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HD voice: Can you hear me now?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010

How much does the audio quality of your mobile phone calls matter to you?

Woman talking on mobile phoneNot much if you are to believe the mobile industry. After all over the last 20 years the operators and the manufacturers have spent billions of pounds upgrading their networks and perfecting their handsets.

But while everything else about the mobile experience has been transformed, there has been no real improvement in the quality of our audio calls.

But now Orange is betting that call quality does matter to a significant number of consumers. It has become the first operator to launch HD voice, which promises the biggest improvement in voice calls in 20 years - indeed just about the only real advance since we moved from analogue to digital.

Why has it taken so long? It sounds to me that the problem was inertia - why spend the money unless you were clear about customer demand? But Orange says the answer is a long wrangle over standards.

Until the whole industry could agree on a new codec - the software which encodes data to send it over the network - everybody stuck with the existing way of channelling voice data around the world.

Now that has been agreed and, combined with new hardware in the form of HD ready handsets, it can deliver what Orange describes as "crystal clear calls".

We decided to put that to the test, making calls between two HD handsets over the Orange handset, then calling from the same place using a standard phone over a non-HD network. You can hear the two calls below:

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The difference is noticeable, although I'm not sure you could quite describe the HD call as "crystal clear". Orange says it is not just about a software change in the network - the new handsets developed by the likes of Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung can all deliver better audio as it leaves the caller.

So will HD Voice take off in the same way as HD TV has? Unless all the networks decide this is something they need to offer to their customers as a matter of course, I think this could be a slow burner.

You can watch HD TV whether or not your neighbours has it, but if you decide to get one of Orange's HD phones you will only be able to make an HD call to someone on the same network who also has one of the new handsets.

So a network effect could be slow to arrive - although improvements in the audio quality of VoIP calls, made over the internet rather than a phone network, may spur the industry into action.

Orange has already launched HD voice in Moldova and says it has improved customer perception of its network. But unless customers start telling other networks they need to go on HD, we are likely to continue to find that our phones are great for playing online games, checking the football scores, or monitoring your heartbeat - but still lousy at making phone calls.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The move from analogue to digital was an interesting one that has echoes in this system.

    Professional digital recording, which uses little or no digital compression, can reproduce recorded sound to the full limits of the sound capturing device (for instance a microphone), though the playback is limited by the broadcasting device - headphones or speakers.

    Domestic sound (for instance MP3) is compressed and this damages the recording quite significantly. However, this has not always been appreciated since digital recordings, missing the hiss and crackle of their analogue ancestors, sound clearer, even if their frequency and dynamic ranges are more limited.

    This new system will improve the clarity of a phone call by removing unnecessary interference , but when being promoted it is important that this clarity is not confused with an sudden huge increase in audio quality - improved and flatter frequency range and dynamic range - because that is not the case. And even if there is some improvement, the speaker and microphone on phones and headsets are somewhat short of a professional sound system!

    It will be up to the media to make sure that in their normal enthusiasm, they don't mislead the public.

    hmmm....

    I have one other annoyance about digital anything - with analogue, if the sound is degraded during the transmission (down a phone line, perhaps, or a TV broadcast) then the sound and picture lose some of their clarity and probably gain some noise. Annoying, but you can live with it.

    When the same thing happens with digital, because you lose lumps of actual data the transmission can very quickly become indecipherable or disappear completely. I wonder, with the extra layer of digital processing involved in this new system, whether this will become and even greater issue?

  • Comment number 2.

    Like any industry, the mobile people will hate doing anything that isn't going to show a direct correlation on their balance sheets. Skype is the only reason anyone has botherred to address this. Mobile phone quality now looks shoddy compared to Skype. This is going to take several years to take off as phone companies are still spending all their energy trying to sell bandwidth as Internet rather than voice. Of course if phone companies had their way, they would do away with everything else and we'd all be texting. Pence per Byte, texting has made them billions...

  • Comment number 3.

