Can You Hear Me Now? Why Mobile Audio Still Lags

Oct 20, 2015

Mobile phones can stream videos, play songs, podcasts, audio books, even pay for your dinner bill. So why is it still so hard to hear the person on the other line? 

Science and technology writer Jeff Hecht says he doesn’t even own a smart phone. 

“I don't have a smartphone. I do have a dumb phone,” Hecht says, “The dumb phone does have one advantage — it's a flip phone. So there's a logical place to hold it to my mouth. One side's on my ear, one side's on my mouth I can feel where it is so it doesn't just drift off.”

Hecht, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, also still has a dial-up phone in the foyer of his house which he still uses to take calls. He says the sound quality on landline phones is still relatively good compared to sound on a mobile. 

“If you look at an old wired handset it has cups on on both ends. One lets you talk into it, one is coupled over your ear so you hear that better,” Hecht says, “If you look at a smartphone, it's a slab of glass. You have no tactile sense of how you're holding the microphone part close to your mouth which you need to to get good good voice in. That microphone is very sensitive so it also picks up noise in the area.”

Another problem with cell phones, according to Hecht, is that you’re reliant on the connection to a network, which changes as you move around. Different areas of a city, different areas of a house have different levels of connection. And then there’s the whole issue of bandwidth. 

“You're sharing the connection to the cell phone with a number of other people in that same area. So all of that adds up to less bandwidth for you and…the less bandwidth between you and the cell tower, the more your voice has to be compressed,” Hecht says. 

Still, he says landlines have their issues with sound as well as cell phones. 

“You can't tell Jeff from ‘Jess' on a landline because that extra extra sound, those extra high frequencies just get cut off,” Hecht says, “The old Bell System probably back in the 1930s decided that was good enough for a conversation up to that bandwidth limit. And they needed to pack as many calls in as they could over wires in between the central offices and the long distance, so they just squeezed that down as tight as they could.”

Many are beginning to make the argument that it’s time to do away with landline technology. 

“The F.C.C. and the telephone carriers are talking about phasing out these old landlines because the technology is obsolete and they can't maintain it. Or they're claiming they can't maintain it,” Hecht says. 

Still, for those unhappy with cell phone audio quality, Hecht says there is a promising new technology called HD Voice. 

“It essentially digitizes your phone call right away, puts it into the data stream so that it goes with all the the streaming video or whatever you're watching or listening to at the time. And those bits will get a special priority because they're voice and they have to be translated fast or people get restless. Your ear is very sensitive to the time you hear voice.”

The other reason Hecht doesn’t own a smart phone? 

“It’s cheaper,” he says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow