A Sound Smartphone: The Meizu MX 4-Core Page 2

USE
My first thought upon unboxing the device was that Meizu has gone too far in their iPhone "emulation". But closer inspection reveals the similarities to be merely surface level. The actual feel of the unit, the textures, the unique interactive buttons, give the MX 4-core enough character of its own. I especially like the 4-inch display---colors are bright, text is crisp, and the whole thing feels like a good compromise in terms of size. It's appreciably bigger than a 3.5" iPhone display, yet allows the phone to maintain a manageable size overall. As much as I love a big screen like the 4.7" display on the HTC One X, that sort of device is not something I would lug around on a daily basis.

I'm not going to go too far in depth about Meizu's Flyme OS---I'll leave that to the dedicated phone sites. In brief, it reminds me of a cross between the flexibility of Android and the polish of iOS, and I rather enjoy it. It runs smoothly and quickly and I experienced very few hiccups along the way.

I am impressed by the included media player apps---separate programs for video and audio. I don't watch a lot of video but I appreciate the capabilities of the player since it can seemingly play anything you might throw at it, including .mkv format. Even huge 1080p files load quickly and seamlessly.

The standard audio player is definitely the best I've seen, and I often prefer using it over Poweramp (which is normally my go-to music app for Android). It plays FLAC files (along with most other formats), even hi-resolution tracks, without hesitation. It's simple and quick to use but also powerful enough for more advanced tasks such as on-the-go playlist creation/editing. Downsides? It doesn't do gapless playback, and the onboard 5-band EQ is terrible (which is strange because it should be handled in hardware by the WM8958). Poweramp fixes both of those problems but tops out at 24/96. With many Android phones I've used, Poweramp has a clear edge in sound quality, but in this case the stock player is just as good.

Miezu_MX4core_photo_screencap

Wow! Look at that bit rate!

SOUND QUALITY
So how does this thing sound? In a word, excellent. It easily ranks among the best sound I've heard from a portable device (not including dedicated portable amps). Sound is crisp and clear with nice low frequency extension and sparkly but not overly-bright highs. I really dig the natural tonality which seems more like what I'm used to from my home gear than my portable gear. I hear definite improvement over my current LG Android phone as well as numerous other phones and tablets I've used.

Something that generally remains elusive with Android devices is a black background. The worst offenders have audible hiss and hash, especially when background operations are being executed. I've heard some that do pretty well but still don't have that inky blackness that accompanies better audio gear. The Meizu MX 4-core is dead silent. It does better than my previous benchmark, the iPad 2, though the difference is fairly small on most headphones. But when I use ultra-efficient custom in-ear monitors for this test---specifically the Lear LCM-5 (a torture test using 5 balanced-armature drivers per side, rated at 122dB for 1mW of power at 1kHz)---the improvement becomes apparent.

The headphone jack has an output impedance of 3.2 ohms which is just slightly higher than ideal. To achieve the recommended damping factor of 8, the 4-core is best paired with headphones having a 25 ohm impedance or higher. That makes it safe for most full sized headphones, including the relatively low impedance 25 ohm Denon D7000 and brethren. There are some IEMs, mostly of the dynamic driver variety, that go a bit lower than that---Monster Turbine Pro Copper and HiFiMAN RE-272 for example. I tried both of those with the 4-core and didn't notice any particular deficiency. The bigger problem would be something like the Phonak PFE232 which has an impedance above 40 ohms but then dips into the mid teens around 10kHz. Even so, I only caught the slightest glimpse of a small "notch" in the highs, and they still sounded very good overall.

