Can You Hear Me Now? Probably Not

For all the enhancements to smartphones in recent years -- larger screens, sharper displays and improved cameras -- there’s one thing that hasn’t gotten better: voice quality. It seems a tad ironic that the main function that mobile phones were supposed to provide has not kept pace with other phone technologies.

A recent Consumer Reports analysis found that none of the more than 100 smartphones tested had better than a good score for voice quality, and a significant number were only fair. By contrast, none of the cordless phones received less than a very good score, with a respectable number delivering excellent quality when it came to voice.

Mobile operators, of course, have focused on ramping up lucrative data services in recent years to drive revenue growth and meet increasing demand for non-voice services from texting to gaming to social networking and video. In the fourth quarter of 2013, U.S. mobile data (versus voice) revenues surpassed the 50% mark, reaching $90 billion in 2013 and expected to hit $100 billion this year.

The growing amount of hardware -- radios, cameras and sensors -- packed into smartphones themselves comes at the expense of voice quality. That means a tiny speaker is wedged in among other parts and the microphone is relegated to the bottom of the phone, or the back.

“That almost guarantees a less than ideal connection with your mouth and your ear,” according to a Consumer Reports blog post. Cellular signals also have to travel circuitous routes between devices, and conversations via mobile often face a lot of noise competition due to the fact that we can take cell phones almost anywhere.

The noise-canceling technologies in devices that phone makers tout don’t make much of a difference, according to CR tests. That makes it all the more likely that a smartphone user will opt to text someone rather than call. Which is just fine with the carriers. But sometimes there’s no substitute for talking to someone in real-time. Is it too much to ask carriers and manufacturers for quality voice and data service?

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