While our smartphones are many things, one of their primary functions is to make calls. Many of us try to avoid ever having to make calls, but there are situations when it's a must, such as wishing your grandma happy Birthday or calling 911 — and in those times you want stellar call quality.
For the most part, the call quality of phones is dependent upon your carrier. As with any audio, there are codecs or audio formats used to deliver sound from your phone to whomever you calling and vice versa, with each having varying impact on the call quality. For GSM users such as AT&T and T-Mobile, this means using adaptive multi-rate codecs. For Verizon and Sprint subscribers, you are using enhanced variable rate codecs.
Your phone's involvement in this process starts at its support for these codecs. Features such as enhanced voice services and HD Voice give more bandwidth to calls, improving call quality. These must be supported by both the carrier and the phone to work.
However, the phone call experience is more than just call quality. With the rise of robocalls and spam calling, having a phone which can prevent you from picking these up goes a long way. Additionally, being able to add, back up, and sync contacts is also part of the phone calling experience. After testing several phones, here are the four we found to provide the best calling experience.
- Starting Price: The MSRP, or Manufactuer's Suggested Retail Price of the smartphone at launch. While this price will not always reflect the current price, it is the highest the phone will sell for.
- US Wireless Carrier Support: Which of the four major wireless carriers is supported by the phone. While we could include US Cellular, as of Q1 2018, it only used by 5 million subscribers, which is 48 million fewer than fourth-place Sprint. Therefore, we felt that only including the top four carriers would meet most of our readers' needs.
- Microphones: The number of microphones to transmit your voice during phone calls. With more microphones, you have a lower chance of the person you are talking to having a hard time hearing you, and this allows you to hold your phone more ways comfortably without you hearing "huh, repeat what you just said" several times.
- Wi-Fi Calling Support: On which of the four major US wireless carriers does the phone support Wi-Fi calling. With Wi-Fi calling, you can call even when your signal is bad, as calls are transmitted via the web using your wireless router instead of the cellular radios. It also provides clearer calls, as it uses higher bandwidth than standard calls. While most phones support the feature, not all carriers support it on all phones. However, every phone on our list supports the feature on each carrier they support.
- HD Voice Support: On which of the four major US wireless carriers does the phone support HD Voice Calling. HD Voice Calling is a feature of VoLTE where the phone uses wide-band audio for better quality when making calls. Similar to Wi-Fi Calling, although most phones can support the feature, the carrier doesn't always include the feature for non-carrier phones.
- Enhanced Voice Services: On which of the four major US wireless carriers does the phone support enhanced voice services. Enhanced voice services (or EVS) is a newer audio codec which makes an even greater improvement to call quality. Currently, only Verizon and T-Mobile have enabled it on their networks.
- Dual SIM: Whether the device has dual SIM support and how it's laid. With dual SIM, you can use multiple carriers on the same phone, allowing you to have both a work and personal line. With Dual SIM, you can also test multiple carriers for the best coverage by comparing two carriers without having to remove your SIM card.
- Audio Ports: Which ports are available for wired earbuds or headphones to make and receive calls. Only the Samsung Galaxy S10+ includes the headphone jack, allowing you to either plug in a pair of earbuds or use the data port.
- Hearing Aid Compatibility: Whether the phone is compatible with hearing aids. The "M" rating represents hearing aids which use a microphone to receive and transmit audio to your ears. The "T" rating indicates the performance of hearing aids set on telecoil. Telecoil reduces background noise and feedback to improve audio. The higher the number, the better, with each smartphone with hearing aid compatibility required to have at least 3. Any phone with 4 exceeds recommended standards.
- Call Recording: The ability to record the phone's line audio during calls. Previous versions of Android allowed you to record line audio, but Android 9 Pie broke this feature. While each phone can record calls using a sound recorder app and playing the call on speakerphone, it won't have direct access to the call's audio. But this may change for Android in the future.
