Now that the headphone jack is starting to get left behind, it can be tough to find what you want in a smartphone. If you already have headphones you like, how do you navigate the morass of Bluetooth codecs, headset support, and dongles? You could get USB-C headphones, but that’s a lot of money for little return. Most phones on the market are near-perfect when it comes to wired listening, but our best suggestion is to grab one of the phones below, as they’ll provide you the best future-proofing on the market, with some killer features to match.
So if all phones are near-perfect, why make this list? The truth of the matter is, this list exists for people who want to to actually know what they’re getting into when they buy their next handset. There are phones that aren’t all that great when it comes to audio, and there are others that have some strange foibles in this department that could be a dealbreaker for you. But you can’t know that until you either buy the device for a lot of money… or read this article for free.
Editor’s note: this list was updates December 26, 2018 to reflect changes in the smartphone market, adding and removing models.
The best smartphones for music are the LG V40, Razer Phone, and Samsung Galaxy Note 9
I know, I know, but before you harangue me, you should know that my other day job is Head of Testing at Android Authority. So as you can imagine, I’ve gotten my hands, multimeter, and benchmarking suite on a boatload of phones that way.
Essentially, these three phones stand out in different ways, but we’re just going to be looking at the raw capabilities of each phone. On paper, the LG V40 offers an outstanding wired headphone experience, where the Razer Phone 2 reigns supreme with front-facing speakers and top-of-the-line Bluetooth. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 both offers about the same performance, but if music is your main concern: save yourself some money and get the S9 or S9+.
LG V40 ThinQ
The LG V40 is currently the best phone out there to listen with wired headphones, as its high amp output modes and quad DAC can drive even high-end headphones fairly easily. Its noise floor is somewhere around -100dB and its measured total harmonic distortion (THD) is extremely low under 0.001%. While many of these results are far beyond the limits of human perception, even minuscule errors can come to light under certain conditions. That’s why it’s always better to err on the side of better test results.
Better still, the phone can output a much stronger signal than other phones on the market, even running afoul of some esoteric EU regulations on phone output. While this is only a big deal for audiophiles with high-impedance headphones, it’s still good to know that your companion for the next two years can handle anything you throw at it. Really, the only way the LG G7 falls short is that it doesn’t support Sony’s LDAC. But unless you own a set of high-end wireless Sony headphones, this isn’t a problem. Most premium wireless headphones nowadays support aptX and aptX HD—competing higher-fidelity codecs. You’re highly unlikely to hear the iconic Bluetooth hiss, and you’re definitely not going to notice much—if any—degradation of audio quality.
If you like to use your phone as a portable boombox, first: get a damn Bluetooth speaker. Second, the LG G7, LG V35 and LG V40 all have a decent downfiring one. Not only is the speaker decent, but it also has a “boombox” mode, allowing you to place your phone on an item with an open cavity (think: acoustic guitar, cup) and use it as a pseudo-amplifier. It’s pretty neat if you don’t want to carry extra accessories around with you, but it won’t replace a better speaker.
Of the available phones here, the microphone of the LG V40 is the best, sporting a complicated setup with redundancies and the ability to record 24-bit/192kHz audio files and 24-bit, 48kHz output for video (taken from the LG V30). While that’s definitely overkill, having that much extra data allows you to tweak the audio in post-production if you so choose. However, in some modes you’ll wind up recording only mono, so keep that in mind.
Razer Phone 2
Unfortunately, the V40 oddly doesn’t have forward-facing speakers, so if you care about sharing video with your nearby friends: the Razer Phone 2 is the mobile for you.
Though it doesn’t have a headphone jack, the Razer Phone 2’s use of Android Pie has given it all of the Bluetooth features of the Google Pixel 2. As it has much better speakers, and Dolby Atmos support through its dongle, this phone edges out the Pixel 3 and takes a spot on the best five handsets.
Razer may not be a household name when it comes to smartphones quite yet, they do go out of their way to make a statement with audio. Though it doesn’t have a speedy update schedule like the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Razer’s handset does have the latest and greatest when it comes to wireless listening. Only a new codec or transfer standard will change that, so subsequent updates to either the Pixel 3 or Razer phone will be unlikely to change much.
While the wired performance is merely “really good,” dongle-haters will still find the accessory frustrating. However, adding the Atmos support allows a simulated surround sound effect that’s only offered on the Galaxy S9+ otherwise. Given the price difference between the two, the Razer option has a higher value if you’re okay with the dongle. Unlike Apple’s ditching of the headphone jack, Razer at least offers a damned good tradeoff for going dongle-only for wired listening.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
As far as killer features go, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has a lot going for it. However, the best feature it has over all other phones is Dolby Atmos support through its headphone jack. We were able to give it a whirl at MWC this year, and it’s really cool to finally be able to enjoy a surround sound-like experience with over-ear headphones. Truth be told, I think most people would want that headphone jack back if this was out a bit sooner.
