Best Smartphone Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best phones you can buy in 2023.
A smartphone has many uses but, for us, it's about great music and video. So, right here are the very best phones with incredible screens and amazing audio circuitry. HDR-compatibility, super-high pixel counts and next-generation panel technologies can make for an awesome display that will have you enjoying your commute so much that you'll be taking a longer route on purpose.
Just as crucially, some phones simply sound better than others and it's important to know which they are so that you can spend your hard earned on a mobile that's going to make your portable music life the best it can possibly be.
We know you can do a whole heap of things with even the best cheap phones nowadays, but for our reviews we focus first and foremost on sound quality and picture performance. So, while we thoroughly test a phone's battery, camera, usability, design and features, we will give extra weight to handsets that deliver great audio and video.
No matter if you're an Android or iOS loyalist, whether you're eyeing up a flagship phone such as the iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, or Sony Xperia 1 IV, or more affordable options such as the iPhone 12 Mini or OnePlus 10 Pro, we've got you covered with the very best smartphones on the market.
How to choose the best smartphone for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
Picking the right smartphone that suits your needs best is harder than it sounds, and may in fact be a trickier task than picking the best TV or headphones. You use your smartphone every day, and for many of us it houses all the integral things we need to keep our day running smoothly. This is where the essentials come into play: a good battery life, a design that's comfortable to hold, and a screen that's not too big and not too small.
Many of us also acquire our smartphones through a contract, most commonly these run for 24 months, so you need to plan ahead. Will the phone you choose have a powerful enough processor and enough RAM to last for two years? Which software platform do you want, Apple's iOS that's exclusive to iPhones, or Google's Android platform that's used by the likes of Samsung, Sony and OnePlus? And does the phone have enough features to keep you going for that time, such as a versatile camera or micro SD card support to expand the memory.
However, if you're after the highest quality AV performance (as we are), then that's where things become more black and white. You'll want an OLED screen for inky blacks and vibrant colours, with a 18:9 or 21:9 aspect ratio and minimal bezels, ideal for watching content uninterrupted and as the the filmmaker indented. As standard, many phones come with either a 1080p or 1440p. or in some cases a 4K display on the highest-end models. As smartphone displays are much smaller than TVs and even tablets, they are often very pixel dense, meaning that the highest resolution isn't always paramount so don't be put off if your handset doesn't feature the highest spec screen.
Audio is equally important, and the audio landscape specifically on mobile phones has changed greatly in the last few years. Many now feature a stereo speaker setup that combines a loudspeaker and earpiece to create an often impressively loud and spacious sound. However what modern smartphones giveth, they must also taketh away as is the case with the 3.5mm headphone jack, which is an endangered beast on modern devices.
With all of these key factors in mind, many see it a daunting task to pick a new phone, dreading the day their contract is up; but fear not, we have some of our approved picks below to help you make your decision...
Let’s face it, for some reason camera quality in phones is sexier than picture and sound quality. Why else would a brand such as Apple focus each year on bigger sensors with more megapixels while giving nary a mention to screens, speakers or DACs?
The good news is that while Apple rarely shouts about AV upgrades, its new phones regularly contain them, and each new generation of iPhone generally includes better picture and/or sound quality.
That’s what makes the new iPhone 14 Pro Max so exciting: it’s the first new iPhone in ages with an AV upgrade that Apple has deemed worth shouting about. That upgrade is a big increase in brightness.
Interestingly then, it turns out that while the picture quality is certainly improved, it’s by less of a margin than the audio, which hits new highs for smartphone sound.
Not only do these upgrades make Apple’s new flagship model the best iPhone yet for portable movie and music lovers, it elevates it beyond the AV benchmark previously set by Sony’s Xperia 1 IV.
Read our full Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max review
Sony’s current lineup of smartphones is centred around the creation and consumption of media first and foremost. The range includes 4K resolution, OLED displays with a 21:9 aspect ratio and HDR support while fervently keeping the 3.5mm headphone port alive.
