Most people listen to music primarily on their phone, not a dedicated music player like an iPod. The most important part of the music experience on a phone is the digital to analog converter (DAC). That little chip takes digital music and plays it through your speakers.
Of course, speakers matter a lot as well. If you listen directly from your phone, you’ll want stereo speakers. And finally, music quality is also affected by the headphones you plug in.
If you care about audio quality, these are the best phone speakers and smartphones for music lovers.
The 3.5mm Headphone Jack Debate
Apple was the first to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack on its phones and use only the Lightning port. Soon, other phone manufacturers followed suit and now often have the USB-C port for audio on flagship or high-end phones. Whether they should include the 3.5mm jack or not is a hot topic of debate, but it’s also a bit pointless.
You will usually use the earphones that come in your phone’s package. And these days, it makes more sense to ditch the wire and only use Bluetooth headphones. If you have a set of favorite speakers, you can also use a converter.
Unless you’re an audiophile, you don’t need to bother with the 3.5mm port issue. And if you’re an audiophile, you can get some excellent converters like the FiiO i1 DAC and amplifier.
The Best Phone for Front-Facing Stereo Speakers
The HTC U12+ is great for people who want to buy a smartphone, use the earbuds that come bundled with it, and utilize the phone’s speakers to play music at times.
Its front-facing stereo speakers are louder than any other, perhaps save for the Razer Phone. The fidelity is maintained even when you raise the volume. But like with any stereo speakers on phones, your music will sound better if you buy quality Bluetooth speakers.
The HTC U12+ also comes with a set of custom USB-C earphones meant for the phone. Plug them in and the device uses software to turn them into active noise-canceling earphones. As far as I’m aware, no other phone does that at the moment.
Such small software tweaks actually set the HTC U12+ apart from the others. It will help you set up a sound profile that’s pleasing to your ears. It’ll adjust equalizer settings according to the music playing. Overall, if you care about your music but don’t like to fiddle around with apps and settings, the U12+ is an experience that most users will like.
While the front-facing speakers are great, the HTC U12+ has some features that several people find annoying. For example, the “squeeze gestures” aren’t intuitive at all, especially for volume control. But you get used to them after a while.
Watch out for: The upcoming Razer Phone 2. The original Razer Phone’s stereo speakers beat those of HTC’s previous flagship, the HTC U11+. With the Razer Phone 2 launching soon, the U12+ might have some competition. For now, you can still go with the original Razer Phone instead of the HTC U12+ if pure stereo speakers are more important to you. But know that these mainly increase volume, not audio quality.
The Best Music Phone for 3.5mm Headphones
LG G7 ThinQ
LG’s flagship G7 ThinQ continues with the company’s new focus on audio. This phone’s claim to fame is the 32-bit Hi-Fi Quad DAC, which you never find on smartphones. No, you don’t need to know what that jargon means.
The “32-bit Quad” bit is a little marketing gimmick, though. In actual practice on a phone, a 32-bit DAC doesn’t sound that different from a 24-bit DAC (which most flagship phones use). What matters is the quality of the chipset, and that’s where the LG G7 ThinQ shines.
That DAC only comes into play when you plug in headphones with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. And when it does, the sound is better than any other phone you will pair those headphones with.
Conversely, the 32-bit DAC makes no difference for wireless Bluetooth headphones since the DAC doesn’t activate on those. Nonetheless, wireless headphones sound great because of the ThinQ’s support for Bluetooth 5 and aptX HD.
Unfortunately, the G7 ThinQ does not have stereo speakers. Instead, the device has a single speaker at the bottom. The company tries to justify this by saying it uses a unique “boombox” design to boost the sound. But it boosts volume, not sound quality.
Needless to say, the rest of the features of the G7 ThinQ are as good as it gets. It packs the top-notch Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, a gorgeous IPS screen with Dolby Vision and HDR10 support, one of the best cameras on the market, and is water-resistant too.
The bottom line is that if you use wired headphones with your phone, then the LG G7 ThinQ is the best sound you will get.
The Best Music Phone for Most Users
Samsung Galaxy S9+
While you value your music experience, a good smartphone has to be a jack of all trades. For an overall great experience with good music, you can’t overlook the Samsung Galaxy S9+.
Samsung’s flagship models offer great audio playback. It’s decidedly better-sounding than all iPhones, especially when you pair it with good 3.5mm headphones. The packaged AKG earphones don’t expose the full range of Samsung’s audio experience here, so get yourself some good wired headphones.
The speakers aren’t great though. They’re loud, sure, but when you raise the volume beyond 80%, you will lose fidelity and even hear crackling on low-bitrate songs.
As a phone though, there’s almost nothing to complain about with the Galaxy S9+. In fact, the audio experience is the same as the S9 too, so you can choose between the Galaxy S9+ and Galaxy S9.
Most Phones Sound Like Their Competitors
Here’s a little secret. Most smartphone manufacturers don’t care about the DAC or the speakers of their phones. The DAC is part of whatever chipset they use, and given how it’s usually a Qualcomm chipset today, you will get similar audio performance when comparing phones in the same price range.
The real difference comes down to the speakers, especially when you’re considering front-facing stereo speakers. Speaker quality will depend on the price, again.
But if you ask me, it doesn’t make much sense to spend extra just for speakers. Instead, get some cheap Bluetooth speakers that will actually improve audio quality.