Though none of the shortcomings of the onboard DAC and amp are what we’d term “audible,” they’re definitely ever-so-slightly behind the LG V40. However, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t appreciate the headphone jack’s appearance on the phone, and the fact that it offers features to entice more users. If it weren’t for the LG V40’s ability to drive more power-hungry headphones, this handset would take the top spot.
The rest of the specs on the Galaxy Note 9 are fairly standard, and the performance is rock solid. Adam and Josh weren’t impressed by the speakers, but then again: we’re not impressed by any smartphone speakers out there. We do like the ability to tailor frequency response at a system level to filter out sounds you can’t hear (based on age). The auto-upscaling feature is of dubious merit, but is a very cool thing to have in your back pocket.
I’m just going to come out and say it: Apple is bad for the audio market.
Not only is their Bluetooth subpar, but their war against the 3.5mm jack has also led to the most foolish smartphone design memes of the day. It really irritates me that people look to them as some sort of market leader, when they really only fit the description if you’re looking at how much tax they dodge in the US.
Apple iPhone XS Max
I don’t want to recommend Apple’s iPhone for anything audio-related, but I’m forced to because not everyone will abandon their entry into Apple’s walled garden after investing so much into things like the Apple Watch, AirPods, or HomePod. There are some advantages, however, like Apple’s W1 chip allowing for much more stable connections with other Apple peripherals and Beats headphones. Unfortunately the advantages offered by such a chip are likely going to be left in the rear-view mirror once Qualcomm’s competitor gets off the ground.
Though it’s really not a great look, the iPhone XS Max has to be on this list simply because of Apple’s market share. It is not one of the best phones for audio, it is simply the best iPhone for audio.
On a budget? Try the Nokia 7.1
It seems like this spot is perpetually reserved for a Nokia phone, but HMD Global has been quietly making solid, affordable phones for a while now. Shelling out under $350 will get you a pretty reliable phone with a headphone jack—and decent performance.
While it’s not necessarily going to make you forget a flagship phone, the difference between this year’s bargain basement and last year’s flagships aren’t really as much as you think. In fact, phones have gotten so good so fast that it’s tough to find an objectively “bad” one anymore. While Android Authority was a little tepid on this model, the Nokia 7.1 is the absolute cheapest phone you can buy without some frustrating as hell tradeoff or another. For example, the Pocophone F1’s inability to stream video at a higher res than 540p.
How we tested phones
Using a dedicated interface, we used a 3.5mm to 2×1/4″ TRS connector Y-cable to measure the output of each phone. By using a piece of software called Audio RightMark, we’re able to measure things like dynamic range, distortion, noise, frequency response, and more. By logging these results, we can compare each phone against each other under the same test conditions with the same test files and the same equipment.
While you may think that this test is very involved: it really isn’t. There’s a lot of information you can glean from a simple 96kHz/24-bit test file, and in fact that’s all we used. We load the file onto the phones, play back, and record the results. We did not use a higher-bitrate/higher-sample rate file because the data would mislead you into thinking it’s necessary. It’s not. CD quality sound is “only” 44.1kHz/16-bit, and that’s more than sufficient to satisfy the perceptual limits of the vast majority of humans on Earth. Our tests are overkill.
Because we didn’t test the stupidly high-bitrate/high-sample rate files, there’s a certain limit on how well each unit could have performed. While there’s some debate as to what reviewers should be testing at, I personally go with roughly double the highest common settings that most people will use. In this case, something that would meet or exceed CD quality (44.1kHz/16-bit), because no streaming service can do that currently.
Speaker testing is fairly rudimentary, but without the availability of a truly anechoic chamber, we can only provide gross SPL of each unit at one meter. By playing a pink noise sample at full volume, we can measure this with an electret microphone pointed directly at the phone. The front-facing units on the whole perform better than those on the bottom of the phone, given the sound is actually directed at the user. But trust me when I tell you, virtually all speakers tested suck out loud. You do not want them to be your primary, secondary, or even tertiary means of music consumption.
Obviously, the existence of extra features and other concerns like Bluetooth have to factor into our decisions, and we did that as well. However, these are generally present on the flagship phones and few others. While our testing pool was artificially limited, companies have to shell out big bucks for licensing Bluetooth profiles and codecs. It ends up being generally true that the less expensive smartphones will also only cover a few codecs, where the flagships will cover nearly all of them.