    This sounds like something that Manufacturers and Service Providers need to sell rather more than consumers actually need to buy; doubtless there will be an onslaught of sales hype before long. Sadly there are enough gullible people around to make the effort worthwhile; the prospect of a "new toy" is just too hard to resist.
    "Telephone" audio quality is never going to be "HiFi" even if someone decides that "HD" is the new buzzword, but for the simple exchange of information it doesn't need to be. But then I have never found the need to spend my entire day with a mobile phone clamped to my ear anyway; I fully expect that before long the human race will evolve a sub - species with no left (or right) arm, just a hand emerging direct from the shoulder so that it can hold the latest gadget close to its owners ear.
    Perhaps filling in the gaps in existing coverage might be a better goal so that those areas (admittedly with small populations) where signals are poor or non - existent receive some sort of usable service.

  • Comment number 4.

    To be honest I'd rather they increase the coverage of their service and the bandwidth of it, so I can actually get calls in places I currently cannot and can actually make/receive calls at times when networks are very busy (instead of "service busy" messages).

    The audio quality is pretty irrelevant compared to those two things (which most networks still fail often with in the UK), so long as it is clear enough to be understood.

  • Comment number 5.

    All a bit pointless when the coverage is still so bad in many areas.
    Unless you live in town or by a major road you have less than 50/50 chance of getting a usable service.
    Large areas of North York Moors for example are still totally dead and they don't want to talk about it when contacted to see if any chance of it getting better.
    It's not about providing a service, they just want the big profits.

  • Comment number 6.

    The audios you presented did suggest a clearer and far more pleasant mobile voice call experience. Is this going to stop me fleeing Orange at the first opportunity? No. Two weeks after taking out my most recent contract, I moved to Leeds, to find that I may as well have moved to a third world country in terms of mobile coverage. Maybe Orange should put its energy into the basics, like using its merger with T Mobile to improve coverage for those of us who live outside the M25 bubble.

  • Comment number 7.

    I am an Orange customer of many years, but over the past year or so I have noticed a significant decline in the level of coverage and network availability, even in high population areas such as London. I am frequently unable to make calls (despite apparently having signal), have calls dropped, or have no data service for long periods of time. The problem has got so bad that I will probably change networks at the end of my current contract after being with Orange for about 10 years. I would much rather that they addressed these sort of problems, which actually matter to their customers, than introducing new fads that few will benefit from and which will add little to the overall experience.

    What's the point in having 'HD' quality if you can't make a call when you want to?

  • Comment number 8.

    Listening to the two clips, you CAN tell a difference between the two. But my only quarrel is, why do we need a "HD" voice system? The sound in the second clip was far from inaudible. I can understand HD TV, where the picture quality is much improved, but then you are watching for a prolonged period of time. Bearing in mind most phone calls are under 1-2 minutes, is it really worth spending millions upgrading the mobile network in this country, when what we have now is perfectly adequate for the average 40-second call?

  • Comment number 9.

    Orange: Just increase coverage, it's really poor.

    I don't even have to be that far away from a city, literally 2 miles and it's bye bye signal.

  • Comment number 10.

    Sort your network coverage out first!

  • Comment number 11.

    I think unless they make it compatible, that is I could call from an HD-voice phone to an non-HD-voice phone, this is a flop.

  • Comment number 12.

    It's great news. The actual sound quality over the mobile network has needed to be upgraded for many years now. That said I would like to see an improvement in network coverage and/or the ability of handsets to utilise a weaker signal. Several years ago I could not use my mobile at all in the house, the signal was too weak to hold a conversation easily. Gradually this improved. However after moving house I have once again had to get a landline in as the problem has been repeated in my new home. Unless I stand right up to the window, the signal is patchy, breaks up and often causes the call to terminate.
    A little improvement to the network, the quality of the signal such as this proposed 'HD'service, and a little more recognition from the handset manufacturers that sound quality could be improved would go a long way. I hope it catches on, although I can see why it may be hard for a company to try to sell to the public based on sound quality rather than the ability to use a million new 'apps'!

  • Comment number 13.

    "It sounds to me that the problem was inertia - why spend the money unless you were clear about customer demand?"

    Good point. The telecoms industry has a long history of not understanding the demand for their own products. SMS text messaging originated as an internal technical requirement, without any vision as a commercial product.

    At the other end of the scale, the billions wasted on the 3G licenses, with the perception that video calls would be the next big thing, was scandalous.

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree with all the other posters who say "Sort the network out first" - priorities Orange. Even by main roads it is not always available - I now know not to try and call anyone when I am on a local stretch of the A38 (as a passenger, not driver!!).

