Theand are so packed with features, it's easy to breeze by one of the most important for everyday life: The speakers.
Even if you was around with headphones in your ears, you may wind up using the phone speakers more than you think. The instant you play a YouTube video aloud for a friend or put your mom on speakerphone, you'll know if the audio sounds rich and full or distant and tinny. Simply put: Good speakers make a phone better to use.
For the first time ever, Samsung gave its Galaxy S9 phones two speakers rather than one. You've got the speaker grille on the top of the phone face, and then another to the right of the charger port. The phone also has Dolby Atmos software to enhance sound clarity and quality.
But you know what? The Razer Phone has dual speakers (on the phone face) and Dolby software, too, and we were impressed with the way its audio swirls and swells to fill a room. Here was our worthy adversary.
Although the Razer Phone, a device by lifestyle gaming company Razer, is too niche to compete against Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, in terms of sheer numbers of units sold, we still wanted to see which of these is the best phone for playing videos, music, games and calls aloud. In short, we wanted to see how sound Samsung's Galaxy S9 speaker claim really is.
We already knew from listening that the iPhone X and last year's Galaxy S8 produce tinnier, thinner sound than the Galaxy S9. What could we learn from a phone that shared almost exactly the same dual-speaker claims?
The winner: Turns out, it truly depends on the situation. The Galaxy S9 Plus pumped out the loudest audio, and took the prize for fuller music and richer vocals. But speakerphone calls were patently bad, and videos, while good, failed to immerse us.
Here's what we learned about the Galaxy S9 speakers, and how we tested them. Let the Galaxy S9 versus Razer Phone speaker throwdown begin.
Note: Despite Dolby's and Samsung's suggestions, you can't actually get true surround sound -- sometimes called 360-degree sound -- from two speakers. Surround sound implies that there's audio coming at you from all sides, including behind you. However, the Dolby settings and dual speakers do expand the sound field enough to make a difference.
Music test: Galaxy S9 speakers are awesome for playing tunes
Winner: Galaxy S9, by a long shot. Every single one of the dozen songs we played sounded richer and deeper on Samsung's handset than on the Razer Phone. The Galaxy S9 made us dance and tap our feet. The same song on the Razer Phone had much flatter vocals and music. That danceability: Gone.
Songs: We listened to tunes from nearly every genre, including Top 40 crowd pleasers, classic rock, hip hop, indie, instrumental, electronic/dance music, and… Appalachian folk classics, because why not?
How we tested: First, we put both phones on Dolby's "music" setting. Then, in a quiet conference room, we played songs from Spotify and Audio Network, keeping an ear out for volume, warmth and richness, depth and layering.
We placed the Galaxy S9 Plus and the Razer Phone between us, got up and paced the room, toggled audio between the devices, and listened to key parts of the song over again on both phones.
We started with both phones at maximum volume, but often needed to dial down the Galaxy S9 Plus a notch. Samsung's phone is louder, but tends to distort sound at the highest volume level. However, in a large, open room, the volume boost made all the difference.
Video test: We'd rather watch movies on the Razer Phone
Winner: Razer Phone. While the Galaxy S9's superior audio range made voices sound richer and more vibrant, only the Razer Phone actually pulled us into the scene.
How we tested: With Dolby Atmos on both phones set to Movie mode, we fired up our Netflix and YouTube apps with a few familiar videos. We held the phones between us, one at a time, tilting them towards each of our faces in turn to get the full effect of virtual surround sound.
First up: A particularly trippy scene from the Blade Runner-inspired Altered Carbon, where our protagonist visits a frightened girl trapped in virtual reality. It's a scene filled with spacial audio cues (footsteps, raindrops plopping into puddles, a squeaking rat and a banshee-like scream) and it's one where Razer's phone won by leaps and bounds.
With Razer, the sounds felt localized, like we could tell where they were coming from. With the Galaxy S9, the tortured scream sounded a little more vibrant… but the rest of the scene felt one-dimensional. CNET's sizzle vid filled with cars and personalities was a clear win for the Razer Phone, too -- we could distinctly hear the sweet, sweet sound of engines over the background music. Not so much with the Galaxy.