What you should know
While objectively collected data is all well and good, it doesn’t exactly tell you everything you need to know about a phone’s performance. Now that digital media’s performance has started to sail beyond the limits of human perception, test results matter less and less—while features matter more and more. Very few (if any) phones will sound much worse than another with popular streaming services. And yes, I’ve tested this.
|Frequency response||Dynamic Range||Total Harmonic Distortion||Noise floor||Speaker volume|
|LG V40||+0.04 / -0.16 dB||101.6dBA||0.001%||-98.6dBA||82.1dB|
|LG G7 ThinQ||+0 / -0.1 dB||100dBA||0.001%||-99.9dBA||78.9dB|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+||+0.02 / -0.11 dB||98.5dBA||0.0022%||-100.5dBA||80.4dB|
|Apple iPhone XS Max||+0.1 / -0 dB||98.9dBA||0.0023%||-99.5dBA||76dB|
|OnePlus 6T||+0 / -0.1 dB||97.7dBA||0.001%||-97.6dBA||72.9dB|
|Google Pixel 3||+0.1/ -0 dB||99.3dBA||0.0026%||-99.7dBA||75.5dB|
|Google Pixel 3 XL||+0.1 / -0 dB||99.2dBA||0.0026%||-99.7dBA||76.8dB|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 9||+0 / -0.1 dB||100.1||0.0013%||100.1dBA||75.5dB|
When it comes to wired listening: the lower distortion and noise are, the better the result. Similarly, the lower the deviation found in testing frequency response is, the less your audio will be altered. While some people like to artfully tune their music, any component that isn’t the headphones or the software playing back the music shouldn’t affect the signal at all. Only deviations + / – 3dB will be noticeable at all.
Few phones have issues here, but it’s not unheard of for a modern phone to have some weird issues here (*cough* the original Pixel *cough*). The frequency response test is more pass/fail than anything.
It’s going to sound trite, but every single one of the phones listed here are all what we’d categorize as near “perceptually perfect,” given their performance meets or exceeds what your average human can hear. However, they’re not actually perfect, and users with more power-hungry headphones may run into issues.
In our testing, we noticed that the phones with dongles (Apple iPhone, Google Pixel 3) refused to output sound at the specified sample rate. Why this happened we have no idea, but we were able to reproduce our results almost exactly between several different copies of each device with three testers (Adam, Nirave, and me). The upshot is that these phones should have an easier time dispelling IM distortion, the tradeoff is that it technically isn’t performing as well.
While you shouldn’t really be able to tell when you stream music, ultra-hardcore wired-listening-only audiophiles might not be satisfied with this. It’s just as well, because that crowd should avoid dongles if they’re using power-hungry headphones anyway.
I’m a man who shows his work, so listen to the above file. If you can’t hear it, or don’t like the sound—this cutoff shown by both the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 won’t be noticeable to you at all. That filter isn’t such a big deal, is it?
Those who want to use Bluetooth audio will have to make sure that their phones and headphones speak the same language, or codec. If they don’t, then it’s highly likely you won’t be able to enjoy your music as well as you could. All phones are not created equal with Bluetooth support, and it’s worth knowing what codecs you can use on your mobile.
|Google Pixel 3||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Apple iPhone XS Max||✓||✓|
|Razer Phone 2||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Huawei Mate 20 Pro||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Sony Xperia XZ3||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
However, software updates can change the checkmarks on this list, so prepare for it to change over time. Many of these phones will end up supporting aptX and LDAC through updates to Android over time, while Apple’s support remains beholden to a tough-to-predict update schedule.
Why you should trust Chris
Chris is the Executive Editor of SoundGuys, and the Head of Testing at Android Authority. When it comes to collecting objective data, many companies have employed his services as a laboratory daemon to test all sorts of things. With a background in research methods and journalism, he’s a very unique blend of technologically-qualified and integrity-obsessed curmudgeon. Consequently, his full-time job has been analyzing consumer electronics for over 7 years now, and he continues his quest for data-driven analysis and reporting in the tech sphere.
With a background in research methods and journalism, he's a very unique blend of technologically-qualified and integrity-obsessed curmudgeon.
In his time in the industry, he’s had to research his covered fields (displays, audio, imaging) to the point where he’s considered an expert in the field. If he’s saying something about the best products, it wasn’t an off-the-cuff statement or decision. There’s no way it took him less than 10 hours to arrive at that conclusion.
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