Cellphones should be audiophile-grade

(Top) The Bass Boost cMoyBB v2.03 headphone amplifier is cased inside of a brand new Altoids Peppermint tin, protecting the circuit from some forms of external EMI / RF interference. (Above) The cMoyBB v2.03 headphone amplier uses a 9V battery.Pictures: http://www.jdslabs.com

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ALL-IN-ONE gadgets are championed more than ever in a world where entertainment and work frequently overlap, ie, Facebook-stalking in the office, sharing the latest Internet memes among colleagues, and not to mention sustained periods of furrowed brows and pure concentration worthy of an F1 driver while replying to groupchat messages during meetings.

This particular post has nothing to do with mobile technology per se, but rather, it will touch on one of the things that mobile gadgets are most commonly used for: listening to music.

For many, once on-the-go, the smartphone or tablet is indispensable; an anti-social tool that serves social needs. Even more so for the younger generation who carry their music everywhere with them, the phone is an entertainment device as much as it is a vital communications tool.

Those who remember the days when CD walkmans were all the rage, the cassette tapes, and even the venerable vinyl; it is a marvel how intangible music has become. But this intangibility, combined with the sense of portability that most associate with music these days, comes at a price.

With the advent of flash-based portable mp3 players in the late 90s, much of the design and engineering focus was on building compact-sized gadgets that were easier to fit into pockets than the average CD walkman. Chipmakers began producing smaller digital-to-analog converters a crucial component that brings the compressed quality of mp3s closer to the full, warm and organic sounds of vinyl which led to an overall decline in audio fidelity and quality in such gadgets.

It wasn't until a few years later that chipmakers began introducing audio processors in phones like the iPhone 3GS that made audiophiles sit up and take notice. The Cirrus Logic processor delivered buttery smooth audio that put other flash-based mp3 players to shame.

But even the current most advanced iPhone, the 4S, cannot pump out the rich sound one would expect from a high-end sound system. Turns out that Cirrus Logic, the maker of audio circuits found in many Apple devices, used a new chip designed to reduce power consumption in the latest iPhone. As a result, songs that would have been sharp and clear on the 3GS sounds flat and muddy on the 4S; the bass not attaining the level of warmth that the former reproduces so effortlessly.

Fidelity requires power. Audiophiles know this. Vacuum tube audio amplifiers, which normally cost thousands of dollars, are able to reproduce the warmth because it consumes bucketloads of power. Without it, the bass becomes fuzzy, the highs flat and the soundstage lacking (sometimes non-existent).

But it's understandable that phone manufacturers are more concerned about overall performance, and thus allocate available resources accordingly to ensure a solid user experience.

As a Nokia Lumia 800 user, I suddenly found myself in the market for portable amplifier after realising how poor the sound quality is on the phone. Despite using professional-grade headphones like the Sony MDR-7506, which has no colouration (what you hear is what the audio engineer intended you to), the bass was disappointingly tiny and the mids unrefined.

After some research, I came across several devices, one of which may make its way into the shopping basket: The JDSLabs Cmoy (US$60), the Digizoid ZO2 (US$99) and the Fiio E17 (US$150). The first two are perhaps the most eye-catching and portable amplifiers out of the lot, with JDSLabs' Cmoy built using a recycled Altoids case while Digizoid's ZO2 has a sleek, monolith-like design ala 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Having to carry an extra device around may not appeal to most, but until mobile gadgets come with more powerful audio components such as digital-to-analog converters and the like, one will have to go through such lengths in order to enjoy music as they were meant to be heard.

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect the views of The Brunei Times.

The Brunei Times


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