April 28, 2009

Does the iPhone erroneously amplify background noise to ear-splitting levels?

I have noticed this problem with and without using earbuds. I've been on the receiving and the giving end of it. Some relatively innocuous background noise — like mild wind, food frying, or water running — will become the dominant sound, drowning out the human being who is trying to be heard. The noise is excruciating, and the only option seems to be to end the call.

I'm guessing there is something wrong at the software level right now. The iPhone is sometimes especially smart about adjusting to the sound it hears. For example, if you stop talking, it switches to dead silence. I often find myself saying "Are you still there?" when I'm talking to someone who's using an iPhone, because it sounds the same as a dead line. Or sometimes the line — "line" isn't the right word anymore — has gone dead and I keep talking because I think it's that iPhone feature.

It seems as though the phone's software is sometimes fooled and interprets a background noise as the voice and, trying to help, it makes a correction. The result is horrendous. If I'm right about this, Apple needs to solve this problem quickly. After a wind-noise conversation 5 days ago, my ears are still not right. This is the stuff class actions are made of.

38 comments:

Jennifer said...

Well, that's a cold shower for my iPhone lust.

Sofa King said...

For example, if you stop talking, it switches to dead silence.
Pretty much all cell phones do that. It saves battery life because it doesn't have to transmit the digital audio data for your voice when there's nothing to hear. It also works the other way - to save bandwidth, the cell tower will not bother transmitting if the other caller is silent. That's (one reason) why music on hold sounds so terrible on cell phones, because when the music is quiet, the tower stops transmitting.

Juris Dentist said...

Lawsuits I hope lose: whiny, rich iPhone users complaining about whatever.

CarmelaMotto said...

A friend's home cordless phone has that problem. I hear her kids going in and out, opening the fridge, the washing machine, the neighbors mower as well as I hear my friends voice if not better. Really irritating. I find myself turning the volume down on my phone to accomodate.

sonicfrog said...

Does it sound like this???

Balfegor said...

It seems as though the phone's software is sometimes fooled and interprets a background noise as the voice and, trying to help, it makes a correction. The result is horrendous. If I'm right about this, Apple needs to solve this problem quickly. This sounds like a normalization issue -- there's probably a software switch that you can trigger that will fix this. I have similar issues with my Samsung P2, when I turn on "street mode" (which seems to boost the mid-range audio signals and normalize all the audio to approximately one level -- makes for very staticky quiet parts, at times). Since I don't have an iPhone, I have no idea where you would find it, but I expect it should be easy enough to fix.

Pogo said...

When I was a little kid, I used to fall asleep in the laundry room; the washing machine was so soothing. I suppose the sound made me recall the safety within Mom, when I was just forming.

Maybe I'll get an iPhone just to call people doing the wash.

John Burgess said...

With no compulsion to follow the latest fads, I make do with a Nokia. It has a selectively sensitive microphone, apparently, as things like bird song in the background gets transmitted very well to people on the other end of my line. Sounds like fireworks, though, don't go through.

Paul Zrimsek said...

The bottom end of an iPhone is enough closer to the mouth than the top end that you'd think a noise-canceling arrangement with mics in those two places would work.

rhhardin said...

I liked washing machine sounds as a kid because it sounded like the air compressors on the local trains, and I liked trains.

Meade said...

I liked train tunnels.

rhhardin said...

Interesting kid liking trains fact: I was imagining a train on my bicycle for years as a kid pasttime around the neighborhood.

Since I still bicycle every day, more than ever as a kid incidentally, I wondered if it was still possible to imagine being a train.

The answer is yes, but it isn't interesting enough to hold your attention for the time it takes to say it.

You could summarize it that the idea has no future any longer, where for a kid its future is its point.

rhhardin said...

Thurber thought death would be like a train in a tunnel, and the train stops, and everybody gets out, and that's it. ``What's wrong with that?'' he asked, into the face of immortality believers.

Hitchcock on the other hand used train tunnels to elude film censors.

