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The Verizon whyPhone And Why Cell Phone Sound Quality Still Sucks

Topics: Technology | 1 CommentBy admin | February 4, 2011

The iPhone finally comes to Verizon, but will it sound better? Time will tell, but have you ever wondered WHY the audio quality of cell phones is worse today than landlines were thirty years ago?

The only app I want on an iPhone is
the one that makes it actually
function for voice communication

A friend asked me today if – since I’m a Verizon customer – I was FINALLY going to get an iPhone. Referencing “Convoy”, the 70′s novelty radio hit and movie about truck driver CB radio culture (here’s the trailer), I replied “that’s a big fat negatori, Rubber Ducky“. Yes, I’ve said it before. When it comes to technology, I’m a big whiny baby. Just see my Disappointing Technologies Part I and Part II. Or my explanations of why your mp3′s or your robots suck. But one thing I probably have found more annoying than anything – whether technology related or not – is the infernally faulty and obscenely expensive set of devices and services that we end up calling a “mobile phone”. Aside from the absurd prevalence of dropped calls (a friend of mine has a four square foot area in his Chicago apartment where his AT&T iPhone works that we call his “iZone”) I’ve always been astounded that in the 21st century, a device that is specifically designed to transmit your voice to another person’s ear does it less effectively than the walkie-talkies I played with as a kid. And this horrible sound quality is nowhere more obvious, in my opinion, than with an iPhone. This Wired piece explains that part of this problem will go away with an iPhone on Verizon’s networks, but I predict that the fundamental audio quality of cell phones – which is arguably a joke compared to landlines of even thirty years ago – will not get any better soon. Why? The first reason is that – as most of us would agree these days – a cell phone isn’t for talking, it’s for texting, web browsing, and apps. Verizon is well aware of this, and started revising all their data plans in preparation for the launch of the Verizon-compatible iPhone, which will add a new kind of load to their networks. And the second reason? It’s the fact that no-one seems to care about the atrocious audio quality of modern cellular/wireless networks. If it ain’t broke, why would they fix it? If you don’t know what I mean, you’re either a digital native who wouldn’t understand the old pin drop commercial of a couple decades ago, a very tolerant person, or perhaps just plain deaf. Remember when you were a teen, and in naively romantic moments in the wee hours on the phone, you’d play your boyfriend or girlfriend some cheesy song that expressed your complex teen feelings in a way that words never could? Well, forget it pal. If you have typical cell service in America and have ever tried to achieve anything beyond the garbled, delay-ridden talking that we’re used to, you know what I mean. But have you ever wondered why? You’d think it’s because the signal is being bounced through the atmosphere to a bunch of towers, maybe a satellite, and then a few more towers, right? Well, that is in fact part of the problem. But the real problem has two more elements. One of them is profit. Rather than investing in and building out high-quality capacity and then charging you for it, providers will continue to offer you the lowest acceptable quality to eek the most out of existing networks. And if customers don’t seem to care about the audio, they’ll continue to focus on non-voice data transfer. The other part of the problem is the audio compression codecs providers use to squish decipherable voice information into the smallest possible amount of data. Somehow, the rather shoddy codecs used for the 128kbps mp3′s you buy on iTunes became accepted as the industry standard for quality audio. That’s probably okay ultimately; studies show that the majority of people actually can’t distinguish that bitrate from higher quality sound sources. So fine. Let’s just say that’s acceptable audio. But if you’ve ever heard a song in say, a 64 or 32kbps bitrate, you know how bad things start sounding pretty quickly. And although simple voice data may even sound clearer around 32kbps (because a lot of people’s weird breath and mouth noises get compressed out) you may be surprised to know the actual compression and frequency response numbers for standard cell phone service. The bitrate is often 8kbps, and the frequency range being used is typically 400 Hz to 3500 Hz. For comparison, a decent stereo system has perhaps 60 Hz – 18,000 Hz capability. The 400 Hz – 3500 Hz part wouldn’t be so bad by itself, because aside from harmonics that affect the timbre and the sibilant sounds we make, the majority of vocal sounds are in that frequency range. The real problem is in all the other things the audio codecs do to compress the voice data. While it is in fact INCREDIBLE what audio engineers and programmers have developed over the years to facilitate various kinds of voice audio compression, the choice to continue applying the most “aggressive” of these algorithms and codecs is what makes your cell call sound like crap. Aside from the low bitrate and limited frequency response, the voice signal is further analyzed and hacked up with things like voice activity detection and linear predictive coding, which decide whether something is a voice, background noise, or silence. The codec then discards whatever it thinks is not useful voice information, further compresses the data, transmits it, and reverses the process on the other end. Thus the word “codec”, which is a portmanteau of “compressor-decompressor”. The result of all this secret-decoder-ring monkeying around? Well, when you combine it with the bizarrely un-ergonomic deck-of-cards-like shape of an iPhone and the tiny mic and specialized audio processing designed to compensate for it, the result is that horrifying shriek that interrupts your friend’s garbled voice when their child says something at a normal volume in the background. So no, I won’t be rushing to the Verizon store to pick up an iPhone. In fact, I’m thinking of switching to one of these little handheld CB jobbies. It says the range is only four miles, but that’s without shootin’ skip.

It’ll be a while before a cell provider can make this kind of claim in a commercial…

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