The LG V10 is nothing but a small smartphone revolution, a pioneering prodigy and an engineering masterpiece. In addition to its core features as an upper-class smartphone, it contains an audiophile 32bit hi-fi DAC destined for the audiophile community.
The playback quality is unbelievable; of audiophile grade, and the sound is coming from a smartphone. Finally!
Only a little more than a year after its introduction, the LG V10 has since been followed by V20 and G5 (with the DAC as optional module), and LG v30 has been announced. As it seems, LG has audiophile ambitions, even if the latest G6 in its non-far-east versions appear to be a step back into the ordinary smartphone segment.
Salutes to LG for being a first-mover into a new and obvious segment of audiophile grade smartphones, obvious simply because technology now allows for main-stream products with top audio quality. One and a half year after the launch of LG V10, LGE is no longer alone. Here is an updated list of smartphones with built-in audiophile hi-fi audio
The problem is marketing of audiophile smartphones
This market is waiting to explode and should materialize as devices become available, but as it seems, sales figures are not that great for the LG V10?
Unfortunately, a vast majority of reviewers of smartphones appears somewhat ignorant on anything “audiophile”. One can imagine these are “gamers” that would always need the latest Snapdragon processor. In a fresh, but unfortunate example from 2017, well reputed AndroidCentral categorizes this LG audio “revolution” as part of a set of gimmicks.
Audiophiles, on the other hand, announces the LG V10 as a major step forward.
What LGE and other companies presenting products out of the ordinary needs to do, in a better way than is presently done via their press releases, is to educate these main-stream reviewers. This is the error, because what you (read: the reviewer) don’t know, you don’t know.
The problem is marketing campaigns that did or do not properly address the relevant market segments, and that are not educative on the hi-fi features. Look at these low-key announcements of the built-in hi-fi DAC from Expert and Elkjop in Norway, both copying the original press release from LGE.
As an audiophile and an audio engineer, and as owner of the LG G2 and G3 models, I do have a watch-dog on LG, still I overlooked the LG V10, as there is almost nothing in those campaigns that one would consider reliable information on anything “audiophile”. For example, females are rarely audiophiles, so this appeared as a toy for females, i.e. nothing for a true audiophile. LG missed the mark.
Therefore, it was not until Friday the 10th of February 2017, as I read this excellent (but rare) review in Norwegian TEK, that I finally grasped what was going on. Less than 24 hours later, I had purchased probably the last LG V10 in town, at Expert. If I only knew, I would have purchased this device long time ago. Since then, I have met other audiophiles with the same aha-experience, and I have purchased (ebay) another LG V10 that is used as wireless DAC, DAP and NAS (2Tb storage capacity) in the home stereo environment. I shall explain about this in another article later on, but it is surely an interesting price-performance setup.
The LG V10 is a smartphone that can easily satisfy the expectation for, and match, high-end audio quality playback for users with a +1000$ headphone. It is a true audiophile grade wireless DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), or DAP (Digital Audio Player). On top of that, it has received reviews as a super smartphone.
Thus, the price-performance level is “shockingly good”, in particular when purchased as a bundle with a subsiding Telecom carrier.
In other words, with a better adjusted marketing strategy properly addressing the audiophile community, there should be an interesting market segment emerging, as the list of hi-fi smartphones offerings from various vendors is increasing by the day.
In principle, the title of the campaign that missed the mark could easily have been something of this nature:
“Life is too short for boring HiFi. (steal from HiFi Klubben, but it is good). With the new and elegant LG V10, … invites all audiophiles to the new era of music enjoyment using High Fidelity smartphones. It is nothing short of an audiophile revolution, as LG V10 is outperforming hi-fi DACs well into the +1000$ segment”
The LG V10 deserves to be combined (bundled?) with headphones all the way from the Sony MDR Z7 to the Shure SE846 and the Focal Elear, even if it also performs very well with good headphones like Sennheiser HD650 (£230, NOK 2750), or even the price-performance-killer Philips Fidelio X2 (£180, NOK1990).
The V10 is very smart in that it automatically detects what type of device is connected; one of these:
- A normal impedance device; most of the in-ear headphones on the market
- A high impedance device; many audiophile headphones are of this category.
