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HD Voice – new quality of sound for mobile phones

Last week MegaFon launched in Moscow Voice HD – a new mobile networks codec, which offers better sound and speech intelligibility. HD Voice title appeals more to marketing than to technical points, but users will hear this particular term from carriers. Let's look what it is about and how we can benefit from this new feature.

It is difficult to imagine, but voice communication standards were established as early as in 1937 for landline networks and nothing changed since then. Frequencies ranged from 300 to 3400 Hz. When mobile networks were created old rules were adapted and new codecs helped to economize available frequencies. Codecs, which allowed putting as much information as possible into the smallest amount of space, were popular. For example, FM radio uses the range from 20 till 20000 Hz. CDs give you as much as 44100 Hz. Do you feel the difference with the 3400 Hz limit for mobile and landline phones? At the moment the majority of networks use AMR codec with the same limit of 300-3400 Hz. All attempts to change the situation were hampered by data transfer restrictions. HD Voice became possible first for landline communication and then for mobile networks. The word HD Voice is a general term, which unites several standards, we will speak about.

Let's first look who can benefit from HD Voice and should we treat it as a separate service from carriers. In promotional materials companies claim that HD Voice boosts speech intelligibility, conveys emotions better and helps recognize the speaker. You are provided only with advantages. How could we live before the arrival of this technology? Do you recognize callers straight away? It is not a problem with your relatives or people you often talk to. There is even no need to look at the screen. In a quiet room speech recognition is usually not a problem. When do we need HD Voice then?

MegaFon uses the same promotion approaches initiated by Nokia Siemens Networks, as Nokia is one of the patent holders for AMR-WB (at least it has the title HD Voice). They claim that a broader range of 50 - 7000 Hz conveys the voice energy better, you lose less information and get higher intelligibility. It should better transmit fricative sounds "s" and "f" together with more prominent difference between "m" and "n"/"p"/"t". This explanation is not quite clear. The only thing to understand is the voice is transferred better.

In fact voice transfer is completely different here. Without getting into too many technical details I can say that the codec divides the frequency into 2 parts. The main information is transferred by the range of 50 - 6400 Hz, while 6400 - 7000 Hz is responsible for unique features of any individual voice.

This codec fares well not when you talk to an old friend, but in other situations. For example, when you communicate with your small child. Parents know that the speech of tiny tots is understandable in real life, but may pose a challenge on the phone. Everything turns into a mess. HD Voice helps you to understand every single word. The speech must be meaningful though.

From youngsters we can go to the people of age. We often don't pay attention to it, but after 60 many people have problems with clear pronunciation. You are lucky if this problem does not touch your relatives, but according to research the voice of people does change. Many strangers find it difficult to talk to your relatives on the phone, so they have to repeat their questions for clarification purposes. Once again HD Voice comes handy and transfers the entire range, which boosts intelligibility.

Another useful option is phone conferences, when people cannot see each other. HD Voice improves speech intelligibility (especially when foreign languages are used) and helps you recognize callers faster.

Finally we have higher quality of voice recognition in other phones you call to. HD Voice gives fewer mistakes, better performance and intelligibility of orders.

I hope you did not get tired of the long list of codec usages. It certainly improves the quality of ordinary conversations. It is more pleasant to hear you interlocutor without distortions and clear transfer of emotions is also quite attractive.

Do not treat HD Voice as a separate service, because sooner or later all networks will use these codecs. It is a normal evolutionary process. In 2011 we should expect the popularity in the segment when different carriers start implementing solutions for HD Voice, but there are still many stumbling blocks on the way. They are associated both with carriers' equipment and mobile phones. For example, Nokia, which promotes AMR-WB, added the appropriate support to its Symbian models in 2009, but it is till inactive in many countries. It gets activated only in countries where carriers use HD Voice on NSN solutions. In Europe these features are offered by Orange and I tested the service several years ago.

When HD Voice from Orange was launched in UK several Nokia phones were supported (e.g. Nokia E5) together with one Samsung phone on Windows Mobile. By the way almost all Windows Mobile solutions support HD Voice, but it is not activated by default (HTC HD2, Samsung Witu/Omnia, etc). Manufacturers plan to activate the codec for markets with appropriate carrier support. For example, in Russia AMR-WB will be available in all Symbian^3 smartphones from Nokia, Samsung models in 2011 and several models from Sony Ericsson. At the moment you can use HD Voice (AMR-WB) on three models in Russia – Nokia N8, Nokia C7 and Nokia C6-01 (the last is yet to hit the shelves).

If you call from the phone, which supports HD Voice to another handset in the same network (so far only MegaFon in Moscow) nothing will happen and you will use only AMR. Even if you have two phones with HD Voice support, but only one works in MegaFon network you will not benefit from the technology. Different networks have no compatibility regarding HD Voice codecs anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, carriers have not come up with solutions to transfer HD Voice from network to network. Moreover, you cannot get HD Voice quality in one network if you call from another city (it works this way so far).

Limitations in Moscow are connected with the fact that you need 3G as HD Voice is not supported by 2G so far. In 2011 NSN promises to enable the use of the codec in traditional GSM networks too. If you are in a 3G area together with your interlocutor it is time to test the service. I was unpleasantly surprised that I had no 3G coverage at home, though everything worked fine near the building. I had to move tests outside and fight with rain at the same time. Some readers suggested recording the speech to show the difference between HD Voice and ordinary AMR. There is a minor technical problem here. For example, the dictaphone of Nokia N8 cannot record in AMR-WB, as it has limit of 3500 Hz. Look at the chart anyway. I could have supplied you with dozens of examples, but the results would have been the same. Speech transfer quality was much better, but I could not record the sound via a 3.5 mm jack due to similar limitations (music recording shows different data). I had a feeling, that HD Voice did not work, but according to subjective assessment everything worked well. It means that the sound goes to the headphones differently from the voice. I cannot show you results of the test as I had problems with recording. I tried to record the sound from the phone loudspeaker (during the conversation without the hands free mode), but was unsuccessful as well because of excessive ambient noise. You have to trust my word that HD Voice works well and read the description below.

I called from one model to another and tried to compare the resulting sound with a traditional phone without HD support. During conversations the difference was not clear. I asked my callers to start playing music (in a car) to feel the difference. You can hear it well and I like the rich sound of HD Voice, but its quality is far behind that of FM radio, so music fans who can tell (or believe that have the ability)the difference between a gilded cable from a standard one will not be impressed.

In noisy environment (rain, ambient noise) HD Voice helped people to hear me better. HD Voice showed good results in noisy places and my callers could hear particular sounds in the street and not just a wall of noise.

All in all I have to say that HD Voice is a welcome addition to standard features, but it is not an option to look for or boast among friends. The technology must become standard for all carriers and be used everywhere. Only then we could claim that the speech recognition quality improved for all users. So far it is a first test of the technology. You cannot expect it to work for you. It is impossible to know at all times the model of your caller's phone and the area (2G/3G) of his/her location.

MegaFon and Nokia offer a small promotional campaign for HD Voice. In seven MegaFon outlets you can find special stalls with the handsets, bearing an appropriate label.

You can call another outlet and connect to an HD Voice model. I am not sure you will hear the difference as you do not know the interlocutor, but why not test the feature. I know for sure that in the near future HD Voice will not make you buy a particular phone, because the technology should become omnipresent to make the difference. It is quite interesting to analyze the trend nonetheless. We haven't witnessed any considerable change since 1937 and we are still in a stone age. The situation will change in several years and we can only be much better off.

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Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
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Translated by Maxim Antonenko (maxantonenko@ukr.net)

Published — 15 November 2010

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com



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