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11/25/2013
11:12 AM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Nexus 5 Users Scream For Audio Problem Fix

A bug in Google's Nexus 5 flagship smartphone has buyers asking: "Can you hear me now?"

Google's latest flagship, pure Android phone, the Nexus 5, arrived earlier this month to mostly positive reviews, particularly due to the price of only $349 for an unlocked, 5-inch, full-HD (1920 x 1080), quad-core, 16-GB device that is among the fastest benchmarking phones on the market.

While buyers flocked to the Google Play Store on release day, clearing out the inventory of 16-GB phones within a few hours, many are having second thoughts after trying to make phone calls. Over the last couple weeks, Google's product forums have been flooded with complaints about the microphone output being extremely low when using most wired headsets. And we're not just talking quiet, but essentially inaudible to people on the other end of a phone call.

There are hundreds of comments about the problem; indeed, some claim the same bug afflicts the Nexus 4, which has been out for more than a year. In verifying it, I found the irate Google customers aren't exaggerating. Using a production Nexus 5 with a T-Mobile SIM, I went through about a dozen different wired headsets, both earbud and over the ear, and found only two -- an old set of Samsung earbuds and a Turtle Beach over-the-ear headset with boom mic -- that didn't have the problem. Note, the issue only affects wired headsets, not Bluetooth or the built-in microphone.

[Looking for KitKat on your device? For Android OS Updates: Don't Hold Your Breath.]

Digging deeper, I used the Smart Voice Recorder (SVR) app to verify that the problem is systemwide, and not unique to the Android KitKat OS's phone app. SVR has a handy feature that provides a clue as to the root cause: a setting for microphone adjustment. The recorder app allows you to calibrate levels for different microphones by overriding Android's auto gain control (AGC). Doing so, and recalibrating the gain setting, produced crystal-clear recordings with every headset I tried, strongly suggesting a software bug in Android's autocalibration. Oddly, headsets that fail on the Nexus 5 work fine recording audio on a Nexus 10 tablet running Android 4.3.

A couple forum users pointed out other clues as to the bug's origin that suggested it's actually rooted in hardware, and they offered a workaround. Most wired headsets include an inline microphone with three-button control for volume, pause/resume, and call pickup, and virtually all are designed for iPhones. These use a TRRS plug (short for tip-ring-ring-sleeve) with three bands separating the plug into connections for left and right audio, microphone, and ground. There are two standards for wiring the microphone and ground connections, but Apple uses a different pin out than most other non-Apple devices. Since most headsets are designed for iPhones, it means the microphone input is connected to a ground inside a phone that's wired the other way.

This knowledge leads to the workaround. Holding down the middle headset button apparently shorts the microphone and ground connectors; doing so while plugging into the Nexus 5 audio jack effectively connects the microphone to the proper input. Of course, you won't be able to pause music or end calls by using the headset, but at least you'll be heard. I verified this on numerous headsets, including some stock Apple earbuds, and it works.

A Google Nexus support rep posted to the forum that they have reproduced the issues and are working on a fix. Google's PR department has verified that the company is aware of the issue and that it will fixed in an upcoming software release. Given that KitKat hasn't yet shown up on the Nexus 7 and 10 tablets, the wait for a patch release might take a while.

In the meantime, a number of frustrated users aren't waiting, posting that they are returning the phone. This is unfortunate, since, in all other respects, I found the Nexus 5 to be a stellar device. Hopefully, this incident will remind Google that people actually still use smartphones to make phone calls and that call quality is not something to be ignored in the quest to pack in more features.

Consumerization 1.0 was "we don't need IT." Today we need IT to bridge the gap between consumer and business tech. Also in the Consumerization 2.0 issue of InformationWeek: Stop worrying about the role of the CIO. (Free registration required.)

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JoeNM84
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JoeNM84,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/25/2013 | 11:48:20 AM
Headset manufacturers
Rather than Google being the only one learning something from this, maybe the headset manufacturers shouldn't bow to Apple's standards for everything. 
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