But what happens when you have to start cutting back on features to make devices like these more accessible? The Xperia 10 IV answers this question with pared back specs, a lower quality screen and a plastic build that reduces the price down significantly. However, despite this entry level Xperia cutting some corners, it still manages to provide the essence of what Sony is trying to achieve – providing a cinematic experience that fits into your pocket.
Sony’s budget handset really impresses where it counts. Many budget Android handsets only meet the goal of affordability by cutting major corners, but Sony has instead considered how to boil the essence of the Xperia line down without sacrificing crucial performance.
It may not be perfect, but with a screen that impresses for the price and satisfying headphone audio, the Xperia 10 IV offers excellent value for those looking for an entry level Android that doubles as a portable movie-watching companion.
Read the full Sony Xperia 10 IV review
The Sony Xperia 1 has long been our go-to recommendation if you want a flagship Android smartphone that prioritises the AV experience. Every generation since 2020 has earned five-star reviews from us, with the Mark II and III versions both bestowed with What Hi-fi? Awards. Thankfully, Sony has provided yet another top-notch Android smartphone for AV enthusiasts with the Mark V, which adds meaningful improvements over the Mark IV without raising the cost.
With upgrades to the build, features, picture and sound, Sony once again makes a case for its 4K flagship phone by providing yet another Xperia 1 that nails the core aspects that we look out for. The unique form factor still won’t appeal to everyone, and there are some Sony-specific software quirks, but they can easily be overlooked in favour of this phone’s performance.
This is still undoubtedly a phone for AV enthusiasts. But, if you are serious about taking your movies and music on the go, you will be hard-pressed to find a better alternative.
Read our full Sony Xperia 1 V review
The Sony Xperia Mk IV continues the brand’s reinvigorated take on the smartphone, providing the tools to both create and consume content that verges on professional level. But with the daunting task of outshining its predecessors, both of which received five stars and a smartphone Product of the Year Award from us, has Sony done enough to keep the momentum going?
While it may look strikingly similar to the previous generations, the IV makes meaningful, if not mind blowing improvements on the Sony Xperia 1 III. Upgraded internals and features ensure smooth day-to-day use, and most importantly an awesome AV experience.
While it may not be the most inspirational generation jump we’ve ever seen, it's still a phone that ticks all the boxes to make it an ideal companion for small screen AV use. The Xperia 1 IV is an excellent enthusiast choice for those looking to squeeze the best AV and music listening performance out of their smartphone.
The Xperia 1 IV has seen some discounts now that the Mark V (as seen above) has gone on sale, so providing you can find a good price (we've seen it below £1000) then it might be worth weighing up how much the new features and build mean to you.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 IV review
Another iPhone, another five-star review, there's nothing too surprising in that.
The iPhone 13 looks and feels very similar to its predecessor. Build quality is, of course, superb and the only noticeable outer differences are a reshuffle of the buttons and a different camera layout on the rear.
Inside is a new SoC, the A15 Bionic. It's made up of a new six-core CPU with a GPU that is reportedly 30 per cent faster than rivals. They help power new iOS 15 features such as Live Text in Camera and a new 3D Maps navigation feature as well as provide a typically slick and speedy user experience.
Apple claims that it has hiked up the maximum brightness of the 6.1 OLED display by 28 percent to a claimed 800 nits for SDR and 1200 nits for HDR content. That brings a little more punch without sacrificing detail in whiter elements of the picture. OLED’s inherent strengths help here too, obviously, with deep, rich blacks and amazing clarity that just draws you in.
On the audio side, you won’t be surprised to learn that it sounds just as good as its predecessor. Throw any genre its way and the iPhone just makes it interesting to listen to. It sounds exciting and dynamic, while maintaining an excellent handle on timing, sticking to the rhythm of a track. Bolstered by a terrific sense of weight, drive and power, it remains a force to be reckoned with.
