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 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.
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
Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S22 Ultra smartphone boasts so many headline-grabbing specs, it’s tough to know which one to lead with.
For example, it is categorically the most powerful Ultra to date thanks to the arrival of a 4nm processor, aka the fastest CPU on a Galaxy device yet, but to Samsung’s avid fan base the fact that it's the first S-series device to feature a built-in S Pen will probably garner more attention, since it effectively merges Samsung’s S line with the now-defunct Note series.
Then there's the "completely different", four-lens camera system that Samsung says delivers the best low-light photography and smoothest video of any phone yet. And that’s before we mention its Corning Gorilla Glass Victus+, on the front and back of the device, which Samsung says makes it 12 per cent stronger than its predecessor.
Of course, we're drawn to the 120Hz AMOLED display, which Samsung says can hit a whopping 1750 nits at peak brightness, as well as the built-in Dolby Atmos speakers.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra 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
The iPhone 12 is another model we can add to a successful line of phones from Apple. Although some new Apple products are undoubtedly more evolution than revolution, the current iPhone 12 sports a brand-new design, a new screen, is powered by a new processor, and is capable of performing some new party tricks over its predecessor (below) – including, for the first time, 5G support.
The addition of an excellent 6.1in OLED Super Retina XDR display (complete with HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG support) has elevated picture performance to another level and helps justify the slight price hike over its predecessor. As a daytime snapper, there isn’t much to grumble about, with the dual-camera producing nicely balanced pictures with even colours and a fine sense of realism. Sound quality is as good as it’s ever been, too. All these positives combined make for a highly tempting and typically Apple package.
Read the full iPhone 12 review.
A premium device at a premium price, Oppo’s Find X5 Pro smartphone boasts the flashy design and standout camera that we all now expect of flagship phones. Our primary concerns, though, are picture and sound quality, and here it’s a bit more of a mixed bag.
Still, those determined to avoid the usual high-end options and instead go for something out of the ordinary will find much to like here, particularly if they’re willing to spend some time in the settings menu.
Oppo’s Find X5 Pro is a solid device in most ways. It's packed with features, user friendly software and it provides an enjoyable, if not mind blowing visual performance. However, it's marred by an audio experience that’s easily surpassed by the class leaders.
Still, if you’re determined to go with an outsider choice for your next phone and sound quality isn’t much of a priority, the Oppo Find X5 Pro is certainly worth a look.
Read the full Oppo Find X5 Pro review
Big, premium and considerably less expensive than other flagship phones, the OnePlus 10 Pro is every bit the standard-bearer you’d expect. OnePlus has made a name for itself as a purveyor of high-end smartphones at a price that more people can afford and this 6.7-inch, 5G Android mobile is no exception. Several hundred pounds/dollars cheaper than the rest of the top-end competition, it’s going to make a lot of buyers’ shortlists.
The good news is that, if you’re after an impressive spec sheet and all the mobile mod-cons, then you’re definitely fishing in the right stretch of the river. For us, though, it’s screen and sound that count most. So, if you need your pocket portable to be a top-notch player first, and all other things mobile a definite second, then this is the low-down you need.
Comparing this cut-price flagship phone to other top-end mobiles is a bit of a rough ride for the OnePlus 10 Pro. Even so, it stands up to the test in most departments. In terms of build quality, photography, user experience, battery life and most other features, it’s more or less right up there and all for a smaller outlay. And, while it can’t quite reach the same heights on the video front, what you get for the price difference is actually very comparable.
Listening to music, though, is where you’ll notice the biggest downgrade. The audio performance is just not in the same class as the best flagship phones, nor really quite good enough for the step-down in outlay either. It makes a perfectly passable listen but ‘passable’ doesn’t win you five stars.
Read the full OnePlus 10 Pro 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.
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