Musical examples: the MX 4-core seems well suited to a wide variety of music. Diana Krall's album "Quiet Nights" sounds beautiful, as usual---there's a reason her music is in regular rotation at hi-end audio salons and shows. Honestly that sort of thing is hard to get wrong. But the MX 4-core does a great job with "normal" quality recordings as well. "ObZen" by Swedish Metal band Meshuggah demands speed and clarity, and the 4-core really delivers, while at the same time capturing the intoxicating vocals of singer Chhom Nimol's voice on Dengue Fever's latest album "Cannibal Courtship". "The Joker" from Steve Miller Band's classic album of the same name helps demonstrate just how punchy and accurate the 4-core can be in the lower registers, where it really nails the thud of the kick drum. Listening to "Eet" from Regina Spektor's album "Far"---her typically ambiguous vocals (bonus points for mentioning headphones!) sound very lively and somewhat more forward than neutral. I get the same impression from Jack Steadman's vocals on the Bombay Bicycle Club album "Flaws"---very sparkly and articulate while mostly avoiding sibilance. Still, little things like this make me feel that the Meizu isn't the perfect match for overly bright headphones. I'd classify this more as a bit of character rather than a significant coloration though.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Whith the Leckerton UHA-6S on DAC/amp duty, I noticed an increased sense of ease to the music, with no sacrifice in detail or clarity. For example---"Haze" from Hiromi's latest album "Voice" is a very difficult track to render properly, thanks to the blindingly complex piano work. The 4-core does an admirable job but at times seems to lose pace which results in a sort of blurry presentation. Adding the Leckerton to the mix, the notes are rendered with more precision. Still, the 4-core gives a valiant effort, better than any smartphone I've tried.

Adding the amp also resulted in more drive for full sized headphones---the 4-core can ably handle things like the VMODA M80 or Beyer DT1350, but is not as comfortable with the AKG K701 or planar-magnetic headphones. But I wouldn't expect it to be perfect with those anyway. It is a phone after all. All in all I'm still very impressed with the overall performance when used within the normal scope of a device like this.

MINOR ISSUES
I did notice a quirk with regards to hi-resolution music. Different sample rates gave me different results---24/192 material played back through the native music app had some type of minor background noise, likely an artifact from downsampling. It ended up sounding like tiny pops and clicks. I played the 24/192 version of "Hotel California" and it sounded roughly like vinyl---great sound overall but with an imperfect noise floor. Definitely still listenable and hard to notice with most songs. My biggest problem example came from 24/48 material, which in my collection is mostly from the B&W Society of Sound releases. Cara Dillon's "Live at the Grand Opera House" is a perfect example. Her voice, usually beautiful and smooth, had some digital "hash" to it, giving her a unique type of sibilance. I don't mean a vague audiophile deficiency... more like a very obvious "What's wrong with her voice?" type of thing. Charlie Winston's "Passport" had the same issue. Oddly, 24/96 tracks fared better. "Manic Depression" by CBW, and "Georgia On My Mind" by Oscar Peterson, both sounded free of any obvious artifacts.

I asked Meizu for their best guess as to what might be causing this. They speculate that it has to do with the higher sample rates: recall that these must be converted to 44.1kHz on the fly. Apparently Android has different "levels" of software resampling and Meizu is not using the highest possible level at present. This could be changed in future firmware updates assuming the demand is there. Keep in mind that this issue has no bearing on the SPDIF output, which remains bit-perfect at all resolutions.

CONCLUSIONS
The Meizu MX 4-core is an excellent portable music reproduction device---one of the best I've heard. It also seems to me to be a really nice smartphone. But I'm not really focused on that aspect of it. Trawling the internet for in-depth coverage from smartphone-oriented sites, one notices a suspiciously wide range of conclusions. You'll read that the display is excellent, just short of the best available. You'll also read that the display is mediocre with terrible viewing angles. You'll read that battery life is impressive for a device of this class, and you'll also read that the battery is inadequate. You'll read that the Flyme OS is polished and unique, yet also that it is derivative and inferior to stock Android. The list goes on. I can't explain these contradictions, but I do notice that everyone seems to agree on one aspect---the audio quality is very good.

While it's true that many InnerFidelity readers might never use a smartphone for serious music listening, it's also important to recognize the large (and growing) group of music lovers who will use nothing but their phone for that purpose. In that respect the Meizu MX 4-core surpasses the competition, which makes it easy to recommend. I especially love the SPDIF output, which means you can use the thing as a transport when paired with a dedicated DAC. Nice.

Will it ever see a widespread North American release in light of Apple's recent billion-dollar smackdown of rival Samsung? That remains to be seen, and Meizu already has a history with Apple. If nothing else, think of this as a yardstick, a mark to which other smartphone makers should aspire to. It proves that when the hardware and software come together, the result can be very good indeed.

Resources
Meizu English homepage, and MX 4-core product page.
Interesting article showing a tour of the Meizu factory, apparently they treat their workers exceedingly well compared to similar companies.
Blast from the past---HeadFi thread about the Meizu M6.

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
ARTICLE CONTENTS

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. 

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