Blog: Apple iPhone 4s – a beautiful old Leica

And, its audio system, while not a technical tour de force, is more than up to snuff – especially at normal listening levels. Case in point:

Volume matched ‘Normal’ listening levels for Ultrasone IQ:
iPhone VOL8
Plenue D VOL42
AK Jr VOL40

iP4s VOL8 Plenue D VOL42 AK Jr VOL40

Prior to engaging its amp, the iPhone 4s is nearly hiss free. After engaging it, it hisses just slightly more than the Cowon Plenue D. Both hiss much less than the original AK100, which debuted a year after the iPhone. As you can see from the graphs above, the iPhone 4s is no slouch, either. In fact, it squeaks by the Cowon Plenue D in THD and IMD scores and squeaks by the AK Jr in both noise level and dynamic range. It is trounced in stereo crosstalk by both competing machines. But then again, it is a 5 year old phone built for a mass audience. The volumes at which I tested it are roughly 6dB beyond my comfort zone. Had I matched the volume to my taste, the differences between devices would slim even more.

iPhone 4 volume buttons -1

Also note, that at matched maximum volume settings, iOS9 measurably outperforms iOS8. That said, at max volume, it is handily beat in most metrics by both the Plenue D and AK Jr. But if you’re listening to it at maximum volumes through any earphone, metrics won’t matter; hearing aids do.

iP4s iOS 8.4 iOS 9.3.1 MAX VOL 24-44 NL

Modern iDevice’s greatest coup is gapless playback. Not only of lossless files, or whilst reading a matching cue sheet through a third-party app. Gapless playback works seamlessly when playing MP3 and AAC albums. Outside of MiniDisk, iDevices, and Rockbox are your only contemporary choice for full proof gapless playback.

If you want parametric EQs, you can get them from the App Store. If you want DSD and FLAC playback, App Store. If you want hundreds of simulated volume steps, App Store. Which is to say: at normal listening levels, a 150$ to 200$ 64GB iPhone 4s isn’t just a steal, it’s ready for audiophile prime time.

iPhone 6 iPhone 4 back-1

Speaking of, what attracted me first was its subjectively warmer musical draw vis-a-vis my iPhone 6. That and the colours. And the flush camera. And the nice buttons. And the corners. No, there’s no comparison. The iPhone 6 sounds good and performs well. But it is the ugliest phone I’ve handled in years. If the iPhone 4s is an old Leica, the iPhone 6 is a sad Canon JII. And like an old Leica, it’s more than just iconic; it’s addictive.

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

32 Comments

  • Reply April 14, 2016

    derbigpr

    I still keep my old 4S just for music listening reasons on the go. I always said the phone was worth the price just as a music player alone, everything else it does is just a bonus. I did blind tests with Iphone 4S playing lossless files comparing it to DAC’s that cost 700-800 dollars, plugged into Musical Fidlity M1HPAP amp and using Beyerdynamic T1 headphones. There’s nothing about the 4S performance that would suggest it’s a phone, it’s just a very clean, very honest and musical presentation. It’s one of those devices that makes you want to listen to a song until the end once it starts, unlike some devices that just make you skip the music from one track to another looking for something that would impress you, but you never find it. The fact that Apple managed to extract such musical performance (and let’s not forget power, since iPhones have considerably more powerful amps inside than other phones, and even some portable players like Fiio X1) from a device that is this small and does so many things is amazing.

    • Reply April 15, 2016

      ohm image

      Agreed. It is lovely.

    • Reply June 16, 2016

      Vs

      What type of files are you listening and what software are you using for listening losless files?

      • Reply June 17, 2016

        ohm image

        I listen to everything from lossy MP3 and AAC to ALAC, FLAC, and on occasion, to DSD. For lossless (ALAC, WAV, AiFF) I use the regular music player. Otherwise NePlayer.

