April 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

Why The World Needs a High-Fidelity Smartphone Audio Module

Music fans who care about sound quality need a high-fidelity audio brick.

Well, it finally happened: MP3 players have become a cellphone feature. When this idea first started floating around, about seven years go, I wasn’t the only one to scoff at the notion of cellphones replacing MP3 players. But in the intervening years, improvements to flash memory, touch interfaces, batteries, and the app ecosystem finally made music make sense as a smartphone feature rather than as something that requires a dedicated device.

This is great news, because who wants to lug around a miniature version of their living room? It makes more sense to install apps than to carry around all that dedicated hardware. But in the switch from hardware to apps, music fans who care about sound quality lost something great: hardware specialization.

head-direct hifimanThe most extremely specialized portable music player I have seen in 13 years of coverage was the Head-Direct HiFiMan HM-801 Portable Music Player, pictured to the right. No matter what smartphone or music player you carry around, it doesn’t sound anywhere as good as this thing, with its gold-plated everything, 24-bit audio support, 102 dB signal-to-noise ratio, Burr-Brown digital-to-analog audio converter (DAC), ability to act as a USB audio soundcard when connected to a computer or as a headphone amp when connected to your stereo and, most of all, its deep, rich, clean sound.

I had one of these for an extended period of time last year, but here’s the thing: Even after loading it with lossless FLAC files, the few 24-bit files I managed to track down, and plain old vanilla MP3s, which sounded spectacular on the device, I barely used it.

As great as this $790 digital audio player sounds, the interface, simply put, sucks. Now that we’re all used to big touchscreens that make even the once-elegant iPod Classic seem clunky by comparison, the idea of retreating to an interface this crappy is unconscionable.

The solution: a high-end audio module that would be controlled wirelessly by any brand of smartphone. This would be something along the lines of the HiFiMan, but with no interface at all — a little high-fidelity sound box, replete with its own DAC, battery, inputs, and outputs. Oh, and it needs to include Bluetooth A2DP Audio/Video Remote Control Profile, so you can stow it in your bag and control it using smartphone apps. In one fell swoop, 24-bit audio would have a platform, and anyone could use it regardless of their other hardware decisions.

Can someone build this? Please?

Backstage at the Consumer Electronics Show ’09, the rapper Akon told me that he mixes for the tiny little speakers in cellphones, because that’s how lots of people listen. Most producers probably mix for better-sounding hardware than that, but it can’t be denied that many of us listen to music on subpar audio hardware, and that cellphones (and their included headphones) are partly to blame. As a result, music producers aim lower and lower, compressing dynamic range to nearly zilch so that music sounds worse, no matter what you use to listen.

Hardware manufacturers, please take note! Record labels have deep archives of 24-bit audio files, and rumor has it that Apple wants to start selling them.

Rather than hoping that people abandon their brand new smartphones in favor of models that play 24-bit audio (and will never sound as good as a dedicated player anyway due to electromagnetic interference), please, give this hi-fi audio module idea a whirl.

It should be good for at least the next seven years.

(Image courtesy of Flickr/greg westfall)

  • Evan

    DO WANT. If it could be integrated into specialized USB headphones for iPhone, even better.