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. Plus, that market is already dead as a doornail. 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 updated August 7, 2020 to add more information about newer releases and minor updates to existing phone series.
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. If you bought a phone in the last 5 years, chances are near 100% that it’s more than fine enough for you unless it lacks a feature you want. 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 test this almost daily.
|Headphone Jack?||Frequency response||Dynamic Range||Total Harmonic Distortion||Noise floor||Speaker volume|
|Apple iPhone XS Max||No||+0.1 / -0 dB||98.9dBA||0.0023%||-99.5dBA||76dB|
|Asus Zenfone 6||Yes||+0.05 / -0.17 dB||83.2dBA||0.001%||-83dBA||82.2dB|
|Google Pixel 3||No||+0.1/ -0 dB||99.3dBA||0.0026%||-99.7dBA||75.5dB|
|Google Pixel 3a XL||Yes||+0 / -0.34 dB||99.8dBA||0.0023%||-99.8dBA||74.4dB|
|Google Pixel 3 XL||No||+0.1 / -0 dB||99.2dBA||0.0026%||-99.7dBA||76.8dB|
|Google Pixel 4||No||0 / -0.1 dB||102.2dBA||0.001%||-102.2dBA||84.2dB|
|Google Pixel 4XL||No||0 / -0.11 dB||103.6dBA||0.0013%||-103.6dBA||84.2dB|
|LG G8 ThinQ||Yes||+0.01 / -0.06 dB||98.6dBA||0.0019%||-98.6dBA||82.1dB|
|LG G8X||Yes||+0.04 / -0.12 dB||99dBA||0.0016%||-99dBA||88.5dB|
|LG V60||Yes||+0.03 / -0.11 dB||100.1dBA||0.00173%||-100.1dBA||87.9dB|
|OnePlus 6T||No||+0 / -0.1 dB||97.7dBA||0.001%||-97.6dBA||72.9dB|
|OnePlus 7 Pro||No||+0 / -0.1 dB||97.7dBA||0.0009%||-97.7dBA||72.9dB|
|Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus||Yes||+0.01 / -0.06 dB||96.9dBA||0.0015%||-96.9dBA||76.5dB|
|Samsung Galaxy S10e||Yes||+0 / -0.39 dB||96.6dBA||0.0025%||-96.6dBA||76.5dB|
|Sony Xperia 1 II||Yes||+0.26 / -0.17 dB||100.4dBA||0.0024%||-100.4dBA||77.3dB|
|Sony Xperia 1||No||+0.01 / -0.06 dB||100dBA||0.013%||-100dBA||89.3dB|
|Xiaomi Mi Mix 3||No||+0 / -0.1 dB||101.4dBA||0.0012%||-101.3dBA||73.8dB|
|ZTE Axon 10 Pro||Yes||+0 / -0.1 dB||98.4dBA||0.003%||-101.3dBA||76.1dB|
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.
Our tests are overkill.
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 is 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 iPhones, Google Pixel devices) 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. 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.
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||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|LG V60 ThinQ||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Apple iPhone XS Max||✓||✓|
|Razer Phone 2||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Huawei Mate 20 Pro||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Sony Xperia XZ3||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Sony XPERIA 1 II||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
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.
The best smartphones for music are the LG V60, Sony XPERIA 1 II, and Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
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’s phones offer 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 S10 Plus offers about the same performance, but if music is your main concern: save yourself some money and get the S10 or S10e.
LG V60 ThinQ
The LG V60 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, almost 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. The V60 even supports 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: don’t. Get a damned Bluetooth speaker. Second, the LG lineup all have a decent downfiring speakers. All of LG’s 2019 and 2020 phones also have 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 V60 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.
Sony XPERIA 1 II
Unfortunately, the V60 oddly doesn’t have forward-facing speakers, so if you care about sharing video with your nearby friends: the Sony XPERIA 1 II is the mobile for you.
Sony may not be a smartphone manufacturer that competes with the likes of Google or Apple for unit sales, but they do go out of their way to make a statement with hardware. Releasing an absolute monster of a phone for content creators, enthusiasts, and those with deep pockets, the Sony XPERIA 1 II is probably the only real competitor the LG V60 has for the crown of “best phone for audio,” given its front-facing speakers, native LDAC support, and excellent audio output.
This phone comes equipped with a headphone jack, unlike some of the other options on this list. But that’s really the top of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the Sony XPERIA 1 II is also very expensive, coming in at an eye-watering $1,200USD in most markets.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
As far as killer features go, the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus has a lot going for it. Not only does it offer all of the features provided by other phones (outside of the high-impedance auto-adjust and quad-DAC), but it has a really clean output and decent speakers. On top of that, being able to support just about all the Bluetooth codecs out there well is an A+ in our book.