        • Reply March 11, 2019

          Mike

          I have an iPhone 4s to go with my British made minirig speakers and subwoofer for my wheelchair. I encoded all my files in aiff which is lossless & listen to Mainly female vocal. Christina Perry, The Corrs, Katie Melua, Celine Dion, plus The Eagles, Queen, Elton John. It sounds brilliant through & I’m using high quality custom built interconnects. The vocals are oustanding & come across beautifully & instuments are portrayed exceptionally with accurate soundstaging & authority, especially guitars. The emotions & breathiness In Katie Meluas “The Closest thing to Crazy” are breathtaking & really draw you into the song. I did try some FiiO Bluetooth DACs amp the BTR 3 & The BTR1 they didn’t make any perceptible difference in sound quality even when listening using my Sennheisser momentum 2’s instead of the Minirigs. However my friend lent me the absolutely amazing iFi xDSD Bluetooth amp & headphone Dac & using it as a headphone amp connected to my iPhone 4s and my Sennheisser Momentum 2’s I was totally blown away. Not descriptive I know but they were just wow. Connected to my version 1 Minirigs the difference wasnt quite as good though they are version 1’s & version 4’s are available now which are supposed to have an even better dynamic range. But the iFi xDSD retails at £399 so isn’t cheap but well worth the money if you can afford it for HI-Fi quality sound if your source files are lossless & your headphones are of sufficient quality.

  • Reply April 15, 2016

    Headfonia_L.

    Great read , Nathan!

  • Reply April 15, 2016

    dalethorn

    I’m tempted by the new iPhone SE, but I have the 128 gb iPod Touch and Oppo HA2, so I guess that’s compact enough.

    • Reply April 15, 2016

      ohm image

      The iPhone SE is a disaster for me. I put an order in for it three weeks ago and Softbank still have me on hold. Either Apple didn’t make enough, or not enough came to Japan. But yeah, your system is compact. I prefer to go naked, but using an decent/good amp like the HA2 certainly can help in some situations.

    • Reply April 15, 2016

      LinuxProphet

      ditto Dale!
      But I have filled mine to capacity with Hires files and now I am hungry for the 9.7 iPad Pro w 256GB memory! These ever-hungry files.

      • Reply April 16, 2016

        dalethorn

        I’m not sure if the new smaller Pro is available with 256 gb, but that could be a good option for smaller size carry…

    • Reply April 15, 2016

      derbigpr

      IMHO SE is not worth over 5S unless you need the slightly better camera and will notice that it opens things 0,05 seconds faster after you tap the screen. The phones feel identical in hand and in use. SE is MARGINALLY faster only when you load it up with a bunch of apps opened at the same time, or are doing something like gaming. As far as audio circuitry goes, it’s not officially confirmed, but I did talk to a guy who knows his shit when it comes to Apple (used to work there as an electrical engineer, so he even gets a bit of inside info) and he claims the audio section should be absolutely identical to the one in 5S.

      • Reply April 16, 2016

        dalethorn

        Since the SE is fat for its length and width, it looks like they prioritized for the newer camera and a decent battery capacity.

        • Reply April 17, 2016

          ohm image

          Which sounds perfect for me. My pre-order is still a long ways out.

  • Reply April 15, 2016

    Barun C

    Very enjoyable writeup and visuals Nathan. I personally have never owned an iPhone and probably never will, but I got to say your article is making me think about it.

    I have been using the HTC One M8 for couple of years and it performs quite well as a music player with Neutron and USB Audio Player PRO. In the mobile phone world I am eagerly waiting for project ARA as I think that is the next leap for smartphones and if it happens successfully then we might see phones becoming comparable to mid-hi tier DAPs.

    BTW if you get a chance try out the LG G5 Modular phone, I believe it has a dedicated DAC/AMP module (32-Bit/384 Khz).

    On a different note, are you going to publish RMAA results on your reviews here as well, or it is only for blog writeup?

    • Reply April 15, 2016

      derbigpr

      Well, you don’t have to wait, if you want a phone that compares to mid-fi DAP’s (talking about stuff up to 500-600 dollars), there’s already iPhone 5S, 6 and 6S on the market, as well as iPod’s. I’ve had loads of smartphones, always flagships, from Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, Sony, etc. iPhones are the only ones that I’d consider full on audiophile devices. They just have that something in sound that you get with better hi-fi gear, as I said in my other comment, I can’t explain it, but the sound is just so clean, effortless, smooth and natural that it makes you want to listen to music on it. HTC’s are pretty good too in terms of sound, but lack driving power for headphones. Samsung is hit and miss, some are good, some atrocious, since they use different hardware components for different markets even if they’re the same model phones. Sony was pretty good too on their last few models, but there’s something artificial about their sound, kinda V-shaped and I’m sure they have some DSP’s running to make their phones sound more “hi-res” even when you shut everything off.

