As we pointed out in our guide to the speaker quality of the Google Pixel/Pixel XL and the Apple iPhone 7/iPhone 7 Plus, both smartphone lines have good, but not great, speaker setups. The speakers found on the iPhone 7 line are vastly improved over the speakers on previous iPhone models, and the addition of a second speaker for stereo performance vastly improve the users’ video and gaming experiences. The single, downward-firing, mono speaker on the Pixel and Pixel XL, however, is considered quite a downgrade from the front-facing stereo speakers on the Nexus 6 and Nexus 6P, the predecessors to the Pixel line. Many note that the speaker placement is less than ideal, as it is often blocked by the user’s hand while gaming or watching a video clip in portrait mode. Despite its shortcomings, however, the single speaker seems to perform quite well, with most reviewers agreeing it is one of the best speakers across current flagship devices – too bad there aren’t two of them.
That said, the actual speakers on most smartphones these days are only used for short video clips, speakerphone calls, and the occasional gaming or short audio clip. For listening to music, watching movies, or immersing themselves into a gaming experience, most users default to either Bluetooth speakers or a pair of headphones. And the latter of which is what we will delve into right now. Let’s take a look at the headphone performance offered by Google’s Pixel line and Apple’s iPhone 7 line.
Google Pixel Audio Quality
As a company, HTC is generally regarded as the holy grail for phone audio. Ask any audiophile, and they will likely tell you that HTC’s latest phone, the HTC 10, has the finest combination of speakers and quality from the auxiliary-out port that has even been placed on a smartphone. So when it was announced that not only would Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL be manufactured by HTC, but they would include the same high quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that was found in the HTC 10 (and also found in the late Note 7), audiophiles had high hopes. Qualcomm even touted the Pixel’s audio quality on their website – “The power of the Snapdragon 821 processor extends into the Pixel smartphones’ audio capabilities through stunning Hi-Fi audio playback. The phone features the Qualcomm Aqstic audio codec, designed to deliver high dynamic range and high-resolution playback up to 192kHz/24bit to create a remarkable audio experience designed to match the demands of the modern audiophile.”
As we already examined, the Pixel’s speaker system didn’t quite live up to the high hopes. But what of the quality of the sound coming from the headphone jack? Well, it once again falls short of expectations. Although many users are pleased with the sound quality the Google Pixel puts out, including self-proclaimed “audiophiles”, such as head-fi.org user “SeeSax”, who claims that the Pixel XL “has plenty of volume for [him],” adding that the “sound quality sounds great to my ears… No hiss, good low end punch and ever so slight treble roll off compared to my iPhone 7,” statistical results show that the Pixel and Pixel XL put out solid, but not top-of-class audio from the headphone jack – disappointing compared to the HTC 10.
According to a recent video review from Pocketnow, the single speaker on the Pixel XL is “actually pretty good for a mono-speaker phone – it’s up there with the likes of the LG V20 for clarity, for maximum volume, and just for pleasant tone which doesn’t overly distort as you drive it hard.” However, the same review was quick to point out that “where the real disappointment lands is on [the] headphone jack.” The Pixel and Pixel XL, while capable of playing 32-bit audio files, the headphone jack will truncate anything above 16 bits right back down to 16 bits. And audio stats that Pocketnow drew from the headphone jack were “nowhere near competing with HTC 10s, LG V20s, or even iPhones, for that matter.” For most people, this will be actually be of no concern, but audiophiles will likely find that it doesn’t compare to the HTC 10, and it falls quite short of early expectations.
Apple iPhone 7 Audio Quality
Much of the talk before the iPhone 7 was released surrounded Apple’s decision to get rid of the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack. iPhone 7 users who would like to listen to music through their headphones are forced to either use Lighting-compatible headphones (such as the Lightning EarPods included in the package of the iPhone 7), or use the included Lightning to 3.5mm adapter to attach headphones that use a 3.5mm plug. While most users are perfectly happy with Apple’s solutions to the lack of headphone jack, many of the users that have already shelled out hundreds of dollars on high-end headphones have expressed displeasure with hauling around a dongle to listen to music. On top of that, although the iPhone’s performance from the headphone jack was called “pretty good/better than average” by a recent Pocketnowreview, there is a small, “but scientifically measurable step down from the built-in headphone jack on the iPhone 6s and the iPhone SE”. Like the Pixel series, the iPhone 7 will truncate any 24 or 32-bit audio files down to 16-bit when fed through the Lightning port, but in analyzing the specs from their tests, Pocketnow claims that overall, the iPhone’s audio quality is “better than average for a modern day smartphone.”
Expectations aside, how does the output from the Google Pixel compare to the output from the iPhone 7? Well, according to a very thorough review of the Pixel’s audio quality by GSMArena, which includes a comparison to audio test results from other flagship phones, the two are very similar.
IMD + Noise
Google Pixel XL
Google Pixel XL (headphones attached)
Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Apple iPhone 7 Plus (headphones attached)
LG V20 (headphones attached)
Huawei Mate 8
Huawei Mate 8 (headphones attached)
The Google Pixel XL offers lower frequency response (lower is better) when plugged into an active amplifier such as a car stereo or home audio system, but a bit higher frequency response than iPhone 7 when plugged into headphones, which offer a bit more resistance than an active amplifier does.
The Pixel XL offers a higher signal-to-noise ratio than iPhone 7, meaning background noise is less obtrusive while listening to music when plugged into an active amplifier, but a bit lower when plugged into headphones.
The Pixel XL offers a higher dynamic range than iPhone 7 when plugged into an active amplifier, meaning the device reproduces quiet sounds and louder sounds simultaneously very well, but the dynamic range is a bit lower than the iPhone 7’s when plugged into a set of headphones.
The Pixel XL’s audio has higher total harmonic distortion and intermodulation distortion (unwanted altering of the digital signal – lower is better) than iPhone 7 overall.
Finally, stereo crosstalk measures how much of the left signal interferes with the right signal – “how good the stereo effect is,” and the Pixel XL rated higher on stereo crosstalk (meaning higher quality sound/less signal interference) when plugged into an active amplifier, but lower with headphones plugged in than the iPhone 7.
So from the stats, one can safely infer that the Pixel will sound a bit better than the iPhone 7 when you have it plugged into your car or home stereo, but it will also sound a bit worse than the iPhone 7 when you’re listening through a pair of headphones. That said – it’s easy to see how close the numbers in the chart are. The numbers are so close that any difference between the two will likely be inaudible to 99% of the population. There really isn’t that much of a difference between the two when it comes to audio quality.
In conclusion, if you’re the type of person who is perfectly happy streaming audio from Pandora or Spotify, or if you’re perfectly happy with the earbuds that are included with your phone, or even a pair of Beats headphones for that matter, you won’t notice any difference in audio quality coming out of the headphone jack between the two phones. However, if you are the type that has a large collection of FLAC audio files, and you aren’t satisfied with any pair of headphones that runs less than $300, you might skip both of these phones for audio quality, and look towards an HTC 10 or LG V20.