    This is another of those technological fads which will benefit some people (in the M25 bubble?), like digital tv (why can't I get all the BBC channels) or digital radio - why can't I get ANY on my DAB radio?

  • Comment number 15.

    My phone sounds somewhere between the two. Perhaps the data rate used varies by operator. I've noticed that that there is hiss with the phone call, but not when using the media player functions of the phone. I thought I'd read somewhere that this hiss was added to mask some of the artefacts of the low definition voice signal making it more pleasant to listen to.

  • Comment number 16.

    It's all very well having clearer voice in (most) parts of (most) largely populated areas however, it would be more useful for more people to receive a good, basic level of coverage and bandwith. Unfortunately this is not seen as progressive, innovative, "sexy" and cutting edge.

    Not to mention that battery technology has not kept up with newer, high-end devices.

  • Comment number 17.

    I smell a rat here.

    On the clip, yes there is a difference however my non HD mobile calls never sound as bad as the second clip being played here.

    Indeed the first clip played was very similar to what I would expect from a normal mobile call in a good coverage area using a decent handset or good quality bluetooth headset.

    So when the signal is low, we know that call quality drops. So how does a HD call sound in a poor signal area?

  • Comment number 18.

    With the widespread use of mobile phones I think it's true that people spend more time on the phone than they used to. However it's just about communication; as long as you can understand the person at the other end without the sound quality making this difficult then I wouldn't say anyone is that bothered. I certainly can't remember anyone ever moaning about it. It sounds like a bit of a gimmick.

    I don't think you can really compare it with HDTV because that's not just about communication, it's about entertainment and people want to have the best possible experience. I mean if the sound coming from a HDTV sounded like that from a phone I would certainly being calling for improvement!

    A better comparison for HDTV would be DAB, but then I've thought for a long time that the BBC really need to ditch the old MPEG-1 Layer 2 codec at unacceptably low bitrates (that sound noticebly worse than FM) and switch to the newer DAB+ system…

  • Comment number 19.

    @ #8 darthjedi2005 there is indeed a "need" for it to be updated, for hearing impaired people like my self using the phone is one of the most daunting things i do. and it is unavoidable in some situations. when i am on a skype to skype call i can hear everything with crystal clarity due to its codec and bandwidth being much better, even better than the HD one above. have you tried the xbox live voice system? thats atrocious!

    its not the volume its the clarity which is the problem for most people with my impairment. and i for one certainly welcome this move and hope that other networks follow suit shortly as orange suck for network coverage!

  • Comment number 20.

    At last! I have been losing my hearing for the last 25 or so year and now suffer a severe high frequency loss which makes speech difficult to understand in many phone calls. The sound quality of the HD signal was, for me, wonderfully clear. Yes, the networks need to improve coverage (and especially O2) but I have been waiting years for the mobile phone industry to improve the one most basic function of their phones - for me all the rest is puff in comparison to sound quality.

  • Comment number 21.

    Presently, I see a more significant difference in quality caused only by both users' reception and signal strength.
    When both users are using new phones, in high signal areas, there are no problems.

    I think the money being invested in this should be used to patch up the network, particularly in remote and highly built up areas, where signals just aren't getting through, rather than wasted giving a higher quality (though, no higher level of meaning or understanding to the words) service to the minority of users.

  • Comment number 22.

    I have to agree with Jodaius, Orange's call quality and coverage is getting worse by the month and has got to a point where I have asked them to terminate my contract as I am not getting the service I am paying for. I frequently have zero signal, even in city centres where they should have strong service. They even told me that despite having sold me an iPhone to take advantage of 3G services I should not expect to be able to access the 3G network and should be using 2G.

    Orange and the other companies should be focusing on delivering a decent standard of service for existing customers, not wasting time, effort and money on fads.

    Will HD calls make a difference?? Given that they haven't made 3G work properly yet, no it won't.

  • Comment number 23.

    There was a huge difference between the two examples, but I was listening to them through computer speakers, alas I will not know if the difference is audible through a mobile phone until I buy one, but my feeling is, that it will be down to the capabilities of the hard ware/phone speaker to transmit. Most of the comments have asked for coverage first, well I want clarity of audio, as one of the 1 in 7 of the population that has hearing problems, whom must buy/register and credit the phone before we know if we can here on the thing!, if not, then back to the shop to ARGUE for a total refund!...so yes! bring on better audio for all mobile phones!, As young ears are now being bombarded with noise, then the future will be orange!.