      • Reply April 16, 2016

        Barun C

        Well I have not heard the 6 & 6S but I have heard the 5S and it is not that great with highly sensitive IEMs and same goes for the HTC One M8. Sony used to make very decent sounding walkman phones 7-10 years ago, which I believe is still better than the stuff currently available in the mobile phone market today.

        LG came out with a ESS DAC & AMP chip based phone V10, which made bit of noise in the hi-fi forums and a lot of people consider it very competitive to modern day high end android based DAPs. (Another example. Vivo Max 5 Pro with Cirirus Logic CS 4398 DAC )

        • Reply April 17, 2016

          ohm image

          The 5S (from memory here) hisses a bit more than the 4S does, but otherwise sounded pretty good. I prefer the 4S, but I reckon it’s more of a personal thing. The 5s measured pretty well but not quite as good as the 4S or 6.

          I am firmly entrenched in the Apple economy so I’d never consider moving to another brand, even if it had the perfect hardware.

          • Reply April 17, 2016

            Barun C

            I know and I respect your opinion, everybody has a choice, E.G I’ve never owned a laptop, which is not a MacBook because they simply are better in software hardware integration and they last for at least 3 times more than any other windows based laptops out there (Exceptions can be there but rare & not consistent)

            For the reasons mentioned above I will never get a Non-Apple laptop. Similarly iPad is the best tablet ever made period, but in the phone segment I am not a fan of apple products, as I don’t believe that paying that extra premium gets me any thing worthwhile like the iPad or the MacBook. It’s just my opinion. On the other hand I am a bit disappointed with Apple as in the last few years they have not done anything innovative.

            • Reply April 17, 2016

              ohm image

              Barun C,

              I don’t require you to respect my opinion – not in any discussion, whether or not you and I agree. But I do appreciate that you often chime in with support or with clarifications on things I missed. I value your input. All the time.

              We happen to disagree on Apple being innovative, but that doesn’t matter. Apple are swift to take up technology they know has a future (with some mild flops in their past) and slow to take up technologies that they believe don’t have a future.

              I have no idea what you mean by ‘innovative’ so my argument is a stretch to assume that you mean latest-gen hardware or crazy things like curved screens.

              I know I might be way off the mark.

              Anyway, I’ve got a MacBook in my future (to better focus my cameras). Currently, I firewire into my 2012 iMac, and look over my shoulder or return to the desk in order to focus my camera perfectly. The MacBook would go on my camera stand (50kg of steel) so I could focus really fast.

              I agree with you re: macbooks. Such great values for their longevity and great to good on their software. I got into the iDevice scene back at TouchMyApps and haven’t looked back. As a semi objective audiophile, I love that objectively I’m giving up very little at normal listening up vis-a-vis hi-end players and amps. But I gain all the good stuff: great apps, file support, gapless, and accessories out the wazoo.

              I am with you (perhaps) in thinking that Apple have missed a few opportunities, or have adjusted their hardware in negative ways. (After all, I dislike the iPhone 6 as much as I’ve disliked anything to this point.)

              • Reply April 17, 2016

                Barun C

                Anyway, am eagerly waiting for the Ocharaku Sakura Plus review. I have been using the Nami for more than 18 months now and it is still my favorite home use IEM.

                BTW stay safe Nathan, have been hearing a lot of earthquake news from Japan (Kumamoto).

            • Reply April 17, 2016

              dalethorn

              Apple makes the iPhone as resistant to hacking and Internet corruption as their laptops. Apple iPhone 6s-plus is innovative enough that I have 2500 video clips, 2500 music tracks, 3500 photos, over 1000 documents, 100 apps, and other things at my fingertips wherever I go, with incredible reliability. The digital out connects to various DACs/amps with ease for home listening. I would never consider going back to the hodgepodge mess that’s Android or Microsoft. I just don’t have the time for that. And all of my files on the phone play perfectly on my iPad as well as my Macbook. Seamless.

