Name that sound

Is branded audio really worth it?
Date:1 June 2012 Tags:,

I keep seeing stickers from recognised audio brands on unrelated electronics. Does that mean these devices have premium sound, or is it just a marketing stunt?

The badges are everywhere: on laptops, tablets and phones. Some from brands with real audio cred: Altec Lansing, Harman Kardon, Bang & Olufsen. Other brands are familiar, but mysterious – you may have heard of Dolby, SRS and Creative, but do you know what they do? The explosion of celebrity-endorsed headphones has pushed product labelling to a new level, too. If you wanted, right now you could by a Dr Dre-approved smartphone.

Gadget companies didn’t invent this kind of branding, but they may have perfected it. Steve Guttenberg (no, not that one), who writes the popular audio-equipment blog The Audiophiliac, attributes this kind of branding to a sort of spec-sheet arms race. It’s hard to stand out in a sea of similar devices, he says, so “everybody is trying to sell by adding features”. Hence the over-the-top stick-ers, decals, and inscriptions.

Generally speaking, a device with special audio branding will sound different from an equivalent device without it. There’s a good chance that it will sound noticeably better, too: Bass may be fuller, and highs a bit clearer. But what you’re hearing isn’t necessarily better hardware. Often, it’s software.

There are certain limitations to designing an amp and a speaker system to fit inside a portable device, Guttenberg says, such as diminutive speaker size and extremely limited power supply (laptop speakers rarely exceed 5 watts). Most important, there’s the issue of cost: a teardown of a typical R5 000 laptop leaves you with a bill of materials of about R3 500. Of that, less than R100 is spent on audio. (The small-quantity wholesale price on alibaba.com for a Realtek ALC268 audio processor and pair of laptop speakers comes to about R60.) Shifting that sum upward by a few rand, however, won’t dramatically improve sound quality.

What you usually get when you buy a device with branded audio is special audio processing. Take, for example, the HTC Sensation XE, the first Android phone branded with Beats Audio. While the handset ships with better-than-average earbuds, its own audio hardware is undistinguished. The Beats Audio component of the phone is mainly software – in effect, an equaliser. The buds are nice, but they’re an accessory.

That’s not to say branded audio is something you should avoid – just that there usually isn’t much hardware behind that sticker and it isn’t worth paying extra for. With a little tinkering you can often reproduce “exclusive” audio-processing effects by adjusting the software equaliser in your music-player app of choice.