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.

RELEVANCE
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.

DESIGN
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.

Miezu_MX4core_photo_dock

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.

Miezu_MX4core_photo_dac

Can your phone do this!?

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...

COMPANY INFO
Meizu Technology Co., Ltd.
Unit 01-02, 19/F, Hollywood Plaza
610 Nathan Road, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
info@meizu.com.hk
(852) 2388 8022
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COMMENTS
Lawk's picture

I wonder if the dual core version of this phone uses the same (bad according to various sources) Yamaha DAC from the Samsung Galaxy S2, if you look at the gsmarena review:

http://www.gsmarena.com/meizu_mx_4_core-review-787p6.php

You can se that THD and IMD are considerably worse, than on the 4 core version. Just a thought because the 4 core Version, uses the Samsung Exynos, and the SGS3 has good sound, and the SGS2 with 2 core Exynos has bad sound.

will ask meizu about it, see if they respond.

 

John Grandberg's picture

It seems to use the same Wolfson chip as the 4-core: LINK

It must be some type of optimization taking place to make the 4-core perform so well. Maybe similar to the camera - it somehow got a lot better from the MX to the MX 4-core, even though it seems to be the same hardware (or at least very similar). 

I can't figure out the Samsung Galaxy S III - the USA version has more RAM than the International models, but only a dual core instead of quad core CPU, and a different (supposedly inferior) audio core as well? Weird. 

Can Crazy's picture

Too bad that we still have to settle for buying a smartphone for a pretty big sum of money to get a minimumly decent sound on the go. If the objective was listening to music things could easily get soo much better. A pity Apple hasn't understood this and made a better effort with their iPods yet, as it's not an uninteresting market niche at all.

Bennyboy's picture

My international Samsung Galaxy S3 has a 24 bit Wolfson DAC chip and outputs direct digital audio too. Not that I bother with that, because it sounds so fantastic anyway, and I think portable audio gear with amps and external DAC add-ons is a bit extreme and ridiculous really.  Just my S3 and some cracking iems will do me.

Oh, and Poweramp is ok but Neutron is a damn sight better for audiophille sound - seriously, the flat setting is amazing, and with 64 bit processing and advanced resampling, not to mention parametric EQ, its a killer. UI is not as pretty as others, granted, but its perfectly fine.

John Grandberg's picture

The international S3 version does look nice. Why Samsung messed with the specs for the USA model, I'll never understand.

Using the OTG cable will get you USB Host capabilities to connect to an external DAC. You might not want to use that while on the go, but it could be great if you also use a bigger home system. The Meizu MX 4-core should also be able to do USB connectivity in the same way, though I don't have the cable to test that myself. I still think the option Meizu has for coax SPDIF out is superior though - not all USB DACs will "talk" to the S3.

I like Neutron too but honestly it doesn't sound any better to me than Poweramp. And the interface seems lacking at the moment.... but the app does have potential. 

E3SEL's picture

The US model of the s3 doesn't have the same specs as the international s3 because the quad core exynos did not support 4g LTE. They instead used a dual core krait processor, which is basically as good because it is based on newer architecture, and it supports 4g LTE.

grokit's picture

From the lone Amazon review:

"Pretty amazing phone. Only problems, it doesn't work properly. It has a lot of connectivity issues. Poor reception bluetooth issues as well. Landscape mode too slow to pick up. Stock music player way too intrusive. Always comes in when there is no connection if you are listening to pandora or google music player. for tech support you have to send it back to main land China or Hong Kong."

John Grandberg's picture

I didn't cover this in the main review because I didn't find it very relevant, but I did use the 4-core as a phone. My main wireless carrier uses CDMA so I just purchased a cheap AT&T pre-paid microSIM card and had my Google Voice number forward to the 4-core. It did just fine for me - bluetooth paired reliably, and reception was as good as I remember AT&T being. WiFi actually gets great reception, even working in dead spots around the house where my iPad2 doesn't. 

