenth time a tangibly different experience.

Clearly, none of this is brand new. Services like Skype have offered better-than-phone voice quality for many years, but the turnkey nature of regular phones (and phone numbers) makes them both ubiquitous and practically unkillable. As for HD voice, American cellular carriers have been rolling out various forms of it for some time, but it doesn’t work unless both parties are using the same carrier and appropriately equipped phones connected to cell towers that support the technology. That’s a lot of preconditions. AT&T, my carrier, hasn’t launched it in New York City yet — so even though I’m using a compatible device (the iPhone 6 Plus), I had never experienced it outside of a kiosk at a trade show.

So go ahead, call your family a little more often. Your mother wants to hear from you.