Getting better audio with your Android phone

You’re an audiophile! You just spent big bucks on that expensive pair of headphones, jammed it into your phone’s headphone jack, and kicked back to listen to some high-quality jams. That’s great, but if you think that you’re getting high-quality audio from your Android phone, your parade is about to get a little rainy. The fact of the matter is that Android actually limits the audio quality that you hear, no matter what hardware you use.

This is something that not many people know, and most folks don’t care. Many users are content with buying a cheap pair of earbuds and rocking out to some tunes over Bluetooth. But, there are people out there who want the most from their music. They shell out for the most expensive gear to ensure that they’re hearing the highest quality music.

Well, if you’re one of those people, and you use an Android device, let’s be honest, you’re most likely not hearing the best audio. Let’s talk about why that is and ways that you can increase the audio quality.

How is Android’s audio limited?

Just to be clear, if you’ve been enjoying the audio coming from your Android phone, then you’re probably alright. Most people across both iOS and Android aren’t looking for the best audio quality on the market. Many won’t be able to tell the difference between listening to an MP3 file over Bluetooth and listening to a FLAC file over a wired headset. Plainly put, the audio coming from Android phones is good enough.

But, if you’re an audiophile, you’ve definitely noticed the issue with Android’s audio. It has to do with the audio’s sample rate.

What is sample rate?

For the uninitiated, the sample rate is one measurement of audio quality. It’s the number of audio samples taken during a recording per second. The more samples that are taken, the more detailed the sound is.

Think of the sample rate as the resolution of the audio; think of each sample as the audio equivalent of a megapixel of a camera sensor. More megapixels jammed into a sensor means that it can take more detailed images (let’s leave out image processing for argument’s sake). Well, if a microphone takes more audio samples per second during a recording, you can expect more detailed sound.

There are several standard sample rates out there that recording artists use. These are 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, and 192kHz. Circling back to the camera sensor analogy, it’s not only important to take high-resolution pictures, you need to have a screen that can properly display all of the pixels. What’s the point of watching a 4K video if your phone’s display caps out at 720p?

So, you need to have software that can send the full high-quality audio signal to your DAC to then pump into your ears. iOS, for example, can actually send audio up to 192kHz to your headphones (we’re talking about wired headphones). So, if you want to stream high-quality lossless audio on your iPhone, you won’t have any issues.

Sample rate vs. bit depth

One thing that people often confuse is the role of bit depth in audio. Not to be confused with bit rate, bit depth is referred to by a measure of bits. You’re used to seeing 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit audio.

Without going into the science of it, having a higher bit depth doesn’t mean that the sound is more detailed. It means that the sound has less noise. The audio is represented more faithfully to what was originally recorded. Having less noise does increase the overall listening experience, but it’s not the only metric to dictate audio quality.

This is important because some companies like LG used to put high-quality DACs in their V-series phones. The later phones were able to deliver a 32-bit audio signal to your headphones. Many people assume that using these phones will automatically give you a more detailed sound, but that’s a misconception.

Android’s limit is pretty sad

Now, what about this Android audio quality limit? Well, this is a little embarrassing. Android caps out at 48kHz… So, Android phones’ audio quality caps out at a quarter of Apple’s peak audio quality. The system takes 44.1kHz audio and upscales it to 48kHz. This doesn’t mean that everything you hear on an iPhone is automatically better. Most of the audio you hear on an iPhone is around what you hear with an Android phone.

However, if you signed up for a service like Apple Music or Amazon HD, you’ll be able to play the lossless song files at a much higher sample rate on iOS than on Android. Without mincing words, if you’re paying for high-quality audio services, and you’re using an Android device, you’re most likely wasting your money.

Also, there’s no system setting or developer option in the settings that can change this. You’re stuck with this limitation whether you’re using the headphone jack or Bluetooth. This is unfortunate because OEMs aren’t able to add their own DACs to surpass the limitation. Some companies tried to deliver better audio quality through dedicated hardware.

Going back to the example of the LG phones, the company tried to give you a better audio experience by using a better DAC. While the sound you’re getting from those phones would be less noisy, it’s still being pushed at a maximum of 48kHz.

So, are Android users stuck with the lower sample rate?

Yes and no. As stated, there’s no system setting that you can change to get a better sound from the software. However, there are a few ways for you to hear higher-quality audio from your Android phone.

Firstly, do you need to ditch Bluetooth?

If you want to listen to higher-quality audio, then you will need to consider if you want to step away from Bluetooth audio. It’s generally accepted that if you want to listen to higher-quality audio, you’ll want to use wired headphones. Why is that?

It’s all about the difference between the mediums. With a wired connection, the signal can travel from the DAC to the headphones directly. When dealing with Bluetooth, you’re dealing with the technical limitations of the hardware. Bluetooth has a pretty low bandwidth. As such, the audio that travels from your phone to your headphones has to be compressed. A lossless audio file is an uncompressed file. So, there’s no reason to listen to lossless audio files if the audio needs to be compressed before it reaches your ears.