- An external device; typically a preamplifier, i.e. the V10 in the role of a wireless DAC.
V10 then adjust the volume levels accordingly, thus it is in compliance with any type of device. Genius.
Audiophile testimonials on LG V10
When “audiophile” people discover this phone, they say things like:
“It’s a shame it’s not getting more attention, though then again it’s fun to have a phone that you don’t really see anyone else carrying”
“It’s nice to see smartphone makers appealing to audiophiles”
“I have true audiophile grade hi-fi. In my smartphone. Finally!”
This device has charisma, even more so than the subsequent models.
The hi-fi DAC
The audiophile feature of interest is that the LG V10 will automatically turn itself into a wireless DAC when connected to HiFi Stereo equipment or to audiophile headphones.
Many phones can be used as wireless DAC, but not at this quality level. What makes V10 stand out of the crowd is the high fidelity “audiophile grade” quality components used; the ESS SABRE ES9018 DAC, accompanied by an equally powerful headphone amplifier, the ESS SABRE9602Q.
Examples on quality level of DAC components
The DAC processors in the LG V10 have received excellent reviews as main components in other and more traditional DACs, e.g. the AudioQuest DragonFly Red USB DAC (left picture, at NOK2000, £170), and the Pioneer u-05 DAC and headphone amplifier (right picture, at NOK 8000, £699).
We also have a Hifime DAC, and albeit the intonation is somewhat different between the Dragonfly, the Hifime and the built in DAC of the LG V10, I prefer the LG design. It has a more powerful and majestic sound signature than the other two. Anyway, they are trees in the same garden, i.e. excellent DAC + preamp combinations.
The amazing fact is that owners of LG V10 get a £700 level audio quality from a smartphone that is available for £400 or less. And in addition comes the smartphone features!
The LG V10 can now be purchased unlocked for £400, a true “steal” bargain as a hi-fi DAC alone.
Take a look at the picture and understand that the LG V10 is an elegant solution, compared to the Dragonfly (or should we say: Tail?). And the audio is also better. LG V10 can handle 600ohm headphones with ease. The headphone amp is very, very powerful!
How to use as a wireless DAC
The picture illustrates that LG V10 is currently wifi-connected to the multi-room feature of Roon media player (highly recommended), and physically, to a pre-amplifier AUX input via 3.5mm connector. As LG V10 automatically detects whether hifi headphones or an aux is connected, the connection is adjusted with its impedance and becomes audiophile grade. It is a user-friendly concept as the phone can be removed from this settings and turned into a “headphone player”.
Remarkably, this is a wireless, battery driven, DAC. As it is seen, it charges on a wireless charger and can be removed from that during sessions where audio quality is extra important. Battery is always better than a physical grid connection.
In our lab, we have installed 3 LG V10 in this configuration.
Preliminary test results
In HD SoundLab, developing audio related products available on www.soundpimp.com and www.zapp.one, we have evaluated many DACs, including preliminary tests of the DragonFly Red vs the LG V10, again see left picture above. We had top notch headphones at our disposal for this comparison; Focal Elear, Shure SE846 and Audiofly AF1120.
Beyond the obvious fact that it by far is more convenient to have the DAC built into the (left) phone, than it is to “drag around” the DragonFly as connected via USB (right phone), we could also conclude that LG V10 with its ES9018 system is slightly better sounding that the DragonFly Red with its “little brother” ES9016K2M DAC processor (an upgraded version of SE 9016).
Given that DragonFly Red notoriously receives excellent reviews, this fact serves also as a reliable reference for the interior DAC system of the LG V10.
There is no doubt about the hi-fi qualities of LG V10. Below, please find links discussing this:
A set of links put together by an(other) enthusiastic owner of LG V10:
HeadFi.org. Probably the best audiophile phone on the market. Probably the best camera phone as well:
Another thread on Headfi.org
Se ESS Press release as LGE chose ESS components.
ESS expain about its headphone amplifiers: http://www.esstech.com/index.php/en/products/audio-amplifiers/
Example on a “press release” that is more pinpointing towards the Audiophile community:
Another hi-fi related review: http://www.head-co/t/785335/lg-v10-hi-fi-audio-quality-review-on-serious-audio-performance