(Update: The Tidal Android App now supports Tidal Masters (MQA) streaming on the LG V30…check out my post about it here.)
DSD, FLAC, MQA, OH MY! Those were my first thoughts last August when I read about the new LG V30 smartphone and it’s upgraded Hi-Fi Quad DAC. You see, I already owned the LG V20, the audiophile powerhouse which preceded it, and I loved the sound it produced when coupled with a nice set of headphones or earphones.
But then came the newer, sleeker model, which had a bigger battery to accommodate longer listening sessions. Not only that, the new ESS SABRE dac on board gave it the ability to play the newest, albeit very mysterious to many, hi-res format, MQA. This new format is hailed by some to be the future of high resolution music, since its compression algorithm allows for easier streaming, along with some proprietary sonic benefits. As someone who wanted some exposure to this format, I was hooked.
I purchased the phone in November, and after completing the standard Android setup, I couldn’t wait to load my 128GB microSDXC card filled with hi-res music files and place it into the slot on the right side of the phone.
On that memory card were mostly 24/96 FLAC files, mixed in with some DSD files and the one MQA album I have (more on that later).
Since November, the LG V30 has been my constant companion, and these are my experiences with the flagship smartphone as a music player.
The phone comes with a couple of apps to play music files out of the box, one is Google Play Music, which is loaded on the majority of Android phones, and the other is the LG Music App, which I prefer since I find it to be more elegantly designed with more features. More importantly, the LG app is optimized to take advantage of the aforementioned ESS SABRE 9218P Quad-DAC, which means it can tap into the full capability of the chip, playing back FLAC, DSD, and MQA files with beautiful results. For the spec junkies, the ESS 9218P has the following specs: 2.0Vrms output, 130 dB SNR and -114 dB Total Harmonic Distortion, and support for up to 32-bit 384kHz PCM and DSD256 file formats.
In order to engage what LG calls the “Hi-Fi Quad DAC”, you swipe down and access the quick settings menu at the top of the Notification Drawer. In the quick settings, you can press the Quad Dac toggle button and if you have headphones plugged into the headphone jack at the top of the phone, it will turn on. It will not come on if there is nothing plugged in, which makes sense since the DAC only works with wired headphones. Once turned on, a “Hi-Fi” icon appears in the notification bar at the top of the screen.
When I play a hi-res FLAC file using the LG Music App, it brings up a different “Hi-Fi” indicator showing it is a hi-res file, along with the bit-depth and sample rate. If I play an MQA file it shows the sample rate along with a blue light, with the blue light designating a “MQA Studio” file, which lets me know the file was approved in the studio by the artist/producer or verified by the copyright holder. (not sure what that really means, but I digress) The MQA spec also discusses the presence of a green light, but I did not see this during my usage. The green light just designates the file is MQA encoded. The LG music player design is pretty slick.
Since the full “What Is MQA” question has been covered ad infinitum, I will refer you here for that explanation, but for the context of this review, I must say that MQA sounded great on my LG V30 using some 1 More Triple Driver earphones, and the Audioquest NightHawk headphones. When I played the one MQA album I own, Curtis Harding’s “Face Your Fear”, the sound was so clear, so open, that I played a few tracks back a couple of times in order to fully digest what I was hearing. I compared the 24/48 MQA files to the 24/48 standard FLAC files, and with the MQA, the soundstage seemed wider, with more space between instruments, Harding’s vocals also seemed clearer. Granted, I will need a lot more exposure to a lot more MQA recordings to pass final judgement, but I like what I heard. That being said, the FLAC sound quality was also stellar, like on the V20 before it. I also queued up some music on the Tidal app, with the “Hi-Fi” CD-quality playback turned on, (not to be confused the with the phone’s “Hi-Fi” Quad Dac setting) and that also sounded very good, giving me a very spacious sound with a whole lot of detail.
LG markets MQA as a high-res streaming format, and I have seen many people take this to mean that you can stream MQA from Tidal on the V30. While Tidal Masters does stream MQA, for now that is only possible via the Tidal desktop app on the PC, not thru the Android app, so as of this writing, MQA streaming is not possible on the V30. However, LG has partnered with a service in South Korea to bring this to fruition, at least in Asia, it will only be a matter of time before it is available in the U.S.
Regarding the Quad DAC itself, the one on the V30 also offers some additional features over the one in the previous model, the V20. On the V30 you gain the ability to turn on what LG calls “Sound Presets” and “Digital Filters”. The “Sound Presets” work like a equalizer, and I can choose between “Normal”, “Enhanced”, “Detailed”, “Live” or “Bass”. “Normal” is the default. The Digital Filters adjust the impulse response of playback, giving you three options, “Short” which claims to provide a more spatial sound, “Sharp” which claims to produce a “natural” sound, and “Slow” which claims to produce a clearer sound. “Short” is the default.
After playing around with all the Sound Presets and Digital Filters, I decided I liked the default “Normal” and “Short” settings. I must say they seem like a gimmick to me, but your mileage may vary. Another thing to note, is these settings cannot be applied to DSD or MQA files.
Again, just like the V20, the Quad DAC only works during playback with wired headphones, but the V30, like the V20 before it, also supports Qualcomm’s Apt-X HD which allows for up to 24/48 high resolution wireless playback over Bluetooth. This is provided you have headphones which supports the codec.
In conclusion, the LG V30, from a hi-fi audiophile point of view is a hit. Like the V20 before it, it satisfies my needs for a hi-res Digital Audio Player, playing almost all hi-res formats with great sound quality. If you want a phone that can also function as a high end Digital Audio Player, the V30 is the only game in town.