Segan: Shouldn't Cell Phones Sound Better By Now?

There's one thing everybody does with cell phones: Talk. Why won't anyone mention it?

I'm the cell-phone guy. I talk to cell-phone manufacturers all the time. They tell me about their nifty music players, sharp cameras, and cutting-edge hinges — hinges !— but they never tell me about what it's like to talk on their phones.

It's as if an auto manufacturer praised a car's air-conditioning, but refused to talk about its ride.

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In the past year, I've heard only two sources talk publicly about talk: a rep for the Jitterbug phone and Ed Zander, the CEO of Motorola.

The Jitterbug is a specialized phone for the elderly that someone recently described to me as a "Velcro shoe." You'll love it if you're 80, but even my 60-something father would consider it something for his parents.

Last July, Zander painted an inspiring picture of a brilliant new Motorola platform that uses dual antennas and Nextel speaker technology to make calls sound better than ever. I've seen hide nor hair of it since.

So what's the problem? You'd think that somebody would grab hold of this and build the best-sounding cell phone we've ever heard.

But no. Almost none of today's cell phones sound as good as the $13 Princess phone I have in my closet.

The problems start with the usual finger-pointing between the phone guys and the carriers. Verizon Wireless, for instance, wants you to believe that all its phones sound equally perfect all the time, because its network is perfect. Uh-huh.

Truth is, if you put five phones in the same place, they'll all sound a little different. Some quieter, some louder. Some scratchier, some fuzzier. Some bassier, some treblier.

Verizon sets "minimum standards for phone-call quality." Overachievers are free to overachieve.

Phone guys, meanwhile, protest that because there are so many variables involved, it's hard to say anything about call quality.

The same handset may sound different depending on whether it's using an AMR-HR or AMR-FR codec, and whether it's connecting to a Nokia or Motorola base station.

But that doesn't ring 100 percent true either. Things like speakerphone volume aren't network-dependent.

These excuses sound, well, wussy. There must be some brilliant audiologist out there who's coming up with a way to make cell phones sound really great — even though he knows that when he's done, carriers won't let him talk about it.

Thing is, neither the carriers nor the manufacturers particularly want to talk about talk. That's not where they see themselves making money in the future.

Carriers want to sell expensive data services, and they'd rather you didn't use all those talk minutes you're paying for.

Manufacturers want to sell expensive multimedia phones. A simple, beautiful-sounding handset that lets you make the most of your conversations won't send anyone's shareholders out for new Porsches.

Yes, some phones do sound pretty good, and in case you're in the market for one, I've got some guidance.

Recently, Muzib Khan, an engineering guru at Samsung, made a few good points about the physical design of phones.

Big phones, with big antennas, he said, often sound better. If a microphone is close to your mouth, it will pick up your voice better. If a phone's body is deep enough, you can put in a decent speaker. A big antenna picks up signals better than a tiny one.

Alas, this goes against the current fashion trend towards paper-thin, infinitesimal phones that you can easily store in body cavities.

In my own experience of listening to 300 or so phones, I've spotted a few general tendencies.

Sony Ericsson and Sanyo phones, for some reason, are usually spot-on. LG phones sound a little treblier to me — to some people, that's "sharp," to others, it's "harsh."

Samsung phones, meanwhile, often have a bit more bass — call that "beautifully rounded," or, if you don't like it, "fuzzy."

Motorolas and Nokias are all over the map. My Motorola E815 may be the best-sounding phone ever for Verizon.

That's still not good enough. Let's demand that the phone guys get the basics right. The next time you're shopping, talk about talk, and keep talking until somebody listens.

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