A Sound Smartphone: The Meizu MX 4-Core
You may remember Meizu as the maker of the classic M6 portable audio player. When it was first released way back in 2006, the portable audio landscape was a very different place. I recall having a hard time choosing between the iPod 5th gen and the Creative Zen Vision:M, both of which were clunky, chunky little bricks with 30GB of storage provided by a miniature hard drive. Then along came Meizu with their M6 player: it was cheaper, smaller, and used flash based memory which made for less storage capacity but more reliability. Yes, there were some other micro-sized competitors, but none really spoke to me like the little M6 could. The key to the whole thing was the excellent sound quality which I thought was a cut above the rest. It certainly helped to offer native FLAC support and a useful 10-band EQ, both of which were very uncommon features at the time.
Fast forward to present day. Formerly big players (Creative and iRiver, for example) have long been rendered irrelevant, and the entire DAP concept has largely been swallowed up by overachieving smartphones. There are a few outliers: the iPod Classic limps along as the main choice for big storage on the go. Cowon is still in the game, though very hit and miss. Sony sells a few here and there. As a whole though, the market seems accurately summarized by Apple's treatment of the iPod Touch. Yes, they keep coming out with new versions, but always a step behind the iPhone, as if to say "I matter, but not much".
It is in this climate that Meizu chose to switch gears from portable players (a few of which they still offer) to smartphones. Not just any smartphones, but high-end devices that could compete with the latest and greatest from major players such as Samsung and HTC. They had some success with their Meizu MX which launched early this year. Meizu followed up quickly with the MX 4-core, an evolution of the original MX rather than a revolution.
Meizu is based in China where they are very popular. They even have their own "Meizu Store" locations throughout mainland China, and a recently opened flagship store in Hong Kong indicates their desire to expand. I'm told that the launch of the MX and MX 4-core devices were accompanied by Apple-esque long lines on launch day. While most of our readers can't just walk into a store and buy the MX 4-core, it can be ordered online and will work with many carriers (T-Mobile and AT&T for example). The price translates to roughly $470 for the 32GB version and $630 for the 64GB, though as a current hot seller I've seen prices climb a bit higher.
I can already see the puzzled looks on the faces of InnerFidelity readers. Since when do we cover smartphones? Sure, I did a piece on the Samsung Galaxy Player 5, but that was a dedicated media player with no phone capabilities. There already exists dozens of phone-related websites, with comprehensive reviews covering each new phone as it gets released. So why a phone, and why this particular model from a relatively obscure company?
Simply put: InnerFidelity is interested in "personal audio". It doesn't get much more personal then your cell phone, which travels with you everywhere you go. But many phones, especially those running Android, have rather poor audio quality. Some phone review sites cover audio quality to a very limited degree, and I've even seen one break out the RMAA measurements (with all the flaws that entails). None of them really go into much detail, and I'm certain none of them have multiple $1,000+ headphones and custom in ear monitors with which to listen. So while InnerFidelity will probably never do a 10 page article covering every aspect of a smartphone, we will occasionally cover relevant devices with an eye (and ear) towards audio quality---especially in cases like this where it really is worth talking about.
The smartphone industry is a fickle, ever-evolving beast. What starts off as an ultra-fast, top-of-the-line device can be overshadowed by competitors in a short amount of time. To minimize that effect, companies tend to push their product to market as quickly as possible, though sometimes that still isn't enough. We see this in action with the MX 4-core---first announced in mid-April and already released in June. It has very strong specs and earns bragging rights as being one of the first phones available with a quad-core processor, a distinction that diminishes rapidly as more quad-core devices are launched.
Specifics: the MX-Quad is an unlocked pentaband GSM phone meaning it will work with pretty much any carrier that provides a SIM card. It uses the quad-core Exynos 4412 chipset running at 1.4GHz per core (with options to underclock if desired). It has 1GB RAM and is available with either 32GB or 64GB of storage. The screen is a 4-inch ASV display with a 960 x 640 resolution and a pixel density of 292ppi. It features an 8MP camera with LED flash that can also do 1080p video at 30fps. It had a recent update and now runs Android version 4.0.3 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich in Android-speak) with Meizu's proprietary Flyme OS overlaying the stock Android experience. It has all the expected features that a current smartphone should have: GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc. The only potential weak spot is the lack of 4G LTE data capabilities. It does feature HSPA+ which is nearly as fast (and is sometimes misleadingly labeled as 4G anyway).
Running PassMark (a synthetic benchmark app) shows the 4-core consistently near the top of the performance rankings compared to other devices. In the instances where it is out-performed, the difference is not substantial. This translates to a fast user experience where apps launch quickly, pages scroll smoothly, and everything is generally snappy.
All this powerful hardware is great, but what about the audio? Meizu has that covered as well. The MX 4-core uses a Wolfson WM8958 CODEC for audio duty. This highly integrated chip features a quality DAC (100dB SNR), 5-band hardware parametric EQ, and an integrated "Class W" headphone driver. Wolfson describes their Class W technology as being an evolution of class G and class H, featuring an adaptive dual drive charge pump and DC servo. The design balances high quality with low power consumption, and is optimized to share noisy power supply rails without compromising performance due to excellent PSRR.
Merely using good hardware does not guarantee results. Those familiar with the original Samsung Galaxy S may recall how the hardware was very nice but got hobbled by the stock software. Users could root their devices and install a 3rd party Kernel which unleashed the full potential of the hardware. Meizu seems to have taken great care to avoid those limitations right from the start. For example, some phones (Galaxy Nexus among others) use a CODEC that can only accept 48kHz signals, forcing software to resample everything at that rate. Since most music is native 44.1kHz, almost everything ends up being manipulated in this way, at the expense of some fidelity. Meizu plays 44.1kHz tracks at their native rate so no extraneous processing takes place. Tracks with higher sample rates do get automatically reduced to 44.1kHz.
So far this thing sounds pretty impressive---but I've actually saved the best for last. In the past, I've lamented how there are very few portable devices that can supply a digital signal to feed a quality portable DAC/amp unit like the Leckerton UHA-6S. Meizu comes to the rescue with support for SPDIF output. Unfortunately there is simply no room for a dedicated jack, so Meizu did the next best thing---MHL output through the microUSB port. MHL is actually an industry standard that supports HD video and digital audio out, and is typically used for connecting a smartphone to a display (using an MHL to HDMI cable). The Meizu MX is the first and only device I've seen that also does SPDIF audio. There's an option in the settings menu to enable this output, and it requires an adapter to interface with a coaxial SPDIF cable.
Meizu hasn't quite finalized their plans for this adapter. For now I'm using an engineering sample of a breakout board based on the Prolific PL-2303X USB to serial bridge controller. Keep in mind that this is not converting USB to SPDIF but rather controlling the native data that already exists in the MHL output. This sample board has a microUSB connection that plugs into the phone itself, 3 miniUSB ports, and a coaxial SPDIF port. It's small enough to where I have carried it around with the phone and the Leckerton as a portable rig, but of course there's room make it smaller by ditching a lot of those ports on the final version. I imagine Meizu could do a typical home dock with HDMI, SPDIF, and analog audio outputs, and then also a small inline cable with just SPDIF to be used in a portable setup.
The best part about this output is that it spits out bit-perfect data. I've tested it with various DACs and they all confirm that the Meizu plays back an unaltered stream, ranging from 16-bit/44.1kHz CD standard tracks to 24-bit/192kHz hi-res material and everything in between.
Can you tell so far that this thing is very promising? Read on to find out how it lives up to its potential...