Thursday, August 30, 2007

All you ever wanted to know about using your phone as your primary mp3 player... (PART 1)

...or, why your Windows Mobile device is better than an iPod!

Music phones aren't anything new anymore. Virtually all current phones have some sort of mp3 player, even if only to play ringtones. Many of the later ones support expandable memory cards and have advanced controls and equalizer settings for optimal sound.
Yet, most people don't shop for phones as music players.

My guess is that many people beleive that the quality of a standalone device (iPod, Zune, Sansa, Archos, etc...) is somehow superior. The truth is, every combination of sound processor and amplifier will sound slightly different to the trained ear, but how many people can tell the difference between an iPod, Zune, MiniDisc or even CD player when music is played on the same set of speakers? The audible difference in quality between these, if any, is only noticeable to the keenest of audiophiles (Do you know which one has the best quality? leave a comment if you do!). While its possible to have a sub-par sound processor, any half-decent PDA or music phone will have the same quality components that the standalone audio players have. The truth is, the quality of the speakers / earphones make much more of a difference than the quality of the device output- a Pocket PC with high end Sennheiser earphones will sound worlds better than an ipod with the stock white earbuds.

The problem is, most Windows Mobile phones don't have the standard 3.5mm stereo jack for using your own headphones!
So how is one to rock out to our favorite tunes in High Fidelity if we can't attach the good quality headphones?

There are many ways to attach a set of 3.5mm headphones (or home stereo) to your phone's tunes. The most common is the:

2.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor
The most common connection found on any mobile phones is the 2.5mm headphone jack. These smaller siblings of the standard 3.5mm mini-jack exhibit the same shape and format as the standard ones, only 1mm smaller. If you've got a music phone with one of these, all you need is an adapter such as the one pictured here to plug in your full sized speakers or headphones.

But be careful! Not all 2.5mm jacks are created equal!
Many music phone early adopters found this out the hard way. Some adaptors would work well, while others would only give you sound in one ear unless you pull it out slightly. It seems that there was an argument between device manufacturers as to what the pin readout should be on these plugs.
In order to understand why this is, you have to take the evolution of these plugs into consideration:
Before cell phones had stereo, all audio component stereo jacks of various sizes had the same basic pin layout:
The tip would be the left channel, then a ring separating the next surface which would be the right channel, followed by another ring separating the rest of plug for ground. (See image on left)

Full sized audio equipment would use this configuration on 1/4" plugs (guitar amps, studio headphones...), standard sized consumer electronics used a smaller 3.5mm mini-jack (iPods, CD players, computers...), while some very few smaller devices decided to use an even smaller 2.5mm sized plug with this layout (ipaq 19xx series, some mini-disc players, portable audio recorders, some chinese keychain-sized mp3 players...).

When the first mono headsets for phones started coming out, they adopted the 2.5mm micro sized jack, and swapped the left audio channel at the tip with a microphone channel (since these headsets only operated in one ear). This was cheap and easy to manufacture, and was quickly adopted by other manufacturers as the standard. This wasn't much of a problem for stereo equipment because it was generally obvious not to mix and match components- stereo music equipment had no mic for the phones, and phone headsets had only one ear for music.
The problem is, what do you do when you add stereo sound to a phone? Now, instead of needing only 2 channels (1 speaker, 1 mic), you need 3 (Left, Right, and mic)!

This is where things have become a horrible mess. Wanting to be backwards compatible with older 2.5mm equipment, most cell phone manufacturers decided to add a 3rd pin before the ground one. However, Motorola, Samsung, and LG (to name a few) decided to add the left channel as the new 3rd pin, leaving the tip for the mic in case you wanted to use your old mono phone headset.
HTC, who makes my favorite WM devices, decided to follow the original stereo pinout of Left being the tip in case you wanted to use older stereo equipment!
The end result is that if you buy a 2.5->3.5mm adaptor, you might get sound in one ear only since it thinks the other ear is a microphone!
Pulling it out slightly will remedy the problem because it is connecting to different contacts on the jack, but it won't stay in the plug like that.

Bottom line:
Not all 2.5mm plugs are the same, so make sure the adapter is compatible with your device before you buy it!

In general, many adapters will say "for cellular phone stereo" versus just plain stereo. HTC devices will work with the plain stereo (such as the adapter pictured here from radio shack), while other phones need the ones marked "cellular".

Of course, if your phone has a proprietary connector (such as the new HTC mini-USB stereo port, or the Nokia pop-port), than you are less likely to encounter compatibility problems when searching for an adapter.

NEXT ISSUE: Forget adaptors, connect your speaker system or favorite headphones wirelessly!!
In part 2 of this entry, I'll review some wireless solutions which have worked really well for me. Stay tuned...