  • Comment number 24.

    You know what Orange. Your network is USELESS! I was a long-time user of 02 but was tempted by a cheaper contract. NOW I REGRET IT! I only wanted my contract for free texts and internet. Yet 50% of the time your 3G doesn't work anyway, and that costs £10 on my bill!

    I don't think HD calls will make any difference, and it won't benefit Orange customers anyway until other providers make the same change, because (and please correct me if I'm wrong) all the other networks will be using standard voice, and Orange aren't gonna compress their calls.

    Going back to 02 the minute my contract is up. Ciao Orange.

  • Comment number 25.

    its just a gimmick, like DABs which no one wanted and HD tv hasnt lived up to the promise, same as 3D TV.

    People just want coverage when they need to use the phone. A better development would be to force mobiles to share networks

  • Comment number 26.

    Soz, iz da call quality upto da use of da phone izit?

    I iz nots able to hear da difference in da sounds man, jus like da bit rates on audio mp3 man. Whos listen to a phone call over da sounds system anyway?

    .... This is a gimick and Orange know it. Spend the R&D money on cheaper calls instead.

  • Comment number 27.

    Polishing a Terribly Uliginous Recumbent Dropping springs to mind

  • Comment number 28.

    I am not an Orange customer simply because where I live (cheshire) the network coverage is practically zero, so it would be nice to be able to make ANY sort of call let alone an HD Call. It must be said that Vodafone and O2 are only marginally better - all 3 main players need to focus on the basics of providing a usable network - we live 7 miles south of Chester and between here and the M6 south bound there are frequent dead spots on main A roads, it's a very poor service

  • Comment number 29.

    In response to some of the above...

    As has been alluded to this isn't HD Voice (Wide band instead) in the same way as a TV - there is some increase in associated transcoder rate's (about 0.5 Kb/s extra on top) but this isn't fixed.

    Most systems these days also use AMR (adaptive multi rate) so will tune their throughput dependent on a number of factors already mentioned / queried (coverage, cell quality, etc).

    Yes both devices will need to have correct Codec's on the device (most after R6 I think have) and also the feature active on the network.

    Reduction in Coverage from Orange - 3G networks are based around power, simply put more usage you get smaller the cell footprint will be (see Cell Breathing) - also Orange (and T-Mo) have ,at 2G, access to only 1800Mhz which has poorer base propagation.

    Orange have failed to grow the network against the demands of the market, and so have suffered the impact of smart UE's more acutely.

  • Comment number 30.

    Can't help but agree with your other correspondents - if they've got any money left to splash around, how about a dozen or so extra masts in North Devon? Not only do I get no signal indoors, I have to walk 100 yards down the road to get even one bar!

  • Comment number 31.

    I am really looking forward to this functionality becoming widespread. There are thousands of mobiles (all on Vodafone) on our company contract and inevitably, as most staff are spread out around the country, hours are spent on conference calls and long mobile calls. On a long call you really notice how much the nuances of the conversation are lost on a mobile and a HD quality call would make a huge difference. Or at least I thought it would. The sample showed it was clearer but not as clear as I was expecting. Especially as many of us also use Office Communicator to make secure VoIP calls which are clearly of considerably better quality.

    However, to answer many people's questions above - the market is corporate. People on long business calls will appreciate the difference, where capturing the nuances of somebody's tone can be crucial. And they may well pay for the HD quality (at least if it is of sufficient quality). If you are organising a night out or chatting quickly to friends I can't imagine you would pay extra for this.

  • Comment number 32.

    This article could do with a good proof read. There are multiple mistakes.

  • Comment number 33.

    A few years down the line there will be applications that you can run on your phones to make the audio sound like it used to in the past so people can then reminisce with their nostalgic hearts of the good days of yesteryear - the sounds, the looks, the flavours, the smells...

    Humans are so silly like that. Don't be fooled. Just get by with what you have. Nothing really gets better than the raw backbone of life itself.

    We need to stop making people richer with their silly gimmicky ideas to make us part with our hard earned cash.