The switch to landscape mode (and back again) seems to be deliberately delayed, to avoid accidental/unwanted switching. I don't think it is really lag because the delay is always the same even under heavy CPU load. I personally like the way they do it but I can see why someone would complain. 

About the stock player - I don't use Pandora or Google Music much, so those could have a legit issue. For MOG and Spotify and Rdio the stock player doesn't launch. 

So in summary, my experience has been different than that of the single Amazon reviewer, and I'd be happy to use this as a dedicated phone. 

BBEG's picture

This article has been stuck in my head for the better part of a month now and brings to mind two main questions I'm hoping the author could answer.

First, sampling rate: "Meizu plays 44.1kHz tracks at their native rate so no extraneous processing takes place." Do you know if this is a hardware property or something native to the Flyme OS itself? I ask because there is a good chance I would be flashing Jelly Bean onto my next phone to stay current on Android, but I'm wary about doing this on the Meizu because I'm not sure how the audio is actually being handled.

Second, SPDIF output: "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." If you guys still have the adapter, is it possible for you to test to see if it work on, say, an S3? I ask because both the Meizu and S3 are OTG-ready and support MHL. It would be interesting if you could use a small SPDIF adapter to connect more common flagship smartphones (like the S3) to more stubborn external DAC's (E17, who uses a slightly less than standard USB).

Thanks for your time guys!

John Grandberg's picture

The sample rate question (#1) is probably a function of the software. But I don't know if it is built-in to Flyme, or if it is some other low level functionality. You could email Meizu to ask - they were very helpful and knowledgable when I had questions.

As for the SPDIF adapter - I somehow doubt it would work with an S3, simply because it isn't supported by the software on that model. With the Meizu, it didn't initially work either (which confused me at first). I had to go into settings and find "SPDIF output" and switch it to "on". The S3 would have no way to do that. 

If I can get my hands on an S3 anytime soon, I'll give it a try just to see what happens. I also intend to try the S3 cable for USB out, to see if the Meizu can handle digital out through that method as well. 

BBEG's picture

Flyme has now been ported to the Galaxy S2, which is also a USB OTG device with MHL support.

http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1961164

If anyone has an S2 and feels like playing, they could see if the SPDIF audio output exists in the port. It would be very interesting to see if the SPDIF audio is a software capability vs a hardware capability (although I'd bet it still requires a MHL-capable USB port).

franboop's picture

The phone works wonderfully to replace my Samsung Vibrant.  Only problem is that my Bluetooth can only receive calls, it will not voice dial to make calls.  I tried with three different Bluetoth earpieces, none prompt me to speak when I press the button on the earpiece like they should.  I have been told that both Gingerbread and ICS support bluetooth voicedialing.  My Vibrant certainly did.  Is this an update/system issue, a defective phone, or is this phone not capable of what my old Motorola Razor (about 5 years old now) could do?  Any advice is appreciated as Bluetooth connectivity for voicedialing thru my earpiece is a necessity and I'd hate to have to return the phone.

Corpsemaker's picture

I was just wondering, after randomly bumping to this article and even reading the wikipedia one, it seems that even after many years of hardware development, the Nokia N91 could be the holy grail of portable players(sans dedicated amp), yeah, it seems it's "smooth" sounding, but still packing an "audiophile" punch. I would be interested if someone could share some information, or even conduct some testing if possible... John, Tyll, any of you two have some say?

jacal01's picture

John, do you know if Meizu has come out with their USB MHL bridge controller portable adapter device for this phone yet?

John Grandberg's picture

Didn't see this until now. No, I can't seem to find any official release of the adapter for digital output. Seems a shame since they clearly had intentions to release it. Perhaps that project got killed as not having a broad enough appeal or something. 

DwaneT's picture

Nice post to know!Now that Google Wallet is on the scene, is a normal wallet even required? Pay without cash or charge card in hand, securely and safely. Use personal finance to pay for your next grocery trip.

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