Sounds Like a Nano to Me
I never expect much out of the internal speakers or the earbuds that come with a phone or MP3 player, so let's just get those out of the way: The iPhone's internal speakers aren't too bad. While I wouldn't want to listen to music on them--they distort fairly quickly on any high-register sounds--they're fine for dialog-heavy video playback. The earbuds are fine, too. If you've heard Apple's classic white iPod earbuds, you'll know what you're in for here.
So what's the iPhone really sound like? If you want a quick demo, borrow an iPod Nano. I couldn't hear much to distinguish it from a current-generation Nano on either Shure's E500 PTH in-ear phones or Sony's MDR-V900 over-the-ear headphones. In my listening tests, the iPhone held up well compared to most flash-based players. I'd rate its overall sound quality just behind that of Creative's excellent Zen V Plus and almost exactly even with the current generation of iPod Nano players.
Our objective audio tests bear that out, with the iPhone generating scores nearly identical to the iPod Nano. The 4GB iPhone we tested turned in a particularly strong performance on our crosstalk test, tying Creative's Zen V Plus for the best score we've seen. It also tied the Nano's impressive score on our test of maximum useable output level.
Those results aren't bad, but when I compare the iPhone to my 80GB iPod, there's a noticeable lack of bass with EQ turned off. Cymbals, guitar, and any hiss in the recording sound just a touch brighter and more prominent than I'd like, which makes for a slightly more fatiguing listening experience. Female voices in particular, such as the "Live from Austin Texas" recording of Neko Case that I used for some of my testing, sound a bit harsh compared with the better hard drive players.
I'm picking nits here just a bit, though. Overall, the iPhone sounds quite nice for a flash-based MP3 player. One significant drawback: Though Apple built in a standard-size jack instead of the mini-headphone connector you find on most cell phones, you can't just plug in the great set of headphones you bought for your iPod. The iPhone uses a three-segment headset connector that normal headphones can't plug into, which means lots of us will be springing for an annoying adapter as our first iPhone accessory. Yuck.
-- Eric Dahl