This is the main reason why audiophiles avoid using Bluetooth headphones. You’ll get varying levels of quality depending on the codec your hardware is using. The better the codec, the better the audio you’re getting.

Sony’s LDAC codec is one of the highest-quality codecs on the market. It runs at between 330kbps (kilobits per second; a measure of the bit rate), 660kbps, and 990kbps. So, you have the potential for some pretty high-quality audio. The issue is that the audio signal still needs to be compressed, so you won’t be getting the best possible audio. So, getting wired headphones will be a good call.

Since most phones coming out nowadays have ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack, you might want to shell out for a pair of USB headphones if you think that will be an issue. If you don’t want to, then you’ll need to get a dongle.

Choose the right streaming service

There are some streaming services that offer lossless audio streaming. A lossless audio file is a file that hasn’t been compressed to save space. MP3 files are heavily compressed, and that’s why it’s an efficient format to share online and save space on your device. However, a lossless file retains all of the information present when it was recorded. Lossless files take up more space on your device, but they offer a better listening experience.

Certain streaming services like Apple Music, Amazon HD, Tidal, and QOBUZ offer lossless audio streaming, but there are some caveats. If you’re an iOS user, good for you! You can pretty much stream the audio from all of these services bit-perfect. However, if you’re on Android, you have to remember the 48kHz wall.

Apple Music and Amazon HD do not get past that barrier. There’s no point in streaming the lossless audio from those services because the audio is just resampled to 48kHz.

But, all is not lost. Remember when we said that there’s no system-wide setting to change the max sampling rate? Well, that’s not to say that apps can’t get past the limitation. It all depends on the audio player. Tidal can actually get past this limitation. You’ll have to be careful, as there are some songs on Tidal that are actually compressed. These are the songs with the “Master” badge on them. This is a Tidal thing and not an Android thing.

Another service you can get is QOBUZ, but there’s a catch. The app can not get past the limitation natively. However, it can with a little help, and that help comes in the form of an app, and that app is USB Audio Player Pro.

The USB Audio Player Pro

You’re an audiophile! You bought that expensive pair of headphones, remember? So, what’s another $8? Those of you looking for a media player that can play high-quality audio files without compromise will love this app.

This is a media player that pole volts over the 48kHz wall and allows you to play your lossless files bit-perfect. What’s neat is that it can play your local files like WAV, FLAC, OGG, MP3, MQA, DSD, SDAC, ISO, AIFF, AAC, M4A, APE, CUE, WV, and more.

Not only that, but the app can integrate with QOBUZ and Tidal, so you can play those files through the app. This way, you can hear your QOBUZ music in high quality.

Getting the app itself costs $7.99, but there are some other features that you can purchase. The advanced parametric EQ costs around €1.99. There’s also a Morphit headphones simulator (around €3.29) and an MQA Core decoder (around €3.49). These are optional additions to the app.

Download USB Audio Player Pro

Another app to consider is Musicalot

If you don’t want to spend the money for a music player for your lossless files, then you should consider Musicalot. The beauty of this app is the fact that it’s completely free. Not only is it free, but there are no ads. That’s pretty surprising nowadays.

It’s a great music player with a pretty easy-to-use interface, a true-black dark theme, and other goodies. The cherry on top of this cake is the fact that you can play MP3, M4A, WMA, FLAC, OPUS, AAC, ALAC, APE, DSF, and many more files. It’s a great music player if you want the basics. It doesn’t download music files and it doesn’t integrate with streaming services like USB Audio Player Pro does.

Either way, it’s a fantastic app to get if you want to get your audiophile journey going.

Think about getting an external DAC

The quality of the DAC you use dictates the quality of the audio that graces your ears. Most phones come with DACs that get the job done, but not many of them come with higher-quality chips. Since LG’s out of the smartphone market, you can’t really count on many consumer phones to come out with high-quality DACs.

This is where external DACs come in. These are DACs that you attach to your phone through the USB port that push a higher-quality signal through your headphones. They look just like a USB-3.5mm dongle. This way, you won’t be tied to the quality of the DAC in your phone. So, if you’re rocking a cheap $199 TCL phone with a run-of-the-mill DAC, you’ll still be able to get better audio quality.

Lastly, get good headphones

Again, there’s no point in watching a 4K movie on a 720p display. Well, why listen to a lossless file with a 1411.2kbps bit rate with a $10 pair of headphones you grabbed off of a Walmart shelf?

If you want to get the most from your headphones, then you’ll want to get some quality headphones. Sure, they’ll be expensive, but no one ever said that being an audiophile was cheap.

You’ll want to consider looking for some headphones targeted at audiophiles. They’ll have better audio drivers tuned to give you a beautiful sound.

And, there you have it! You have what you need to know to get past Android’s rather annoying audio quality issue. If you’re looking to be an audiophile, you’ll want to start there.

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