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Iphone Sound Quality: Phone Call Audio Feature Can Be Quite Poor

Updated on November 5, 2015

Product Regressions We Shouldn't Be Accepting

If we really are experiencing an evolution in cell phones, a new iPhone should have audio sound that is at least as good as earlier versions.
If we really are experiencing an evolution in cell phones, a new iPhone should have audio sound that is at least as good as earlier versions.

Cell Phone Makers Should Not Get Away With This

For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, we remember having rotary dial phones. It took a little bit of time to "dial" a phone number. But, it was, of course, worth it. The alternative would be to physically visit the person you needed to talk to, or correspond with letters you'd have to send in the mail. In the early 80s, push button phones appeared. They were still "dialing" numbers in the background. But they were easier and a little faster to use.

In the late 80s when car cell phones came along, it was thrilling and wonderful, especially if you were in sales (as I was). Gone were the days that you'd have to find a pay telephone booth or worse, a pay telephone exposed to the elements to let a client know you were running late for your meeting. This seemed to always happen in the middle of a freezing cold rain storm!

Eventually, car cell phones gave way to box phones. Even though these were as big as a major city yellow pages directory, they were portable. You could call someone from the beach or while watching 4th of July fireworks. It was a big deal at the time.

Sometime during the mid to late 1990s, the box phones were replaced with large cell phones. They were almost the size of a work boot. They were somewhat smaller than the box phone and in one piece instead of a couple.

Then in the early to mid 2000s, phones got a lot smaller and sleeker, and analog service was replaced with digital signal service.

At no point, during each of these cell phone evolutionary phases did I notice a major reduction in the audio quality of any phone calls (as long as there was good reception from the service providers). In fact, when Motorola Razor phone came out, it seemed that we really hit a peak in the quality of calls. The sound was consistently fantastic, crystal clear.

Smart phones started to come along in the late 2000s. I remember in 2007 when the first iPhone was released. I watched my company's CTO get one. It was something to behold! I got my first smart phone, eventually, and settled on a Motorola Android. No doubt, having the internet at your disposal, including being able to make retail purchases and send and receive emails, not to mention take pictures was pretty cool, if not amazing.

In the spring of 2013, I bought my first iPhone. An iPhone 5s. Apple really sets an impressive tone with its elegant and very artistic packaging. Many of the features of these phones are designed better including being more intuitive than other similar smart phones. But where Apple appears to have really dropped the ball is with the call sound quality. I noticed that unless I was using my headset, most folks could not clearly hear what I was saying. If I moved the top of my iPhone to the middle of my ear (which isn't that comfortable and natural), my voice could be a little clearer for the person I was talking to.

I found a couple articles about this observation, including a web site devoted to iphone 5 call quality and the Scientific American web site. They say:

  • The audio problems may have begun with the iPhone 5. There are reports that the call quality of the iPhone 4 was perfect.

    Note: This would be called a primary feature functional regression. And, it's a catastrophic failure that is normally caught during the product testing phase. If it is, it typically causes a product's release to be delayed. If the leadership decides the product will still be released on time "as is" to the public, it's not unusual for there to be a major fallout in the manufacturer's engineering ranks. (The result is unacceptable... and people lose jobs over it because future sales will typically plummet as a result)
  • Way back in December of 2012, Apple Ireland apparently acknowledged there was some kind of a problem and said that a new version of IOS may be able to solve the IPhone 5 call quality issues but that it was not going to be guaranteed. That was apparently followed with a statement (from Apple engineers) the matter was under investigation and as long as an open issue is under investigation they will not comment on it.
  • The iPhone 6 appears to have the same problem.
  • Smart phone makers might shrink, flatten and cover speakers in plastic to improve their phones' overall functionality but can sacrifice clear sound.
  • The three largest service providers in the US are working on how they, in the future, can maximize call quality via Voice Over Long Term Evolution (VoLTE) which is an add on to their next generation cellular systems that enable voice traffic to be carried over 4G LTE networks. Note that service providers overall, however, seem to care more about traffic and video is big traffic compared to voice

And as of this morning, while talking to my brother using my new iPhone 6S, he told me it is no better than the audio on my iPhone 5. He has the same problem with his wife's iPhone 6 which he just paid $900 for.

My brother also indicated that my nephew's new Samsung smart phone consistently has flawless audio sound quality. It also happens to have a superior camera. And, I recently heard they are working on a phone body that will eliminate the need to have to add a shock absorbing, water blocking case.

In the software engineering world, this could be described as "leap-frogging the competition": Being the sole provider of product feature(s) that meet the essential needs of the customer base. It's a pretty significant situation. And, its the kind of thing that can displace the market leader, if consumers collectively react by buying the better performing product. And, this can actually cause the under performing manufacturer to do something good, something they should have done in 2012, put the most important feature of the phone back in the #1 priority position. This would help them to never allow a new phone to be released if the phone's audio sound is not working properly.

Iphone Call Sound Quality Problem Update: Possible Circumventions/Solution

I found newer information in terms of a response from Apple:

iPhone: Receiver and call audio quality issues

Follow these steps to resolve the issue:

  1. Increase the volume during the call.
  2. Make sure nothing is blocking the receiver. If you're using a protective case or display film, remove it and try again.
  3. Make sure nothing is plugged into the headphone jack or the dock connector.
  4. Check the receiver opening to see if it is clogged with debris. If necessary, clean it with a clean, small, dry, soft-bristled brush.
  5. Try another location with better signal. If the audio issue happens only when on a call, it could be due to the location.
  6. If the iPhone is paired with a Bluetooth headset or a car kit, try turning off Bluetooth on your device. Learn more about troubleshooting Bluetooth connections.
  7. Restart the iPhone.
  8. Make sure your device is up to date.
  9. If the issue is not resolved, contact Apple Support.

I had not already done #2, #6, #7 and #8. So, I turned these suggestions into a few individual tests:

(1) Took the Lifeproof case off, made a call to my brother. My voice was still muffled.

(2) Installed IOS 9.1, rebooted the iPhone, made a call to my brother. My voice was a little better.

(3) Since my iPhone is paired with a car kit, I followed #6 above and turned Bluetooth off, made a call to my brother. My voice had improved further.

(4) Put the Lifeproof case back on, made a call to my brother (praying that the IOS upgrade is doing the heavy lifting here). And it may be, as he said that the sound had not become degraded!

This is anecdotal. So, it will be interesting to see what others experience. I will add that it would be good to try ordering these changes differently, so we can more fully understand what is really necessary still (EX: the turning the Bluetooth off circumvention).

Iphone Call Sound Quality: Another Update & Another Circumvention

Not being able to synch to my Fitbit app or access my Pandora music in my car caused me to turn Bluetooth back on in my iPhone this afternoon. So, I called my brother when I had 5 bars. He said I didn't sound as good! But then, I turned Bluetooth back off and it didn't sound better (phone probably needed to be rebooted again). What a costly (and not really acceptable) potential circumvention- because Bluetooth has become a high priority feature of smart phones.

One other test we did just now was we used FaceTime. The video was fine and the corresponding audio sound was excellent. Although this is a circumvention, it too is costly, this time, in terms of the data it eats up. The service providers may like that fact (hence it gets processing priority and bits aren't dropped?!!) but our bank accounts won't.

I am just going to stick to my first circumvention (use my headset) as needed and see when Apple gets its act together. Remember: If a good number of you are about to get a new phone and you go to the competition (like Samsung- even if its only for 1 to 2 years) it should light a fire under Apple that apparently isn't there now. And that should get this resolved fully sooner rather than later.


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