- Allows Calls on Other Devices: The ability to make cellular calls from another device such as an iPad or MacBook. Only iOS supports this feature.
- Call Audio Routing: The ability to automatically send call audio to either Bluetooth headsets or speakers.
- Auto Answer Calls: The ability to automatically answer calls without the need to swipe first.
- 911 Shortcut: Whether the phone let you call 911 quickly without having to pull up the dialer.
- Disable Power Button Ends Calls: The ability to prevent calls from ending when you press the power button. By default, most smartphones end calls when you press the power button. Unfortunately, because the proximity sensor turns off the screen when you put your face to the phone's display to answer a call, we sometimes forget this and use the button to wake the screen up. With this option, you don't have to deal with that.
- Mono Audio: The option to turn off audio in one earbud. For those of us who are taking a call while performing a task, using a pair of earbuds can help free us to keep working while taking the call. However, there are times we need an ear to pay attention to our surroundings while remaining on the phone. With mono audio, you can turn off one earbud and only listen to audio from the earbud in your ear, leaving your other ear free.
- Real-Time Text: Real-Time Text is text which is sent and received in real-time, without delays. Instead of waiting for the person to send the message, it appears on your screen as they are writing it. This is important for those who are deaf, as it provides a replacement for voice calls. Additionally, it helps with 911 calls, as the 911 operator can see everything you are saying as you write, removing any delay in getting the help you need.
- Supports External TTY Hardware: TTY, or Text Telephone, is a type of device that folks who are hard of hearing or have speech-impairments can use to communicate with others. Instead of talking and listening, these devices let you type messages back and forth.
- Backup Contacts: The various methods the phone lets you back up your contacts. Only Samsung includes a second cloud storage natively which can also be used.
- Sync Contacts: Whether you can sync your contacts. This way, if you are using multiple phones, any addition or removal on one device's contacts list will be reflected on all connected devices.
- Add New Contacts: The multiple methods to add new contacts. Only the Google Pixel 3 XL and OnePlus 7 Pro include native Google Lens support, which lets you add contacts by scanning business cards.
- Call Screening: A feature exclusive to Google Pixel devices, users can use an AI to screen calls. This machine will answer the call and ask the person on the line information which you can read or listen in on. If you decide to answer, you can join the call, or you can end the call at any time. This is a great tool against robocalls and spam calls.
- Call Controls: A feature which allows you to manage the calls via a floating bubble. With this bubble, you can turn on and off speakerphone, end the call, mute and unmute calls, and return to the call screen. This bubble is an overlay, which means you can interact with it on any screen, allowing you to use your phone while still on a call easily.
- Spam Filtering: The smartphone's native phone app alerts you if a call is potentially spam by labeling the incoming call. From there, you can decide if you want to answer the call or let it go to voicemail.
- Block Spam Calls: The smartphone's native phone app blocks spam calls automatically. Only Google's native phone app includes this feature. When you receive a call from a known spam caller, your phone will not ring. Instead, you will only see a missed call in your history without an alert of any kind. While iPhones don't have the feature natively, third-party apps can be integrated into the dialer to provide this.
- Report Spam: The ability to report a number as spam so it can be added to an automatic block list.
- Call Blocking: The ability to block individual numbers from calling your phone within the native phone app. While iPhones don't have the feature natively, third-party apps can be integrated into the dialer to provide this.
- Whitelist Numbers: The ability to block all calls except for a specific list of numbers. With the Google Pixel 3 XL, you can block all calls but the ones within your contacts.
- Option to Video Chat: Within the phone app, you can initiate a video chat. For iPhones, this means directing any call to an iPhone or Mac users to FaceTime, and for Android, this means being able to make Google Duo calls within the app.
- Local Business Search: The ability to search for local businesses within the native phone app. Using your location, the phone lets you search within the contacts tab of your dialer to find the telephone numbers of business around you, such as restaurants and stores.
- Dark Mode: Whether the native dialer has a dark mode. Only the Google Pixel 3 XL includes the feature within the app, while Samsung and OnePlus have a system-wide dark mode that turns on the dark theme on the dialer.