Lautreamont: immortality will not always be a negation.

Meade said...

Paceline I ride
16 coaches long

Freeman Hunt said...

I suppose the sound made me recall the safety within Mom, when I was just forming.

We have a recording of a commercially produced "baby calming" sound based on that idea. It's loud and sounds like some kind of Nine Inch Nails instrumentation. Works too.

Other son and I thought it was annoying until we both conked out on the couch while it was playing.

rhhardin said...

Lay an ear on the tummy of a beloved when you get a chance.

Bissage said...

Two dixie cups and some kite string works just fine for me.

Christy said...

You bought a pretty shiny object because all the kewl kids were excited about this great new product, sure the producers had the real thing and that it would change the world. You had hope it would be all that was promised.

The shiny new thing has a deal breaking shortcoming.

Go figure.

MadisonMan said...

Other son and I thought it was annoying until we both conked out on the couch while it was playing.There's nothing better than falling asleep on the couch for a quick nap with your kid on your chest, also snoozing. I miss those days.

Buford Gooch said...

Sounds a lot like my hearing aids. Urination becomes Niagara Falls.

MadisonMan said...

I, MadisonMan, Solemnly Swear THAT I WILL REMEMBER THAT ITALICS HAVE TO BE CLOSED AFTER AFTER AFTER THE PAGEBREAK FROM NOW ON.

Argh.

Balfegor said...

I, MadisonMan, Solemnly Swear THAT I WILL REMEMBER THAT ITALICS HAVE TO BE CLOSED AFTER AFTER AFTER THE PAGEBREAK FROM NOW ON.

Yes, it's maddening. Why did they change the way their system parses the code? The tags are standard, but no other message boards parse it this way. Why, blogger, why?

sonicfrog said...

...And why can you STILL not use blockquotes in the comments section? (or have they changed that)

rhhardin said...

There's nothing better than falling asleep on the couch for a quick nap with your kid on your chest, also snoozing. I miss those days.

You can get a puppy.

Puppies however are only chestable puppies for a few weeks, so you may be better off renting a series of them.

rhhardin said...

Why did they change the way their system parses the code?

It's usually redoing the code to clean it up, say using capitals in variable names and other improvements when a newly hired graduate student joins the team.

Advances in programming methodology are also called bit rot.

Joe said...

Why, blogger, why?Dipshit programmers. Blogspot is chock full of them.

Smilin' Jack said...

I, MadisonMan, Solemnly Swear THAT I WILL REMEMBER THAT ITALICS HAVE TO BE CLOSED AFTER AFTER AFTER THE PAGEBREAK FROM NOW ON.

The really stupid thing is that the tags are parsed correctly in the preview, but not in the published comment. I guess that newfangled concept of WYSIWYG is beyond the morons at Blogger.

The iPhone is sometimes especially smart about adjusting to the sound it hears. For example, if you stop talking, it switches to dead silence. I often find myself saying "Are you still there?"...

It's funny how the things Apple fans find especially smart are the things the rest of us find especially stupid.

ajf said...

I'd say this post confirms that Althouse is a natural blonde...

iPhone does not claim any noise cancelation nor does it apply any. Sofa king is correct, if the mic isn't picking up sound (at a particular threshold) it will not digitize and send.

What you need to do is not point the mic, which is at bottom right of iPhone, at the sources of these offending noises and tell the people you're speaking with (I'm assuming blondes) to do the same.

Or, you know, get a noise canceling headset...

dick said...

Consider yourself lucky. Have hearing aids and try to listen over a cell phone. I get constant whistling and buzzing so loud I cannot hear at all. I have given up even attempting to get a cell phone because of this. With the landline I can turnup the volume enough that I can take the hearing aids out and listen. Even with a landline phone I cannot find a phone that will allow me to use my hearing aids. They make some that will work but they cost over $7500 and that is a wee bit more than I can really put out there.

Ann Althouse said...

