After 140+ years of technological advances, why does telephone audio still suck?

I spend my days on the phone, trying to decipher what the other parties are saying, and the other way around. Is that S as in Sam or F as in Frank, for instance–many systems have problems with that. No audio is good, though these are big companies with state of the art, digital phone systems internally hooked to the phone companies of America’s centers of commerce and industry. Some is remarkably bad, including positively antique, tinny audio on the level of Bell’s first call to Watson. Why is this?

If you look at, e.g., VOIP services it’s clear this isn’t an inherent problem in real-time audio transmission. It’s honestly just cost saving (cheap microphones and speakers on phones) and an unwillingness to increase the data rate that phones transmit the encoded sound at (meaning more audio compression = worse quality).

Neither of these is exactly difficult to fix*, but there’s not much impetus to fix them. Not to mention the issues are symbiotic. Better speakers won’t matter if your audio is terribly compressed and lower compression rates don’t do much if your microphones are crap.

  • Unless we’re bounded by the data rate that a standard telephone line can transmit at?

Who needs a perfectly flat 20hz to 20Khz audio spectrum for voice communications?

Most people here buy their phones for apps. Voice quality comes a long way down on the list, if it matters at all. Dunno about the quality of your phone network: I know we’ve had some mobile phone technologies that had fairly poor sound quality, but I don’t know what the state of the play is now. All the REALLY poor quality calls I get are from overseas call centres, where they’ve obviously paid the minimum to get the minimum quality.

Who needs HD to watch the news? Who needs a car that can do 0 to 60 in 6 seconds to commute to work?

The problem with high-quality audio, as jragon said, is that you need good equipment and bandwidth along the entire connection for it to work. Look up Wideband audio and AMR-WB.

You can already get very good quality with good microphones and headphones over Skype (and probably FaceTime and equivalents), but it’s a bit hit-and-miss.

Pre-divestiture AT&T used to care greatly about sound quality and reliability. Competition killed that, but made phone calls less expensive. Cell phones and the high cost of wireless spectrum have carried that trend to the extreme. On a cell phone, I cannot recognize my own children’s voices.

Ex-telecoms engineer reporting. When I worked for the British Post Office, the accepted wisdom was that better quality was perfectly possible, but it would cost money- and people would thoroughly dislike it.

It was held that a hifi telephone would be like someone talking right up close and personal, with their lips almost touching your ear, and that would not appeal. I’m not saying it’s true, but it was certainly a widely-held belief then. I don’t have any cite for it.

Hifi headphones don’t seem to suffer from this, perhaps because they’re stereo, and the voice is not in your ear but inside your head. Much better!

Backwards compatibility. Your phone has to be able to talk to every other phone ever built which means it’s running on standards that haven’t largely changed since the invention of the telephone. There’s been some push to change that over the recent years with “HD Calling” being patchily implemented by carriers but carriers hate co-operating with each other which means they’ve largely been implemented within carrier.

The Economist had a great article about this last year.

edit: Incidentally, Facetime Audio with a good set of headphones is a revelation and demonstrates what the true potential of voice calls actually is.

The first time I Skyped was with headphones and while the person I was talking to was on the other side of the globe, he sounded like he was sitting right next to me, talking. In fact, it was more like he as actually in my head! It was hard to imagine any better clarity.

Likewise, even my iPhone sounds clearer when I use just the standard ear buds than when listening through the phone’s speaker.

I believe technology exists that would allow a person on the phone to hear a pin drop on the other end.

Is the OP talking about land lines? I would agree that since the cell phone revolution that you are lucky to find a land line phone that will last more than 3 years. But I have no problem with the quality, unless I’m talking to some idiot telemarketer that can’t be bothered with putting the mike near their mouth. Or they just have shitty equipment.

Cells phone calls are getting better, but still generally suck where I live.