- Speaker Loudness: How loud the loudspeaker gets when listening to a voice call. We used GSMArena's testing for our numbers, which used a digital noise/loudness meter to measure a male human voice from the phone's loudspeaker.
- Battery Life: Using PhoneArena's testing, we recorded each phone's battery life. For PhoneArena's testing, they used a custom web script to replicate a typical real-life usage. The test was done at 200-nits and gives a good indication of how long the battery will last out of the box. While we could use a battery test exclusive to talking, because your phone gathers data during calls, we felt a test replicating general usage was more accurate of what to expect.
- 3G Talk Time Battery Life: Using GSMArena's testing, we listed the battery life of the phone when strictly used for a phone call. The phone's screen was turned off, and all other apps were closed to limit their interference.
To narrow down the field of phones from thousands to just the four best for calling, we had to set some ground rules. Our first requirement was that the phone was officially released in the US within the last year. Most of our readers are in the US, and if we're recommending a phone, we want it to be future-proof. This, however, ruled out some great phones from Huawei and Xiaomi.
We focused on the latest and greatest option for each phone on our list — for instance, if the phone had a sibling device, we opted for the newer model. This is why we recommended the Galaxy S10+ over the Galaxy Note 9. In addition, for all but the OnePlus 7 Pro, there is a smaller variant of each phone which offers the same performance, but with a smaller screen and smaller battery. We went with the larger models because of talk time, but if you want to save some money, check out the non-XL, Max, or + variants of these phones.
Call waiting and call forwarding have been staples on phones for years. With smartphones, we can manage these options in the phone app, avoiding unnecessary calls to our wireless providers or having to visit their website. However, not all phones have this feature, so we required each phone on our list to include support for managing both features.
Over 5% of the world's population has some form of hearing loss, many of whom need a hearing aid to function in the world. With smartphone users projected to reach 3.5 billion by the end of 2019, we made hearing aid compatibility a requirement. Without compatibility, a phone is difficult to use as an actual phone. With Android finally adding native hearing aid support, we felt it necessary that each phone could serve this community of people so they can also make calls.
Finally, we focused on emergencies. Phones are not just made to talk to family, friends, and telemarketers — they are often what determines if we survive dangerous situations. In those situations, we are not always in a position to open the phone app and dial 911, which is why it is so essential to have a shortcut to make this process easier. This feature was recently added in iOS and Android, and thus eliminated any older phone from our list which didn't run the latest version of their operating systems.
Thanks to Google's recent push into machine learning, the Pixel 3 XL has been heavily enhanced by AI. Google set their sights on improving primary functions through AI, one of which being making calls. With its exclusive "Call Screen" feature, a true spam blocker, a whitelist, and much more, for those who want a smooth calling experience and loudspeaker, there isn't a better phone than the Google Pixel 3 XL.
- GSM/EDGE: Quad-band (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
- CDMA EVDO Rev A: BC0/BC1/BC10
- UMTS/HSPA+/HSDPA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8
- FDD-LTE: Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/18/19/20/25/26/28/29/32/66/71
- TD-LTE: Bands 38/39/40/41/42/46
Google recently announced the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL are expanding US coverage to include official support for T-Mobile and Sprint. While it already worked for both carriers (in fact, all four major carriers work flawlessly with the Pixel 3 XL), it's nice that the phone is now sold in all carrier stores with the exception of AT&T. This means it supports both AMR and EVRC, the two codecs used by GSM-based carriers and CDMA based carriers, respectively. With support for both, you can be sure that call quality will be clear and your message is well received.