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 V60. 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 V60’s ability to drive more power-hungry headphones, this handset would take the top spot.
The rest of the specs on the Galaxy S10 Plus are fairly standard, and the performance is rock solid. We aren’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), and the Dolby Atmos support is tops for wired headphones. The auto-upscaling feature is of dubious merit but is a very cool thing to have in your back pocket.
But what about the Samsung Galaxy S20 series?
Unfortunately, Samsung has pulled an Apple, and no longer offers the headphone jack on its new smartphones. That may have something to do with their ownership of Harman International (Harman, JBL, and AKG), the #2 producer of Bluetooth headphones and #1 producer of Bluetooth speakers. While I’m not a fan of the move, it’s just where the market is heading whether it’s a good decision for consumers or not.
However, with recent changes to the market (including a massive contraction of disposable income), it’s unclear if this will stay the case. But we’re locked in for no headphone jack from Samsung for at least a year, if not more.
Apple fan? Get the iPhone SE
I’m just going to come out and say it: Apple is bad for the audio market. Even worse now that their phones do not ship with a dongle any longer. Not only is their Bluetooth limited to AAC, 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 SE
However, the iPhone SE is a special phone that is a credible contender for the value phone crown. So as much as it pains me to praise it: this is the phone to get if you don’t need a headphone jack, but do need to save some coin. There are some notable advantages, too—like Apple’s H1 chip allowing for much more stable connections with other Apple peripherals and Beats headphones. Additionally, if you want to get into the world of AirPods or AirPods Pro: this is the phone to get.
Because of its $399USD price point, that puts the phone in close contention with the Google Pixel 4a. Of course: the “not having a headphone jack” thing is a tough hurdle to overcome, but the top-end processor, great display, and Apple ecosystem access is a great set of features to gain access to at a (relatively) low price.
We still aren’t fans of how Apple treats the audio industry, however.
On a budget? Try the Google Pixel 4a
While the Pixel 4 is, unfortunately, missing a headphone jack, Google surprisingly resurrected on the budget phone for… reasons. Still, whatever their explanation—we’re glad that it’s back, because having a headphone jack is a huge leg up if you want to make this list. As convenient as Bluetooth is, it just isn’t up to snuff yet when compared to wired audio. And since this is a best audio smartphone list, a headphone jack put you ahead of a lot of the competition by default. Sure, you miss the dual-front firing speakers on this model, but the ones here still hold up pretty well.
Google Pixel 4a
To get the price of the Pixel 4a down, Google had to cut a few corners—so you won’t be getting the latest and greatest specs and features. It’s rocking a slightly older Snapdragon 670 and the phone is made of plastic instead of glass like its more expensive sibling. This means that you’re missing out on wireless charging and it’s also lacking a waterproof certification so if those are must-have features then this phone might not be for you. For the price, the Google Pixel 4a is almost impossible to beat.
While the Google Pixel 4 is by no means a bad phone, not having a headphone jack means it can’t really do well on this list because it’s missing the most-used connection type out there. So yeah, the Pixel 4a is a better phone for audio applications, even if the speakers of the Pixel 4 are technically better.
How we test 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 Room EQ Wizard, 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 it 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, because no streaming service can do that currently.
Speaker testing is fairly rudimentary, because any measurements we would normally give you would not apply to your normal usage, simply because their sizes and configurations lend themselves to interference from:
- air temperature differences
- outside noises (auditory masking)
- holding the phone in your hand
- nearby objects reflecting sound
- phone speaker features requiring a cavity to perform as intended
- phone speakers not adhering to any sensible standards and firing in different directions
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.
If you can wait on getting a new phone, always wait
Even though the release schedules are going to start slowing down now that the market is absolutely oversaturated with smartphones, a good rule to follow is only buy a phone if you absolutely need it. I say that, because these things are getting refreshed every 6-12 months, and sales happen often when new releases come out. Obviously, not all new releases are good for audio, but unless there’s some major feature you’re pining for, most smartphones will be pretty good anyway.
Also, never ever buy a phone at release if it’s close to Black Friday or the holiday season, because even new releases go on sale for these events. There’s no sense in overpaying for something if you can have it for cheaper.
In the short term, many manufacturers like Samsung are finally shedding the headphone jack, so options are starting to dwindle if you care about high-quality audio. If you need a headphone jack, the Pixel a series is due for an upgrade sometime in May, though there’s no official confirmation of this. While Motorola, LG, and many of the brands in the Chinese market have headphone jacks, extremely few phones have even passable speakers.
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 10 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.