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Is traditional voice quality an oxymoron with today's cellular, VoIP?

Something that was always taken for granted was the quality of sound on voice calls. If you remember the old Sprint commercials, they emphasized that "you can hear a pin drop" as they were moving toward fiber in their network infrastructure.

The old Bell system also had very stringent requirements for improving voice quality. It focused on moving from analog to digital lines with digital repeaters (amplifiers) that actually regenerated the square wave signal rather than just boosting it like an analog repeater did to a sine wave. There was a design concept of building in quality through better regeneration of the signal across the copper wires of the network infrastructure.

Subscribers were more fearful of switching carriers because they thought they would be getting inferior quality on voice calls. Quality of service on voice calls was actually a big selling point in the day. Companies wouldn't change carriers if they felt their call centers and customer service applications would be compromised by poor sound quality.

Somehow we have gotten away from that focus on quality and the new generation of phone users are getting used to lesser voice quality as well as the familiar "can you hear me now?" question from cellular callers.

One Chicago Mercantile Exchange executive recently discussed this phenomenon that is quietly going on in the U.S. We concluded that people are accepting a lesser quality voice service in exchange for all the "functions" they can get. The traditional "phone" function has almost become secondary in comparison with all the neat "extras". Who cares about quality if you can click a picture with your phone, right?
Some people are also complaining about the actual mechanics of the phone. Some cell phones are even hard to turn on and use. The keypads are not as reliable as they used to be. The bottom line is they just aren't as rugged any more.

Swiss Army Phones

As I remarked several years ago, cell phones with all their functional options have become like a Swiss army phone. Do you really need an MP3 player or a camera (especially now as more places are banning the use of cellular cameras)? Next you will see a Taser phone come out for those with a priority on personal security.

I'm surprised they haven't come out with a combination cell phone cigarette lighter. That's a perfect combination for the driver on the go.

How about a Starbuck's coffee phone? What about a phone you throw away with 30 minutes of talk time that's somehow wedged into a thermal cup? It could be great for drivers as a decoy for all their phone calls. While they don't ticket you for drinking coffee in a car, some municipalities are ticketing cell phone users. Some say cell phones are "distractions" while in a car.

While I don't want to come off as Andy Rooney talking about the "good old days," what has happened to a quality phone that's just a phone? If you're going to ticket the cell phone user, you should also ticket the person reading a newspaper, putting on makeup, doing a crossword puzzle, stuffing a Big Mac or donut into their face, reading a book as well as all the other distractions that take away driver concentration. It's not just the cell phone.

No one has even mentioned people watching their favorite television show on their cell phone. Just wait until that becomes more common. You will be ticketed for making a phone call, but if you are watching the latest American Idol episode in the car, that's fine.

`No Flashing Signs'

The column on electronic signs two weeks ago drew mostly affirmative comments. There was only one person who said "signs are ugly". He was totally against electronic signs and also said he was against cars. He rides a bicycle all over and claims we have become too dependent on technology. I wonder if he still has a rotary phone or if that's still too high-tech for him. I didn't respond to his second letter.

Few people can live "On Walden Pond" any more (for all you technocrats, that's Henry David Thoreau's book about the simple life). People are dependent on technology and the next generation of cell phones may be as easy as sewing a microchip in your ear. If that happens, all the boutiques selling those glitter and leopard skin cell phone covers will be out of business.

Carlinism: Soon they will be saying that phone quality went out with nickel beers.

James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is also president of Carlini & Associates. Carlini can be reached at or 773-370-1888. Copyright 2006 Jim Carlini.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Antenna Wilde responded 8 years ago: #1

I agree, but where's a good site that lists the phones in order of sound quality? I've been surfing for an hour, and can't find a simple web-page that lists the phones, and their corresponding consumer ratings for:

Voice/sound quality

It seems that every site is too keen on selling you their plan, or their affiliates' merchandise, or other crap instead of just listing the basic, unbiased facts about the phones and the plans.

If anyone has a link please send!

Richard Wall responded 8 years ago: #2

I read your article because I've been surfing to find a phone with high voice quality. You obviously haven't found one either.

But thanks.

Jon responded 7 years ago: #3

Cell voice quality is poor, has not been getting better, and almost everyone accepts this as normal.

If a land line sounded like a typical cell call, you would be shocked.

There is no way to shop for cell voice quality.

This is simply the state of the market. It is astonishing how bad cell phones are as phones, it is amazing how everyone accepts this, and it is not getting any better.

Just a Phone responded 7 years ago: #4

I just want phone that will make calls clearly. But no one says anything about that. Yeah I know my phone can flush the toilet in another country. I carry the every
song recorded ever, but I can't hear my son talk to me from the next town. Please Help. What websites will tell me which phones have the best call quality?

A Thought responded 7 years ago: #5

Great article and comments. I believe they should rate cell phones much the same way they rate the tires you buy for your car.... speed, temperature, traction.

A cell phone should be rated for
* Voice quality
* Drop Outs
* Durability
* Bells and Whistles / PC Connectivity and PC Based SW

Imagine, phone A is rated A-A-A-A-A, the next phone is rated C-B-A-C-B, and the next is rated B-B-A-A-A.... it would be an easy choice.

Renn responded 7 years ago: #6

I agree with everyone here. Why isn't there a website that list the phone with the best voice quality. I already have an ipod, I just need a phone that works. If someone finds any information,please post it here so we can all benefit :-)

michael responded 7 years ago: #7

my razr has good features but terrible voice quality. I'm looking for another phone with good voice quality but there is no such site.

Tim Hadfield responded 7 years ago: #8

Do those bluetooth earsets help with voice quality any?

Veronica responded 6 years ago: #9

Ditto, ditto, ditto. Please help me find a way to shop based primarily on cell phone quality!

Grant responded 6 years ago: #10

Bluetooth headsets typically make voice quality even worse. I agree, cell phones should be rated based on voice quality, signal reception and durability. I have yet to find an acceptable phone or web site that rates phones based on that criteria. Although you have to take into consideration more than just the phone. The cellular network itself can be just as much of a problem. Often cellular companies will sacrifice call quality for call capacity. Using a lower bitrate codec allows more subscribers per cell, at the expense of quality of service.

John Muller responded 5 years ago: #11

The problem with getting a cell phone with good quality audio is that if whoever is on the other end has a junk phone, that's all you can get...

I suspect the phones are perfectly fine, from my on the job experiance with digital audio technology it seems to me that the cellular companies save tower-to-network and tower-to-handset bandwidth by digitally compressing the audio signals to cram as many as possible onto the same wire/frequency.

They can't advertise better audio quality, since it depends on so many factors that are out of their control, and is a subjective measure. Promising good audio quality sounds like an invitation for a class action lawsuit to me.

rich responded 5 years ago: #12

I have yet to find a phone that I can hear clearly on. My Plantronics Voyager headset makes a world of difference. Just sent it through the washing machine, so I need to get another. STILL can't find a site that rates phone voice quality as a prime criteria.

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