But where the Pixel 3 XL separates itself is with its phone app. There are so many features jam-packed that if you usually don't make calls, you'll want to again. One major feature is spam blocking. Unlike many phones on the market, the Pixel 3 XL actually blocks known spam callers, not just notifies you. When callers in Google's spam database dial your number, you will not be alerted in any way. Instead, you'll only see that they called in your call history and the through a notification dot on the phone app's icon
Also, there is also spam filtering where the Pixel 3 will let you know if the call you are receiving is potentially spam. The incoming call will say "Spam Likely," letting you decide if you want to pick up or not. These and any calls can also be reported to Google as potentially spam, increasing the app's awareness, and ultimately leading to them being automatically blocked.
Then there is Call Screen. For the few calls which manage to circumvent Google's amazing spam blocking, or even just numbers you're not sure about, you can screen the call. Your Google Assistant will pick up the phone for you and ask the person about the purpose of their call. By default, you can follow on using a live transcript displayed on screen, but if you press the volume rocker, it will turn on speaker phone and let you listen in. If you want to talk to the person, you can jump into the conversation at any time by pressing a button. If you're going to hang up, you can do that too. Either way, you no longer have to guess if this is a person you know.
Then there's the Pixel 3's ability to block numbers. Besides the usual blocked number list where you add specific numbers, there's also the option to operate with a whitelist. With a whitelist, only select calls are allowed through, with all other calls being blocked. The three options available are blocking all unknown calls, all private calls, or all numbers not in your contacts. You can also choose all three for maximum protection.
The Pixel 3 gives you all the features you need to make calls and to avoid calls you don't want. It supports those who are hearing impaired via hearing aids, Real-Time Text (RTT), and Text Telephone (TTY). Even adding new contacts is easier thanks to Google Lens' ability to scan business cards. With Google Pixel 3 XL, you will want to make phone calls, because unlike in the past, it isn't a frustrating experience.
With the Apple iPhone XS Max, not only do you get access to dual SIM features for the first time, you also get a few features exclusive to the iOS platform. Thanks to broad support for both carriers and their features, you can be sure that if the carriers offer a feature, iPhone users have access to it. And while its price tag is a bit steep when compared to other phones on our list, there are less expensive choices in the Apple iPhone XS and XR which offer the same features, but with a small screen.
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A BC0/BC1/BC10
UMTS/HSPA+/HSDPA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8
FDD-LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/14/17/18/19/20/25/26/29/30/32/66/71
TD-LTE Bands 34/38/39/40/41/46
Thanks to iOS, the phone app has a few features that Android users are still waiting on. For example, you can set up what the iPhone does whenever you receive a call. It can be redirected to a Bluetooth headset or speaker automatically, or set it to use the headset instead. This way, when you are using your phone to listen to music, you don't have to worry about a private call being heard by your guest — instead, the call can be direct to your phone.
With iOS, your Mac and iPad are heavily connected to your phone. Because both devices have speakers and microphones, if you are closer to them, you can set it up so that incoming calls are taken from them instead. This way, you don't have to find your phone when you are in the zone.
Apple is also one of the first OEMs to add a video chat option in the dialer. With FaceTime, you can video chat with any iPhone, iPad, or Mac user straight from the phone app. The iPhone was also one of the first devices to introduce visual voicemail, allowing you to manage messages left on your voicemail all from your phone.
Out of the phones tested by PhoneArena, the iPhone XS Max had the highest battery life on our list. It is nearly 1.5 hours longer than the Samsung Galaxy S10+, despite having a smaller battery.
For those using a hearing aids, the iPhone XS Max exceeds the recommendations for telecoil support. If your hearing aid supports it, this feature improves sound quality by minimizing noise interference. The iPhone XS Max is the only phone on our list to receive a max rating of T4.
You won't find too many phones that are as heavily supported as the iPhone XS Max. These phones work on all four major wireless networks and support features which improve voice calls. One highlight is enhanced voice services, which will enhance the audio quality of calls by using a codec with higher bandwidth than HD Voice. The addition bandwidth help calls sound crystal clear (although the carrier of the other person on the line does affect the outcome).