I think the post is clear: the problem is a bizarre amplification of background noise that occurs with earbuds and without. So it's not just a matter of where I'm "pointing the mic." A noise- canceling headset is interesting as a work-around but I am trying to call attention to a problem that ought to be fixed. And since I want to enjoy my iPhone as an iPod too, it's not a good option.

ajf said...

The earbuds have their own microphone, but the same advice works there too.

My point is that the problem you are having is not what you think. iPhone simply does not discriminate between ambient noise and your voice, it only makes the binary choice about whether to send input from the mic over the network.

I'll point out that there doesn't seem to be anyone else complaining about this supposed problem, at least not on the Apple support forums. And those people complain about everything, real or imagined!

If having integrated voice/music is important to you then you could get third-party earbuds with voice, but I don't think any of those have noise canceling for voice as they are primarily designed to improve music quality.

Another option would be to add a wind guard to the microphones in question. I'm not aware of any that are commercially available for iPhone (another indication that this 'problem' isn't endemic), but you could DIY! Use the foam from the earbud covers that shipped with iPhone or a small piece of a cotton ball and affix it over the iPhone/earbud mic.

Again, iPhone does not "erroneously amplify background noise to ear-splitting levels" because it simply never knows what is background noise, it just knows that when a certain threshold is crossed it should digitize and send that audio over the network. For it to discriminate, in any meaningful way, it would need a second microphone so it could compare the waveforms and cancel out the ambient noise.

Ann Althouse said...

@ajf Your explanation misses some of the evidence I've laid out.

1. It isn't just happening to me but also to the person I am talking to. We are both having the problem.

2. A minor background noise is forefronted, weirdly drowning out the voice, which is, in fact louder. Talking louder doesn't even work. The voice is lost and horrible noise replaces it.

You are asserting that something can't happen, but it is happening. You have to begin with the reality and try to explain that.

And I do have third-party earbuds (as well as the original earbuds), and the problem exists even when I don't use earbuds.

Also, doing something to my microphone won't solve the problem of noise that is coming in from the other person's phone.

ajf said...

I'm not asserting that something isn't happening, just that it is not happening for the reason you think. iPhone isn't doing the kind of audio processing that you imagine, that's reality.

If there were some other inherent flaw causing the behavior you describe, would it be reasonable to think that only you and those you talk to would be experiencing the behavior? I don't think so. There don't seem to be any independent reports at Apple's support forum, and certainly no great outcry from elsewhere. So I think it's safe to assume that there must be some much narrower cause, probably usage and/or location related.

I can help, but I need more info:

Are you able to replicate the problem at will?
When did you first notice this?
If you end the effected call and immediately call back does it happen again?
Have you experienced it when traveling?
Where are the people you know who also experience this?
Does it only happen iPhone to iPhone?

Wen said...

Red!

Ann Dorrain #305 said...

I have received complaints from people that I talk to about ear-splitting background noises too. Like running water or opening a plastic bag. It's really is a big problem and needs to be addressed!

Frank said...

Me too. When I call my wife, she often asks "what was that" when traffic goes by, or, this morning when I opened a squeaky door at the Post Office. Or repeats back to me a conversation that was happening 15 feet away in my office. She even hear birds tweeting in our office parking lot when I'm walking to my car.

It seems to her that it's almost like I'm talking on "speaker phone" mode rather than normal phone mode.

iPhone owners might not be aware of the problem unless the people they are talking to complain to them about the noise.

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL said...

A little behind on the comment thread, but I have the same problem often. I googled to see what people were saying about this kind of thing. Was just on the phone with a friend whom I could barely hear because his radio was being amplified. The radio was in another room on the other side of the house and was probably a very low volume for him to hear, but I could make out the radio's words over him.

Opening bags, dropping a fork into the sink, the beep of the alarm as the door is opened, these kinds of things get made really loud, and it's not about mic direction or wind. It's stuff in the background that isn't differentiated and gets picked up over voices.

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