Read the full Apple iPhone 13 review
Like clockwork, Apple has launched a plethora of new iPhones and, you guessed it, they’re the best iPhones yet. The iPhone 14 comes in practically every shape and size, with the Pro undoubtedly being the more exciting of the bunch with its “Dynamic Island” notch and upgraded internals.
But we’re here to talk about the standard, and cheapest iPhone 14, and while it may be a solid phone, it's also practically identical to its predecessor. Same chassis, same screen, same processor – so is this just an iPhone 13S, or an unenthusiastic placeholder for Apple while it gives the 14 Pro time to live in the limelight?
The iPhone 14 is an anomaly in the history of Apple’s smartphones. There have been plenty of instances when the yearly iPhone iteration has been uncannily similar to the previous year’s model, but it's never been this close. And even those previous models that have promised no picture and sound upgrades over their predecessors have often contained surprise, subtle improvements. The iPhone 14 does not follow this path: its AV performance is essentially identical to that of the iPhone 13.
We're not going to be too harsh on the iPhone 14 as it is truly a five-star device; both the picture and audio are thoroughly brilliant, but the fact that the iPhone 13 remains on Apple’s roster makes the 14 a harder sell if media consumption is your main priority.
That said, if you want the awesome picture and sound quality of last year with an even better camera, the iPhone 14 still makes perfect sense.
Read the full Apple iPhone 14 review
We’ve reviewed both the bigger and smaller siblings of the Xperia 5 IV, but in a tale as old as time, it's the middle child that gets attention last. The Xperia 5 has a tall ask if it wants to stand out against the Award-winning and incredible value Xperia 10 IV, as well as the 4K-toting, no-compromise Xperia 1 IV.
For some, though, the Xperia 5 IV might actually represent the sweet spot in the range. More premium and feature-rich than the 10 IV but significantly more affordable than the 1 IV, could it be the perfect balance of performance and price?
If you want the quality build, audio performance and features of the 1 IV, and could happily live without the costly 4K screen in favour of a still very likeable 1080p alternative, then the Xperia 5 IV deserves your attention.
Read the full Sony Xperia 5 IV review
2022 signified an evolutionary year for Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone line, as the brand unified the S and Note devices into one smartphone, dubbed the Galaxy S22 Ultra. With a huge AMOLED display, S-Pen support and top-of-the-line specs and build quality, it really lived up to its Ultra name.
A year on, Samsung has followed up on its former flagship with the Galaxy S23 Ultra; a phone that is equally massive and fully featured, that basically represents the no-compromise approach for Android phones. But with minimal upgrades over last year’s model accompanied by an increase in price, does the S23 Ultra still represent the ultimate Android phone?
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is another case of the iterative phone cycle we have found ourselves in within the past year. Not much has changed from last year’s model apart from the camera and processor, and while both are good additions, we’re not sure if they justify such a steep rise in pricing.
And when it comes to a phone that costs this much offering little to no upgrades in the AV department, it leaves us feeling a little bit disappointed – especially now that Apple has upped its game even further with the iPhone 14 Pro Max. The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is still a great daily handset, and it provides a solid picture and sound experience – but for the money, it needs to be outstanding.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review
How we test the best smartphones
Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, a number of which are smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, OnePlus and Sony. So how do we come to our review verdicts? And why can you trust them?
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London and Bath, where our team of expert reviewers do all our in-house testing. This gives us complete control over the review process, ensuring consistency.
We spend time with the phones; we live with them, testing every feature and spec exhaustively, from screens to cameras, sound quality to battery life. We focus particularly on audio and video performance, so if you spend a lot of time listening to music or watching videos, you should read our reviews carefully before making that all-important buying decision.
All products are tested in comparison with rival products in the same category, and all review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than a single reviewer, again helping to ensure consistency and avoid individual subjectivity.
The What Hi-Fi? team has more than 100 years experience of reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics.
From all of our reviews, we choose the products to feature in our Best Buys, such as this one. That's why if you take the plunge and buy one of the products recommended below, or on any other Best Buy pages, you can rest assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi?-approved product.