We can sum up the iPhone XS Max's high placement on our list in two words: popularity and iOS. Because iPhones are some of the most popular phones on the market, you can be sure whatever wireless carrier you are on, you will have service. And whatever calling service is supported by the wireless provider, you will have access to. Then there is iOS. The Apple-developed operating system has a few features which are either exclusive to the platform or limited on Android devices. Being able to route calls automatically and picking up calls on other Apple devices are useful features which enhance the overall calling experience.
While you do pay a high premium for these features, because all features mentioned here are also included on the iPhone XS and XR, you could opt for one of these devices to save some money. While you will sacrifice screen size and battery capacity (although, the iPhone XR has better battery life), and in the case of the iPhone XR, the screen quality (iPhone XR uses LCD instead of OLED), none of this impacts calling significantly.
In most regards, the Samsung Galaxy S10+ is a powerhouse. It has impressive specs, excellent battery life, an impressive screen, and fantastic cameras. However, after a few hours of testing, you can already see that calling wasn't a priority of the Samsung team. That is not to say this isn't a great phone for those who prioritize calling. It just that, where the S10+ usually ranks first or second on most of our comparisons, here, it's force to be in the bottom half when compared to other popular flagships.
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A BC0/BC1/BC10
UMTS/HSPA+/HSDPA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8
FDD-LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/14/17/18/19/20/25/26/28/29/66/71
TD-LTE Bands 38/39/40/41/46
Let us first start with the good. Similar to iPhones, the the Galaxy S10+ is a popular phone. Samsung is the number one OEM in the world and has helped propel the Android OS to be the most commonly used operating system. As a result of this popularity, its flagships are supported by all four major wireless carriers in the US. It supports both HD Voice and Enhanced Voice Services on all US providers who support the features.
Samsung's Galaxy S10 series (S10, S10+, and S10e) is one of only a handful of flagship phones that still include the headphone jack. It also supports USB-C audio, which means that for those in noisy areas or in areas where they need their hands, the Galaxy S10+ gives you the most flexibility, as you can use a headset with either a 3.5 mm headphone jack or a USB-C plug.
For the 37.5 million US adults with some form of hearing loss, a hearing aid can transform their life and make the inaudible audible. For hearing aids using microphones to improving hearing, the Samsung Galaxy S10+ offers one of the best available experiences. With a rating of M4, it exceeds the recommended performance, something you will only find on a handful of other smartphones.
Then there are omissions which we hope Samsung will improve in the future. The inability to start a video call within the phone app is disheartening. Despite the phone's access to Google Duo, Samsung doesn't include the integration which would make this possible.
Visual voicemail has been a staple on smartphones since Apple starting promoting the feature back in 2007. Most phones include access to this feature right within the phone app, as a tab, so you can easily see any missed messages someone left for you. However, Samsung doesn't include this feature. Instead, Samsung forces you to call your voicemail to listen to each message like it's 2006 again. This is true of the unlocked Galaxy S10+, but visual voicemail may be included if you buy the carrier-branded variant from your service provider.
Finally, another huge letdown is the battery life. Despite having the most massive battery on our list at 4,100 mAh, it only managed an overall rating of 7.98 hours, below both the iPhone XS Max's 3,174 mAh battery and the Pixel 3 XL's 3,430 mAh. While it does much better when strictly making calls, as we know, our phone is always connected. Even during calls, data is being processed in the background draining our battery. Therefore, the general battery life testing is more indicative of performance than the 3G talk time. And it is here that Samsung disappoints.
That being said, by popularity alone, Samsung is worth a nod. Additionally, because it runs Android, there is always a chance its phone app improves, adding features previously exclusive to the Pixel series (such as Call Screen) in the near future. With its stellar support for hearing aids and flexibility when it comes to headsets, the Galaxy S10+ is still an excellent option. And because these same advantages can be found in the entire Galaxy S10 series, to save some coin, you can opt for the smaller Galaxy S10 or S10e. Both phones have a smaller screen and smaller batteries, but the same overall calling experience.