              • Reply April 17, 2016

                Barun C

                Good for you, but so does my 2 year old HTC One M8 with stereo speakers, 120+apps,, 6000+ ALAC/FLAC/AIFF music tracks, innumerable raw photos and HD videos with 1-1.5 days of battery life and it costed me only $500 (Unlocked) inclusive of an external 200 GB Micro SD. It has seamless integration with a MacBook,PC, Smart TVs and on top of it I can now add external drives without rooting.

                On the part of Privacy I think Apple is way ahead and Android still sucks at it, but on the part of the UI Apple are very late to arrive at basic things like Widgets & Multi Tasking. Granted in the late 2000s Android was way behind iOS, but today even with Android M it is now neck to neck.

                Apple’s seamless experience comes at the cost of no open source and a premium price tag. Also the iPhone 6 & 6s look eerily similar to HTC One M7 & M8, I wonder why.

                But in any case to each its own I suppose. I am enjoying my One M8 and you like iPhone 6S.

                • Reply April 17, 2016

                  dalethorn

                  That’s really awesome to hear. I hope to hear of more users doing that, without the need for hacking the system.

                • Reply April 18, 2016

                  dalethorn

                  I don’t concern myself with “to each his own” etc. I’m not competitive that way. Any usable system with so much excess power to go as these phones have is fine, as long as users are comfortable with them. If someone were having angst about choosing between Apple and HTC or whatever (I used to have an advanced HTC), and wanted some hard advice, I would work the boards for a few days to get a feel for the user experiences, so I’d know which require more technical skill to get the most out of, plus other important user parameters. Without that vetted information, I have nothing to go on except my former HTC experience and my current Apple experience. There are tradeoffs with each, obviously I think, but I don’t know if there are ready-to-read reviews comparing them, by someone who isn’t dedicated to one or the other. If there are such reviews, that could be a valuable resource.

  • Reply April 17, 2016

    just_pch

    What are your thoughts on using the headphone out on Apple devices as a line out? I own an iPod touch 5g and I am curious if there would be any benefit or sense in getting an Alo Rx to go with it.

    • Reply April 17, 2016

      ohm image

      I have very little experience with the iPod touch gen 5, so I can’t be of direct help. That said, if the output is low in hiss, and you really would like to use an amp, the least expensive way to amp is to run a 3,5 cable from the headphone out to an amp. I assume that the iPod touch gen 5 is the same gen as the iPhone 4s or 5, which is good. The outputs on both are good, but I personally favour the 4s.

      And, from my testing (I need to test it again), the headphone output actually scores better (in hardware tests) meaning it will be good/great for any good/great headphone amp.

      • Reply April 17, 2016

        just_pch

        Thanks for the reply. It just seems that with all the fuss about double amping I should be getting a dap with a line out, but I don’t want to give up Spotify functionality. Maybe you could cover this topic and conduct measurements in one of your articles, that would be cool.

        • Reply April 17, 2016

          ohm image

          Thanks again for the response. I may do a small article about that – or at least reference it.

    • Reply April 17, 2016

      dalethorn

      According to Apple, the headphone out can be considered a line out and has no compromise in quality. But since it has a volume control in-line at the headphone jack, I prefer to use the Lightning to 30-pin adapter to a FiiO 30-pin to 3.5 mm plug, which gives a true line out. That apple adapter replicates the iPod’s internal DAC. Hopefully it’s as good.

  • Reply May 15, 2016

    ohm image

    He has a proper audio analyser; I’ve just got one of the best budget DAC/ADCs on the planet. Line outs are not guarantees of good performance. Certain Sony and Cowon line outs fell off bass or treble, and many return performance much worse than an unloaded headphone output.

    Some are even noisy. I’ve measured the LO of my iPod 5G, iPhone 4s, iPhone 6 (with lightning-30-pin), and a few more, often with my eyebrow cocked.

  • Reply July 15, 2016

    FAPCITYUSA

    This is how I feel about the iPhone 5/5S/SE. The design is timeless. The size is perfect. It feels substantial yet utilitarian.

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