In Depth: How the mobile phone destroyed the MP3 player

In Depth: How the mobile phone destroyed the MP3 player

It may seem hard to believe now, but in the dark ages of mobile playing music on a phone was unheard of. That is, unless you count rocking out with a low quality ringtone.

These days many people spend more time listening to music on their phones than actually, you know, making calls. The mobile phone, and even more so since becoming smart, has become the dominant portable music player on the planet, overtaking dedicated MP3 players a while ago.

It’s no surprise that this happened. Mr Yong-hyuk Na, Senior Researcher at LG Mobile Communications Future Products Laboratory told us: "As the functionality of smartphones has increased, so too has the demand to use their features on the go.

"In particular smartphones are popularly used for listening to music when out and about, avoiding the need to carry multiple devices. Therefore the quality of the audio provided by smartphones has never been more important to consumers."

The quality, popularity and importance of smartphone audio didn’t reach this point overnight. It was a gradual process that developed as phones became more advanced and music became more of a focus. Manufacturers and customers alike started to see the potential of phones as music players over the years, but there were five pivotal handsets that really made the difference.

Siemens SL45

MP3 players have been around since 1997, but mobile phones didn’t gain the ability to play music until the launch of the Siemens SL45 in 2001.

It’s unlikely that Siemens quite realised what it had on its hands with the SL45, but it would pave the way for a new generation of phones that were media players as much as communication tools.

The four year gap between the launch of the standalone MP3 player and the first phone to feature real music playing capabilities was likely down to technical limitations.

For one thing, mobile phones tended to have small batteries which weren’t up to dealing with much more than a few hours of calls. The 540mAh battery in the Siemens SL45 didn’t particularly solve that problem, but it was capable of up to five hours of music playback, which made it just about viable as a player.

Siemens SL45

The other issue, and the one which the SL45 did address, was the fact that most phones had a negligible amount of built-in memory and so were utterly incapable of storing any music.

The Siemens SL45 solved that problem not by upping the amount of onboard memory, but by being the first phone to include a MultiMediaCard slot, finally delivering a phone with a much needed storage boost.

Siemens even went one further by bundling a 32MB card with the phone. Of course that didn’t go far, only really allowing for a handful of songs, but that’s a handful more than any other phone could accommodate.

MP3 files were copied from a computer to the phone’s MultiMediaCard by plugging it in to your computer’s serial port, but that’s where the next problem came in: transfer rate was painfully slow.

In short the Siemens SL45 was horribly limited compared to dedicated MP3 players of the time, which featured hard drives of multiple gigabytes, longer battery lives and were less terrible to use.

Nevertheless as a proof of concept and a demonstration of what was possible the Siemens SL45 did well, showing consumers and other phone manufacturers that in theory a phone could double as an MP3 player.

Sony Ericsson W800i

In the years following the launch of the Siemens SL45, MP3 players on phones became increasingly common, but they still weren’t really seen as a replacement to dedicated music players as storage space was still a problem and the software tended to be clunky.

The dominance of the iPod didn’t help either, as by this point it had rendered other portable music players all but obsolete.

It was only with the release of the Sony Ericsson W800i in 2005 that phones really started to look like they might be able to compete in the music space. The W800i had several things going for it but arguably the single biggest key to its success was its Walkman branding.

Sony Ericsson W800i

After the iPod, Sony’s Walkman was probably the most recognisable MP3 player brand and the Sony Ericsson W800i was the first phone to carry that moniker, giving it a built in fan base.

The W800i had more than just strong branding though, it also had a button on the front with the sole purpose of launching the phone’s MP3 player, with another on the side for pausing or playing tracks. This put music front and centre and made it easy to access and control.

That’s a key feature as it kept things simple. Indeed as today’s phones get ever more complex, Luc Burson, senior sound designer at HTC, believes that usability and simplification are major areas of improvement needed for smartphone audio players: "The biggest opportunity for innovative ideas right now is usability – all parameters of usability."

"Some of us can remember when modular music systems were all there was in the home and how easy it was in terms of usability and simplicity. There is major opportunity in smartphone audio experience for simplification. Retaining current abilities and integrating new forms of A/V I/O is key, but simplicity is paramount as a front-end."

On top of proving user friendly, the W800i didn’t have the storage problems of earlier phones either as while it only had 34MB of onboard memory it also had a Memory Stick Pro Duo slot with support for sticks of up to 2GB. At 900mAh the battery was also a reasonable size, allowing for up to 30 hours of music playback.

Apple iPhone

By 2007 Apple’s iPod range had been the biggest force in portable music for some time and it was only with another Apple release, the iPhone, that this looked likely to change.

The original iPhone was a perfect storm of recognisable branding and iTunes support, allowing millions of iTunes users to play their music on their phones and even to download songs straight to their iPhones from iTunes. That in itself was a massive deal as iTunes was the first and last stop for digital music in many people’s minds.

iPhone

The iPhone also had a good audio chip (the Wolfson WM8758BG), which supported 3D audio effects and gave it superior sound quality to many earlier phones.

Yong-hyuk Na describes the audio chip as the "heart of the internal hardware that delivers sound to the user…responsible for managing, converting and handling various sound sources such as the speaker, mic and headphones", so it’s of vital importance, as without an audio chip, no matter how good the speakers or other audio hardware is it won’t function.