But the Galaxy S9 Plus might be the one if you mostly care about the voices of your favorite celebs. In our segment with Silicon Valley star Jimmy O. Yang, the Galaxy S9 made his voice sound far richer than the Razer Phone did, regardless of which Dolby Atmos setting we used.
Games test: Razer Phone is the gamer's phone
Winner: Razer Phone. Razer and Samsung traded blows in this category, with the Razer Phone offering better 3D audio and the Galaxy S9 providing richer sound. But it's harder to accidentally muffle the Razer Phone's speakers in landscape mode, which earned it the win over Samsung.
How we tested: Since the Galaxy S9 doesn't have a "Game" audio mode, we left it set to "Auto" and picked the "Game" mode on the Razer Phone. Then, we played three popular Android games: One 2D, one 3D single-player where sound is optional, and one 3D multiplayer game where sound is critical to success.
To be honest, we didn't notice any worthwhile difference between the Razer Phone and Galaxy S9 in Super Mario Run. Mario jumps, breaks bricks and collects coins very similarly on these two phones, and we didn't prefer one sound over the other (except that the Galaxy S9 was simply too loud at full volume).
Riptide GP: Renegade felt like a win for the Samsung Galaxy. The jet ski racing game's pumping soundtrack was more engaging on the Galaxy S9, and the splashing water sounded more believable. But we did notice it was a little too easy to accidentally cover the phone's right/bottom speaker while "steering" our jetski with both hands.
And with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, the one game that really, truly requires you to hear where your enemies are coming from in order to survive, the Razer Phone won, no contest. It was far easier to place footsteps and booming gunshots with the Razer Phone than Samsung's Galaxy. They came through louder, too.
Hands-free call test: Use the Galaxy S9's speakerphone only when you must
Winner: Razer Phone. The Razer Phone muffled our test caller's voice, but otherwise kept him feeling "present" rather than 500 miles away. Audio boost made him comfortably loud with the phone at full volume. The Galaxy S9 Plus made his voice clearer, at the cost of tremendous noise on the line. Sound boost was uncomfortably loud and amplified the problems.
How we tested: We used the exact same T-Mobile SIM card to eliminate issues of network interference, and asked a coworker on the other side of the building to call each phone, one at a time. We set Dolby Atmos to the Voice setting, but it didn't make a difference even when we turned this setting off.
We listened to our caller read a news story, with the phones laid on a table between us, just as we would for a conference call. After a few minutes, we turned on sound boost, an onscreen control that uses software to artificially enhance the call volume. It's generally useful for loud environments, like speaking in a car, a mall or from across your kitchen if you're cooking while catching up.
The Razer Phone was quieter than we'd expect for a dual-speaker phone, but it was very clearly the better listening experience. Audio sounded somewhat suppressed, like you were trying to smother the caller's voice with a pillow, but the line remained clear.
While we got more vocal depth and clarity from the Galaxy S9, like that pillow had been lifted, the distortion at the highest volume settings made us want to scratch our ears. And there was so much audio "garbage" popping, crackling and fizzing in the soundscape, it was sometimes hard to concentrate. Sound boost only made those problems worse.
And the winner is...
You think we're going to say Razer Phone, don't you? But it isn't that simple.
What we discovered is that this isn't a typical throwdown, where the phone with the most "points" wins. In a sports analogy, this sound test isn't about how many points you put on the board, it's about which phone produces the best sound when you need it -- and those results just weren't uniform.
If you're looking for cleaner voices and louder volume overall, the Galaxy S9 wins. It also bags richer, more layered audio. But the wider, more immersive sound stage with a somewhat flatter tone goes to the Razer Phone.
And you're less likely to block the Razer Phone's front-firing speakers. But it's the Galaxy S9 that's got a slimmer build without speakers jutting out on either side.
There are two take-aways here. The first is that good stereo speakers absolutely make a difference, because at some point, you will listen to some sort of audio out loud.
The second lesson is that the Galaxy S9, which is the better-known phone of the two by far, has a lot to learn from the Razer Phone when it comes to making surround sound not just louder, but truly more immersive. We hope Samsung takes note.
This story was originally published on April 17, 2018.
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