Originally the audio for phonecalls was simply transmitted as an electrical signal through a long wire. (Where “long” could be from New York to Chicago.) To make this work, they added loading coils which filtered out the very high and very low frequencies, giving phonecalls their distinctive sound.

Later, the whole thing became digital. They chose an encoding that was sufficient for the 300 - 3400 Hz that phonecalls were supposed to carry. (The gold standard for audio quality is 20 - 20000 Hz. 3400 Hz isn’t quite high enough to hear the difference between f and s and 300 Hz cuts of the low frequencies and makes people sound tinny.)

Then came along cell phones and VoIP, which compress the digital audio. Old compression schemes are quite bad.

Last but not least, most modern audio equipment doesn’t run at the 8000 Hz frequency used for digital telephony, but the 44100 Hz frequency used for CD quality audio. (This sampling frequency needs to be a bit more than double the frequency of the highest pitch sound that is transmitted.)

If the conversion from 8000 to 44100 Hz is handled badly, this leads to nasty “aliasing” sounds.

So worst case is someone using an analog line calling to a cell phone using an old compression system hooked up to a speaker or headphones with bad sample rate conversion.

The other extreme is when using Skype or cell phone calls where the sampling frequency is increased to 16000 Hz. However, this only works if the entire path supports it, so in practice it usually only works for regular phone calls if both callers are on the same network.

Once upon a time, long long ago, telephone companies were massive entities that owned umpteen miles of copper cable and gigantic exchanges used for transmitting analog sound. They also owned the telephone handsets that were leased to their customers for decades at a time. Everything was built solidly to reduce maintenance costs, and these giant monopolies could afford that because they had a metric ass-load of capital to support the investment. The armies of engineers they employed spent a lot of time working on how to cost-effectively deliver audio quality at about 8-9 on a ten point scale going from 0 (can just about tell there is a human on the other end of the call) to 10 (perfect, like they are sat next to me). Calls cost a lot of money but were generally good quality.

Nowadays telephone companies are mostly just marketing and finance organisations who lease or rent absolutely everything. The calls are routed over a mish-mash of wire, fibre, radio and who knows what using lossy compression and packet technology. The handful of engineers still employed to make it all work are under strict instructions to deliver minimum-cost audio quality just sufficient to prevent customers cancelling en masse, and that has been found to be pretty damn low (so low that the average call quality now would have been rated as ‘unacceptable’ in the old monopoly days). Calls are dirt cheap but crappy quality, and customers are just fine with that.

The handful of people who are not happy with that just need to say so, and they will find a queue of salespeople outside their door willing to sell them a guaranteed-quality point-to-point link for only a few hundred thousand dollars and/or a few dollars/minute in call charges. But even then, if the other party in the conversation has taken the low cost/low quality option, and it is going to sound like you are shouting at each other down a drainpipe…

I think it has gotten much worse in recent years. Thirty years ago, even a long-distance call sounded like someone in the next room. Now when I get calls, mostly from businesses, including local ones, I keep having to ask them to speak louder. So I have the volume turned up to max. When one of my children call long distance, even from a cell phone, I have to hold the phone away from my ear, it is so loud. This is a landline I am using, BTW. I don’t know what these companies are doing to render their telephones so awful, but don’t they realize they can hurt business?

Sure this isn’t a problem with the receiver? In other words, your ear? I haven’t seen any degradation of quality on my landline at all, including conference calls. And those nitwits from India come in loud and clear, and they seem to be able to hear me insulting them just fine.

Have you considered the possibility that the fact that you’re old enough to remember long-distance calls from thirty years ago might be part of the problem? I remember many long-distance calls (within the US) thirty years ago still being a lot like listening to someone at the bottom of a well. It depended on where you were calling.

Having said that, there is something different about the quality of telephone audio now. I’m thinking a combination of crummy handsets and loads if compression. From where I’m standing, things seem to have improved a bit from a few years ago, so I’m personally hard-pressed to attribute it entirely to senility.