The OnePlus 7 Pro is the only dual physical SIM model on our list (the Pixel 3 XL and iPhone XS Max use a combination physical SIM and eSIM for their dual SIM support). There is a T-Mobile variant that is single SIM, but the global version sold on their website is dual SIM, which is also widely available to US customers with warranty.
With this flexibility, you can use two different wireless providers, whether for travel abroad or while you travel in the US. For example, if you have frequently traveled to the west coast and found that AT&T service is terrible there, you could switch to your T-Mobile or Verizon number and use it. And when you are on the east coast, you can return to using AT&T. And this is all without having to take out SIM cards, which are ridiculously small and very easily can be lost.
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A BC0/BC1
UMTS/HSPA+/HSDPA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8/9/19
FDD-LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/18/19/20/25/26/28/29/30/66/71
TD-LTE Bands 34/38/39/41/46/48
While call recording of the line audio is lost due to Android 9 Pie blocking the feature on non-rooted phone, it is possible to get this feature back with root. And there few phones meant to be rooted as much as the OnePlus 7 Pro.
This is one of the most straightforward phones to root, with the global variant allowing you to unlock the bootloader out of the box. OnePlus consistently abides by Google's requirement to release the kernel sources, making rooting possible within days of its release. This means features such as call recording are only a few steps away, it just depends on whether you want to take the time to root your device.
- Don't Miss: How to Root OnePlus Phones Like the 7 Pro
Another example of OnePlus 7 Pro's flexibility is with the calling app. The Google-developed phone app is limited to only a handful of devices (usually Pixel, Essential, Razer, and Android One), and cannot be downloaded from the Play Store for most phones. However, there is a modified version which lets nearly any device install it, giving users most of the features of the app, including true spam blocking. The OnePlus 7 Pro is one of those devices. This means that while the default app is pretty limited in its features, there is a fix.
OnePlus has been growing as an Android OEM, and this hasn't gone unnoticed by Google. In the past few years, Google and OnePlus have improved the integration of OnePlus device with their services. This includes Google Duo in the phone app, letting you make video calls easily, and official Google Lens support. The latter allows you to use the camera app to scan items for additional information and features. This includes scanning business cards to add contacts to your phone quickly.
The OnePlus 7 Pro is the only phone on our list without official support for Sprint. While it has the bands to support the network, it isn't officially certified and therefore won't be able to access their network. Because it only has an official carrier variant on T-Mobile, only the third largest wireless carrier supports Wi-Fi Calling, HD Voice, and Enhanced Voice Services. On Verizon, you don't get Wi-Fi Calling, and on AT&T, you only get that. However, rumors are AT&T will be rolling out HD Voice to all phones, including GSM unlocked devices such as the OnePlus 7 Pro, by the end of 2019.
With the OnePlus 7 Pro, you get flexibility. Flexibility to change its downfalls by installing better a phone app, increasing flexibility, and returning features lost due to a software update. Being one of only two phones on our list with dual SIM means you can use two different wireless carriers without having to remove either SIM card. However, by default, it does lack many of the spam blocking features of other phones on our list. It also lacks Real-Time Text, a feature that is used by millions of hearing-impaired Americans and for some 911 calls. This is a flawed phone for calling, but still a worthy addition to our list.
While making phone calls isn't as important as it once was, having a phone that provides a great overall calling experience is still desired. With phone calls being the preferred method for some, and the only method accessible for others, it is necessary for our phones to provide an experience that makes calling a pain-free as possible. And thanks to the rise in robocalls and spam, being able to avoid such calls is now very important.
All the phones on our list are a great choice with their stock phone app, which makes the process as easy and painless as possible. However, based on our testing, the best option is the Google Pixel 3 XL. While we only included the 3 XL in our list, all the features mentioned can also be found on the smaller and cheaper Pixel 3.
This article was produced during Gadget Hacks' special coverage on texting, instant messaging, calling, and audio/video chatting with your smartphone. Check out the whole Chat series.