First up in our Best of Android Mid-2020 series is the best smartphones for audio. While this might be our most-popular Best of Android series article in years past, we’ve reached a point where performance matters much less than features, as even the cheapest phones on the market are generally capable of providing you with great audio.
What makes a phone good at audio?
In our testing, we only came across a handful of phones from 2017 through 2020 that even had extremely slightly-audible errors in their audio output. Consequently, we’ve reached a point where features matter more than performance (in this category, anyway). Just as it was two years ago, audio quality on phones is largely where it needs to be to make you happy.
Because of this, it doesn’t really make much sense to crown a phone as the “best” for audio based on nothing but testing. Sure, you can use a chainsaw to cut butter — but sometimes the right tool for the job is something that’s actually made for the job. In that light, we used our test suite to first disqualify phones that had audible errors, then picked models with truly useful features to highlight. This year, we threw out any phones with:
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) over 0.1% (zero phones posted more than 0.01% THD)
- Dynamic range under 96.3dB
- Frequency response that deviates past +/- 0.5dB.
These criteria only disqualified three phones from 2020. That doesn’t help us to narrow the field much, so next we looked at features that would either make your life easier when listening to music, or technical capabilities that would give one phone an edge over the others.
What features make a phone better at audio than others?
After talking with the SoundGuys team, we came up with a list of factors to consider when choosing a smartphone for audio. The best phone for audio will have a good mix of the following:
- Front-facing speakers, as opposed to downward-firing speakers
- Bluetooth codecs should be exhaustive (at least aptX HD or LDAC)
- A chip that allows for dual-device transmission
- A physical headphone jack
- A system-level equalizer
- High-bitrate support
- Dolby Atmos or other 3D-audio processing
- An enhanced microphone array
Obviously, not many phones will have everything on this list, so some of our highlighted phones won’t be perfect here. Out of the phones launched in the first half of 2020, there are few standouts on features. However, the best phone for features isn’t available yet, and as such hasn’t been included in this round of Best of Android (sorry, Sony fans).
The LG V60 is the best phone for audio in 2020
To the surprise of almost no smartphone fan… ever, the LG V60 ThinQ is the best phone for audio released in 2020 so far. Not only does it check off every box on the audiophile’s wishlist, but it performs as well as a smartphone needs to in order to be considered a standout in its field. While the digital audio player (DAP) market has slowly been gaining in popularity as the headphone jack disappears from the smartphone, if you have an LG V60 ThinQ: you don’t need one of these devices.
It seems like we keep repeating ourselves every year, but LG’s commitment to audio is one of those constants that persist. Despite even Samsung’s abandonment of the headphone jack, LG continues to throw a lot of resources and hardware behind their phones’ audio performance. That’s probably why most Android fans simply assume that the latest LG phone will be the best smartphone for audio — because it’s been true for the last several years in a row.
The 32-bit Quad DAC used by the LG V60 is excellent, even if it is ridiculous overkill. The internal amplifier also allows you to use more power-hungry high-performance headphones (up to 2.0Vrms output) without having to worry about common issues introduced by crappy smartphone signal chains. There are so many impressive capabilities afforded by the LG V60 ThinQ that this article can’t do it justice — so I’ll let Joe Hindy do it for me.
As far as other features go, really the only thing missing on the V60 ThinQ is the front-facing speaker design. It’s a bummer, but it’s easy to figure that most buyers of the LG V60 ThinQ aren’t going to be listening to music through the speakers very often. Additionally, our audience places a higher premium on the headphone jack, so we felt comfortable in giving the V60 ThinQ a pass here, even if it isn’t the platonic ideal of smartphone audio. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be the best, after all.
Other phones that are great at audio
The LG V60 ThinQ is a tough act to follow when it comes to the best smartphones at audio, so the remaining handsets represent the “best of what’s left.” That’s not to say that they’re in any way bad, merely that they don’t offer as much as the V60 ThinQ.
If you want to save money, grab the Poco F2 Pro
For a cheaper phone, the Xiaomi Poco F2 Pro has a lot of good going for it: namely, the fact that it has a headphone jack, a Qualcomm chip that supports the best tech available to support true wireless earphones, and a 24-bit/196kHz DAC unit that’s capable of decoding FLAC files. While it doesn’t have front-facing speakers, headphone aficionados will appreciate the Poco F2 Pro for its affordability, aptX HD/LDAC support, and surprisingly decent audio quality coming from the headphone jack.
Pay attention to features
While this is a small cross-section of features included, the following is a table of the really big ones. Of course, not all missing features will be a dealbreaker for everyone. If you have headphones that only use aptX HD for example, it’s not a huge deal if LDAC isn’t available. Similarly, if you don’t listen to music over your phone’s speakers, it’s probably not that big of a deal if your phone doesn’t have front-facing drivers.
|LDAC||aptX HD||Equalizer||High bit-rate support|
|Huawei P40 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Huawei P40 Pro Plus||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|LG V60 ThinQ||🗸||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Motorola Edge Plus||🗸|
|OnePlus 8 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Oppo Find X2 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Oppo Reno 3 Pro||🗸||🗸|
|Poco F2 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Realme 6 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Realme X3 Superzoom||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Redmi Note 9 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy A51||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy S20||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Samsung Galaxy Z Flip||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Sony Xperia 1 II||🗸||🗸||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|TCL 10 Pro||🗸||🗸||🗸|
|Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro||🗸||🗸|
|ZTE Axon 11 5G||🗸||🗸||🗸||🗸|
Looking at this table, it’d be easy to conclude that the phone with the best features for audio would be the Sony Xperia 1 II, but since it isn’t available yet, it doesn’t meet our criteria for “best phones of H1 2020.” But it underscores the point that what’s best can change quickly. If you’re a content creator or someone that absolutely needs the most decked-out phone for audio possible, you may want to wait for the Sony Xperia 1 II. If you just want to listen to music, however, there’s never been a better time to get a smartphone.
That’s it for the Audio installment of Best of Android Mid-2020. Come back tomorrow for the Display awards and check our announcement post to get the big picture.