Sometimes it seems like smartphone-makers have exhausted all the obvious features, and have nothing left to differentiate their products. One trait that's been largely ignored by the A-list companies, though, is Hi-Fi audio. LG's end-of-year flagship, the V20, can not only deliver truly remarkable headphone sound; it also stands as a well-rounded smartphone powerhouse that – for better or worse – harks back to Android phones of yesteryear.
Going from the iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel XL to the LG V20, in some ways, felt like going back in time – though not always in a bad way. The V20 follows an old pattern that was once the trademark of all Android phones: Hammer the spec-sheet hard, put design somewhere behind functionality, find something competitors aren't doing and do it, and throw in customizations like a removable battery and expandable storage. The resulting phone, unlike the latest Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy flagships, is completely unconcerned with being "like an iPhone."
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The Google Pixel phones mark the first time I've used an Android flagship that performed every bit as smoothly as a current-gen iPhone. And by "perform," I mean simple UI navigation stuff – scrolling, panning and multitasking – having that buttery-smooth, real-time feel. The LG V20, though, falls back into the more typical Android habit of delighting with benchmarks but falling just a hair short on that subjective experience that Apple, and now Google, have nailed.
It's very fast and mostly smooth, but sometimes you work it too hard (think multitasking or jumping quickly between browser tabs) and things can get a pinch choppy.
Fortunately the V20's all-around experience is still very solid. And it does have that one standout feature that prevents it from being just another try-hard-but-fall-short phone from a second-tier smartphone maker. Its eardrum-enchanting sound, paired with the right headphones and audio files, will be the best you've heard coming from a smartphone.
Listening to Hi-Fi audio tracks (streamed from Tidal) paired with Sony's excellent MDR-1000X headphones, the LG V20 has consistently delivered warm, full and well-defined audio. Bass is pure, all sounds are crisp and distinct, and overall separation is crystal-clear. It sounds best with wired headphones, where it takes advantage of LG's built-in Quad DAC (Digital-Analog Converter), but its wireless performance is also far ahead of most competitors (featuring AptX HD), and comes much closer to the top-notch wired audio experience than I'd expected.
I listened to a variety of Hi-Fi tracks from different genres, paired with those same Sony headphones, on the Pixel XL, iPhone 7 Plus and LG V20, and noticed a big improvement – both in wired and wireless modes – when going back to the V20. There are many different ways you can compare these three excellent phones, but headphone audio is an enormous and indisputable advantage for the V20.
Apple is killing the headphone jack. LG is pumping some of the most mesmerizing audio you've heard through it.
This is, mind you, a niche feature: I'd be surprised if Hi-Fi headphone audio was something many people had ever treated their ears to even once, much less something they'd take into account when buying a new phone (if they did, we'd likely see a lot more built-in DACs and AptX support).
But if you are someone who listens to CD-quality music through an expensive pair of cans, why either a) settle for lesser audio or b) buy an external DAC accessory to improve the phone's audio output? LG, along with HTC, is giving audiophiles something to work with out-of-the-box.
There are other reasons to consider this phone, but if you have picky ears and the right gear, then the V20 should be at the top of your list for your next phone this holiday season.
While headphone audio is targeting a niche audience, camera quality is about as mainstream as it gets – and fortunately the V20 is in very good shape there too. Pitting its resulting shots side-by-side against the current leader, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, the V20 held its own better than I expected:
In the brightly-lit shot, the V20 leans a bit towards hyper-saturation; I prefer the Pixel's more realistic look. The Pixel also deepens blacks and generally handles contrast better. But it's hard to fault LG's phone in these settings.
The LG V20 brightens poorly-lit and extremely-poorly-lit scenes (like the sample below) almost as well as the Pixel does, though it also loses some finer detail and contrast in those settings that you'll see in poorly-lit Pixel shots:
The V20 joins the latest trend of phones with a second rear camera. But rather than serving as a zoom lens, like on the iPhone 7 Plus, LG's dual camera setup lets you quickly jump from standard to wide-angle shots by toggling an onscreen button.
LG's camera setup doesn't top the Pixel – if you want great smartphone photos, Google's phone is the current leader – but if you ignore the iPhone 7 Plus' nifty Portrait Mode for a moment, I prefer the V20 rear camera's results over those from Apple's latest.
The V20 is a big honkin' phablet with a 5.7-inch QHD display (same as the fire hazard known as the Galaxy Note 7). The V20 has an aluminum build, no plastic, but employs a snap-off back (another throwback to past Android phones) to reveal the removable battery and microSD/SIM slots. LG added a side-button to automatically snap the back out of place too, an elegant touch that kills all the crude fingernail-digging you had to do on older phones with pop-off backs.
The phone's front also looks like a throwback to old-school Android. Rather than striving to be a work of art, a la Jony Ive's greatest hits at Apple or HTC's highlight reel, it's a purely-functional appearance, which can best be complimented by saying "it doesn't look terrible."
LG also brought back the Second Screen from last year's V10, a small strip of screen living just north of the main display. Much like the Edge Display on Samsung's curved flagships, LG's sliver of screen serves as home to various shortcuts, which you can swipe through at will, and will also show you notifications without interrupting your main screen.
We could take or leave the Second Screen, but I do often find it handy to see if I have any missed messages or other alerts without having to fire up the screen or even lift a finger.
Battery life is solid, dropping 12 percent per hour in our standard benchmark (streaming video over Wi-Fi, with screen brightness set at a consistent luminance). For a frame of reference, that's the same as the iPhone 7 Plus and a hair behind the Pixel XL (11 percent per hour).
And remember, unlike most modern phones, you can buy a spare battery and pop that in if you're, say, on a long business trip and running out of juice.
One nice bonus is 64 GB of storage is standard. And it gives you a microSD slot that supports up to 2 TB cards. Running out of space shouldn't be an issue with this phone, period. Another spec-splurge, like that past era of Android that LG still has one foot planted in.
One way the V20 falls behind the Pixel family is software. While Google's phone is the purest version of the latest Android release, out-of-the-way and unobtrusive, LG's custom UI sticks its nose in your face a little more, flaunting its shininess and features. Again, this is the historical norm for Android flagships, and the V20's software is hardly what we'd call a "problem." It's just that, when contrasted with the pure-Android Pixel, we prefer Google's almost-nothing approach. LG's software feels a little like a sales pitch; Google's stock OS just gets the hell out of your way and helps you get shit done.
The LG V20 is an outstanding smartphone that might only be a no-brainer buy for a select few. If you don't care one bit about Hi-Fi audio? Then the V20 is still a worthy contender, but you might be better off with the Pixel's and Pixel XL's slightly (not dramatically) better photos and more buttery-smooth software/performance.
If you have a really nice pair of headphones, though, and want to milk them for all they're worth, this is the phone to buy. It ticks that box, while also matching or nearly-matching its best rivals in the other most-important categories.
I'll personally be using the V20 as my main phone for a while. I've invested in great-sounding headphones, which I listen to for a good portion of each day; any other minor nitpicks I have about the phone (software, not-quite-butter fluidity) are dwarfed by how delicious a feast that audio provides for my eardrums. If you're anything like me in that respect, I highly recommend picking one up.
The excellent LG V20 is available now on all major US carriers. Its full-retail price varies widely, ranging from the mid-US$600s to mid-$700s.
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