Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Galaxy S III: USB audio, is it really working?

Could this be THE audio lovers Android handset? Your
gateway device to the world of hard audio?
(apologies in advance for your wallet)

I hope you guys don't mind hearing about my little hobby horse once again, but I have some news that I thought I'd share with you in relation to the back-and-forth saga of USB audio and the Galaxy S III.

If you want to know whether the S III can really be a portable player to satisfy the more demanding audio fans out there, then you'd better read on just over the break...

So, USB audio and Android. A personal bug bear ever since it came to light that it wouldn't be supported by the stock Android implementation of USB host in Ice Cream Sandwich (V4.0 of the Android operating system, and the first with native support for this in phones).

Don't believe all the promises of operating systems
coming with promises of delicious candy, they might
not be what you expected before you accepted that ride
But that's stock Android, individual manufacturers are able to add (or subtract) value to that at their own discretion. If we're talking about value-added manufacturer additions, at least as far as connectivity is concerned, Samsung has tended to be the one mainstream manufacturer who have really pushed out the boat (I say mainstream because Archos have made great moves in this area too, although most consumers are sadly unaware of just how capable their budget tablets are). We saw it first with their support of HID profile bluetooth devices in Froyo updates of the venerable Galaxy S, and then again with their own home-baked support for USB devices in Gingerbread ROMs in the Galaxy S III. More recently we saw expansion of Samsung device USB device support in the Galaxy Note with it's upgrade to ICS. Of course this only served to fuel the fires of my hopes for home-grown USB audio support from Samsung in the Galaxy S III.

On the morning of the Galaxy S III announcement Supercurio fanned the flames of this hope when he ellucidated the existence of Samsung USB audio drivers in the Galaxy S III, although he could not confirm whether they were working out of the box at that time. In my own hands-on with a pre-retail S III two weeks before its eventual release one of my priorities was to test my E17 USB DAC with the S III. Sadly at that time audio was not diverted to USB, and instead blared out of the phones loudspeakers, illustrating that it was not recognising an output via the USB port. Hope died a little, although  as they say "hope dies last", so I still maintained a slender thread of optimism that things might change by the time of retail release.

Well, that time arrived, and the time came to test USB audio another time. Sadly it still didn't work, although something had clearly changed between pre-retail and retail software, as audio no longer emanated from the loudspeakers and the phone recognised a line out was connected. I was about ready to throw in the towel at that stage, but fortunately I kept my fingers on the pulse of the "sound quality" thread at XDA-developers and noted that a user there called ma10 had success connecting the S III to a Topping TP30 USB DAC (which he later documented on video for the inevitable naysayers). While this was a great proof of concept, it wasn't really what I was looking for, given the Topping unit isn't exactly pocketable.

The FiiO E7, a very well regarded portable DAC and headphone amp,
catch some reviews here, here and here
So, spurred on by his success, I wondered whether there was a more portable solution that is able to work with the S III. I decided to take a punt and get a FiiO E7, a USB DAC & headphone amp with lower specifications than the E17 made by the same manufacturer FiiO. I chose the E7 since it's already proven more interoperable than the E17, working with many devices such as the Nokia N8/E7 via USB OTG where the E17 has failed. Oh, and don't be discouraged by it being a lower-spec USB DAC than the E17, it's still a dedicated standalone DAC and exceeds the quality of present smartphone DACs (although in deference to the iPhone's audio prowess it doesn't outdo that handset by as much as you might expect, but then the small dividend realised upon diminishing returns is a big part of the audio enthusiasts world, so I think the audience for this piece won't be particularly perturbed by that fact).

Well, my E7, and USB audio moment of truth, arrived this afternoon...

...and I am extremely happy to report that it works with Samsung's latest flagship!

(I realise that without video this never happened, so will be posting up the first of our trademark connectivity demo's on the blogs YouTube channel later on for people lack the good judgement to just trust AndroidNZ)

Obviously what we don't know at this stage is how broad support for USB DACs is at the present time, we have confirmation it works with a couple of devices, but I'm also aware of a couple of examples of failures like my E17. If you can add to the compatibility picture please drop us a line in the comments below and we'll keep this piece updated with a running list of compatible devices (a buyers guide if you will). But for now we can at least forward one recommendation for a portable solution in FiiO's E7.

Right at this moment there is nothing I'd rather do than soak up some excellent sound out of my Galaxy S III via the FiiO E7 for a few hours, but you lot are slave drivers, and I realise that you want part two of our review, so I shall get on with that instead...