The quality of audio chips has levelled out some now, according to Yong-hyuk Na, who told us that "performance among major audio chipmakers has standardized to a point where differences in audio quality can’t be clearly distinguished, but can be realised through the optimized design and sound tuning capabilities of smartphone manufacturers."

So at this point placing too much importance on the chip itself would be wrong. But back in the days of the original iPhone it was a major factor.

Add to that support for gapless playback and a player layout which was a lot like the one on iPod’s, making it instantly recognisable and intuitive and it’s no surprise that the iPhone was such a hit with music fans.

HTC One

The iPhone and its successors ruled the roost for a long time and in many ways they still do. But they’re not the only phones making waves in music. The HTC One really put a focus on music too.

Most obviously it had dual front facing BoomSound speakers. Not only were they larger than most phone speakers, but they were on the front, allowing the sound waves to come towards you when holding the phone. It sounds obvious but no-one else is doing it and it makes a big difference as you can keep the phone face up and still get the full audio experience.

That’s especially important when watching something, but even when just listening it’s advantageous as most people tend to place their phones face up.

HTC One

With built in amplifiers allowing for loud stereo sound, and coupled with Beats Audio the HTC One delivered surprisingly meaty bass.

HTC has thought carefully about internal speakers and Burson told us that while headphones have been the portable speaker of choice for a decade or so "there could be a shift in the future as people rediscover the desire to experience music socially and in the ambient nature music is rooted in."

In other words there could be a change coming where, as phone speakers get better, people change the way they listen to music, with a phone’s internal speakers being used in preference to headphones.

The overall sound delivery on the HTC One was dubbed ‘BoomSound’. HTC enhanced both the high and low end of the audio spectrum, allowing the phone to render frequencies that other handsets were unable to and giving it impressive bass in the process.

Together with the powerful stereo speakers, this made it possible to listen to music on the HTC One without headphones and without sacrificing too much sound quality in the process.

Burson even went so far as to say that "internal phone speakers have the potential to become portable speakers themselves."

Yong-hyuk Na held a similar opinion, saying that "in the future phone speakers will be capable of replacing portable speakers."

Though he did follow this up by saying that "as with consumers who choose to purchase surround sound systems to enhance the high-quality audio provided by TVs, there may still be consumers who want to further boost the experience provided by smartphones by purchasing external speakers." So however good phone speakers get portable speakers are likely here to stay too.

LG G2

The LG G2 is arguably the current pinnacle of smartphone audio; while the HTC One aims to deliver room filling sounds through its built in speakers, the LG G2 is much better through headphones.

While most phones are happy to just work with what Android gives them, LG actually modified the sound architecture that Android uses, allowing the LG G2 to deliver hi-res 24 bit 192 kHz sound, which is a higher sampling rate and bit depth than any of its smartphone competition and higher even than CDs. That’s a big step, allowing the LG G2 to play truly high quality audio files.

Yong-hyuk Na believes that the greatest improvement needed in smartphone audio is "the delivery of the actual sound in analogue. Many consider CD sound at 16bit, 44.1kHz to be perfect, because it is the current standard in the music industry."

"However, CDs do not delicately reproduce the frequency of the original sound, resulting in inferior sound when delivered to users. 24/192 playback delivers more accurate and precise sound compared to CDs and provides profound sound quality" and that’s exactly what LG has achieved with the LG G2.

The LG G2 supports FLAC and WAV files for lossless audio, allowing users to listen to music in as close to analogue quality as possible. Additionally it uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor that according to Yong-hyuk Na strengthens the device’s sound and multimedia capabilities and "offers the best sound quality for mobile devices".

LG G2

In any case, the end result of what LG has achieved is hi-fi quality audio. There are still limitations, as right now the sound quality only reaches these levels when using LG’s stock player to listen to lossless files and only then when listening through something plugged into the line out on the phone.

Using any other player or using the LG G2’s speakers or any USB or Bluetooth device will cause the audio to become down-sampled.

With that in mind there’s still work to be done, but the LG G2 brings smartphone audio quality up to previously unknown levels, making it more viable than ever for audiophiles to use a phone as a portable music player.

Along with the recently launched HTC One it also demonstrates a concerted effort from smartphone makers to make the audio experience on their phones as good as possible.

Music to our ears

With the increasing storage capacity of phones along with the move to cloud storage and music streaming it’s now perfectly possible to have thousands or even millions of songs at your fingertips and Berson is confident that the storage problem is soon going to be a distant memory, saying that "space is becoming cheaper and more efficient, and bandwidth higher and ubiquitous. Though enabling people to have secure and smooth access on the smart device is our job, I think the overall storage problem is solving itself."

LG G2 in hand

When you consider that music download stores and streaming services are now built right into phones it’s no wonder that so many people have ditched their MP3 players. Especially given the phenomenal popularity of digital music, with 239,000,000 songs downloaded legally in the UK between January and June of 2012 according to BPI.

Factor in the wealth of apps available to smartphones, giving users additional player choices and extra features such as equalisers and it becomes even clearer that mobiles really are a force to be reckoned with in the world of portable music.

Actually picking the phone with the best audio capabilities can be easier said than done, as everything from audio chip, to amplifier, drivers, enclosures, digital-to-analogue converter and more can play a part and it’s not always obvious how one thing will affect another, plus like music itself, what one person likes another might not.

Burson perhaps summed it up more adequately: "No spec sheet can really depict how an instrument and the sounds it emits will make you feel – you have to hold it and experience it."

  • You’ve read the history, so why not head back to the present with a rundown of the best phones on the planet?

    



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