  • Comment number 34.

    I agree with most comments on this Blog that Orange would be better off increasing their coverage and level of service offered. I know of many people who keep having issues with signal and coverage on Orange and their data speeds are rubbish compared to other networks with most users never being able to get speeds over 1.8mb where as T mobile and Vodafone customers get closer to 4-5m speeds

  • Comment number 35.

    AndyWard @ 31: "People on long business calls will appreciate the difference, where capturing the nuances of somebody's tone can be crucial. And they may well pay for the HD quality..."

    Oh no they won't; they'll just pass the additional cost on to their customers.

    I am not and do not expect to be an Orange customer; when they started up they acquired the somewhat unflattering name of "Zero Range" in engineering circles, and from many of the previous postings this does not seem to have changed. Having another listen to the subjective comparison between schemes on You & Yours this lunchtime I did wonder if the location used had been selected to give poor quality on the current system; it sounded as though the signal was pretty close to drop out and the system was having to fight quite hard to keep it going.

    But then cynicism is a vice of mine anyway.

    John De Haura @ 33: "We need to stop making people richer with their silly gimmicky ideas to make us part with our hard earned cash." Oh how I wish this could be brought about; but then making us part with our hard earned cash adds to the "growth" figures so I see little prospect of any official frowning on the practice.

  • Comment number 36.

    Whats the betting that if we get HD sound on our phones the record industry and others will demand a tax on our phones in case we record a concert we're at?

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 38.

    We will only stay out of recession when we all restart buying pointless products that we do not need.
    Even more so if it is all on credit (both the consumer and the provider).

  • Comment number 39.

    if your slightly hard of hearing and normally perfer to use a landline rather than a mobile, as i do, then HD Audio would become necessary for mobiles!

  • Comment number 40.

    A step in the right direction I think. The whole concept is bound to have its critics, chiefly consisting of those who don't appreciate the unrelenting quest by human beings to replicate beautiful natural sounds in 'unatural' or electronic ways. I suppose the natural evolution of such technology is getting to the point where presumably whoever you are making a call to quite unsettlingly sounds like they are talking in person, directly into your ear. Probably quite exciting I should imagine except when said person coughs or you receive a call from a dear friend late at night who has had rather too much to drink and decides to treat you to a poor rendition of whatever tripe is currently doing the rounds in the charts and maybe even a chorus of vomiting. Bad singing and bodily fluids splashing recklessley onto horizontal surfaces, all of which will of course be enjoyed in stunning HD sound. I can't wait personally.

  • Comment number 41.

    If I remember correctly the networks and handset manufacturers developed EFR which was basically the same thing but for use on GSM networks in the late 90's. So I doubt this will be a revolution more like a feature that will slowly just creep into all handsets and in another 10 yrs we will be repeating ourself yet again but with 4GEFR or 5GEFR..... I do think priority shoudl be in improving coverage and improving performance and call quality would generally imporve if everyone could get a signal everywhere!

  • Comment number 42.

    I am sure that the BBC will be keen to waste loads of public money on buying into this and any other band-wagon junk that comes along. Meanwhile the rest of us who have to pay for our own phones and calls will be just happy to make and receive a call when and where we want to. With Three, T-Mobile and Orange finally agreeing to share each others transmitters we should see an increase in the number of users being able to use a mobile phone when away from a city centre or motorway. As with the majority of posters above, people still await a mobile Network that works, and at sensible pricing. Real users are not bothered about money spinners. For goodness sake, the phone industry cannot even agree on a standard power socket and headphone socket yet.

  • Comment number 43.

    I wonder how much media interest there would have been if Orange had simply referred to this new codec by it's proper technical name "AMR-WB"?

    It seems "HD" sells. Very good marketing.

  • Comment number 44.

    It would be even better if Orange, O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Virgin etc. utilised Extended Adaptive Multi-Rate – Wideband (AMR-WB+), with is an extension of AMR-WB, or HD Voice (essentially HD+ Voice). That would be more worthwhile.

  • Comment number 45.

    Far better that the mobile operators focus on the basics like providing true national coverage rather than marketing fripperies and spin.

    No UK mobile provider offers full coverage or real call cost value. Most maintain the "unacceptable face of capitalism" by ripping off customers and failing to deliver on promises.

 

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