“There is a whole generation of mobile users that have never heard a high-quality voice call,” said Sue Rudd, who directs research on mobile networks for Strategy Analytics.
Maybe you’re thinking: Who cares about talking on the telephone?! In 2022?!?!?! You use your phone for everything but the phone.
Yeah, fine, the telephone call is losing relevance. But many of you still want or need to make calls.
And I want to stick up for the humble phone call as one of the most democratic forms of communication. You on your fancy Android phone can dial a landline for a business in Warsaw or ring a buddy with a budget smartphone in Melbourne, and it (probably) works. You don’t all need to use the same technology or pick the same app.
The persistence of balky, scratchy or just not awesome-sounding smartphone calls is also a reminder that while we go gaga over artificial intelligence or the metaverse, we also can’t neglect older and boring technologies, like the phone call, that you use every day.
Let’s talk about three reasons mobile calls can sound awful, why you should care and what you can do about it.
Cellphone calling technology is complex.
You might be used to what cellphone calls sound like. But experts I talked to are attuned to what you’re missing and say you deserve better. They also say it’s a miracle that mobile phone calls work at all.
Tristan Huntington, vice president of product for the calling service TextNow, told me that audio apps including TextNow, WhatsApp and Zoom have a large measure of control over the steps to transmit your voice to your dad. The same was true in the landline age, when there was a dedicated circuit for each phone call.
But in mobile calls, bits of your voice are passed from one tech middleman to another and are converted from one computer code to another, until those audio chunks reassemble into the other person’s ear. Some of the software used to transmit cell calls slices off chunks of your voice’s frequencies and squeezes sounds through the equivalent of a narrow tube. All of that tugging and smooshing can make your voice sound hollow or muddy.
Plus, we’re often on the move and phone calls have to work with a mishmash of old and new technologies. Basically, there are a zillion opportunities for things to go wrong with a cell call.
“It’s 100 years of stuff that somehow has to connect to each other,” Huntington said.
Smartphone companies cheap out on microphones and speakers.
Your smartphone takes a bunch of tiny electronic parts and crams them together into a space the size of a Hershey bar. It’s not exactly a recipe for perfect sound quality.
Mobile network specialists also told me smartphone companies are prone to cut corners on the quality of microphones and speakers — what you need to hear and be heard.
I’m not saying we should bring back the old rotary telephone, but those things were perfectly designed to fit your ear holes and your face hole.
“The old handsets were designed to provide maximum conversational speech quality,” said John Beerends, an audio researcher with TNO, a scientific research organization in the Netherlands. “A mobile handset is not.”
You’ve moved past phone calls, which makes companies care less.
In the olden days, phone companies used to brag that you could “hear a pin drop” when you used their service. Not so long ago, smartphone reviews used to evaluate voice quality on new devices in addition to how good they were at taking photos. Not anymore.
When you started making fewer phone calls, the companies involved focused more on improving how their phones and cell networks handled videos and Instagram scrolling. Phone call quality got pushed down the priority list, which made call quality stagnant, which made you care even less about the phone function of your phone.
Some of these technical limitations of voice calls are beyond your control. But you can try a few things that might fix or improve audio quality.
This is an easy suggestion, but I don’t love it.
Yes, modern apps like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Signal and Zoom have technical advantages that make their audio quality better than a basic cellphone call. The companies also invest money to make sure you sound (and look) great.
The downside is that relying on chat apps forces you to use the same app as your calling partner(s), and that app is probably owned by some giant tech company. You’re also probably not going to contact the hiring manager about a new job over FaceTime. The phone call may be old and imperfect, but it’s ubiquitous.
WiFi calling is your friend. (But not always.)
If you do make mobile phone calls at home or somewhere else with a reliable WiFi connection, your call is often better routed over WiFi rather than over cellphone lines. Calls transmitted over the internet are often standard, depending on your smartphone model and cellphone provider. Search your phone settings for “WiFi calling” or a similar term, and turn on the option if it isn’t already.
But in some crowded places like coffee shops, concert venues or airports, lots of people connecting to the same WiFi network can gum up the works. In those situations you might want to try turning off WiFi calling and routing a call over your 4G or 5G cellphone network.
And as silly as this advice sounds, if your phone call sounds terrible, try hanging up and dialing the number again.
Try using headphones or taking the phone out of its case.
If you’re connected to WiFi or can see full bars on your cellphone signal and still have bad phone calls consistently, the culprit may be the phone in your hand.
Ken Hyers, director of device technologies for Strategy Analytics, suggested using headphones when you make or receive calls. Even lower quality ear buds have microphones and software tuned to pick up your voice over cellphones.
If you have a protective phone case, try removing it to see if that makes your audio call sound better. And hey, if you’re that guy using speakerphone while holding the phone an inch from your lips, that is not how the feature was intended to be used.
Hyers said if all else fails, a pricier phone will give you better call quality. “A thousand dollar phone is probably going to do a better job than a $200 phone,” he said.
5G will make things better — maybe?
Phone nerds are excited about a still-new technology for 5G phone networks called VoNR, or Voice over New Radio. (Mobile network jargon is out of control.) One of its promised benefits is a big step up in audio quality over older mobile technologies.
But for the voice improvements to kick in, device manufacturers, mobile phone providers and all the middlemen involved in bouncing voice calls around must use the same technology. That didn’t really happen in the 4G phone era and it’s probably not going to happen with 5G — at least not anytime soon.
➦ “Hearing the phone ringing at all is bothersome to my soul.” Meet people who absolutely hate talking on the telephone.
➦ Miss Manners tackles whether you should text before you call someone.
➦ You’re not the only one accidentally turning on your iPhone flashlight.
If you’re in the United States and traveling outside the country, the easiest option for most people — but definitely not the least expensive — is to buy international day passes available from AT&T and Verizon, if you get a monthly bill from one of those providers.
These passes, which typically cost $5 or $10 for each day you’re outside the country, let you use your smartphone mostly as you do at home and keep using your usual phone number.
My colleague Chris Velazco has other alternatives for how to keep your phone working while traveling abroad.
Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.