Google first tempted us with the dream of a modular smartphone with its Project Ara. However, LG was destined to create the first-ever module phone with the LG G5. Its simple magic slot pops out with the press of a button to accommodate a variety of modules. Now, there are two modules on sale: the Cam Plus and the Hi-Fi Plus. Even though the Hi-Fi Plus isn’t being sold in the United States, we took it for a spin on our G5 to see how it works.
The Hi-Fi Plus is a hi-res audio module tuned by music masters Bang & Olufsen. It boasts a 32-bit DAC and headphone amp to turn the G5 into a true hi-res mobile music machine. When you slip it into the bottom of the phone, the module only makes the G5 a bit longer than it normally is. The B&O module only comes in black, and has its own headphone socket. It adds almost no weight, and offers a lot more functionality than its fatter cousin, the CamPlus module, but it’s aimed at perhaps an even more niche audience.
Is it worth buying, or is hi-fi audio support entirely superfluous? We tested it to find out.
Simple to fit, hardly noticeable
The Hi-Fi Plus has a USB Type-C port for charging up the G5 like normal, so you should never actually have to remove this module. However, the G5’s entirely empty battery refused to charge with the Hi-Fi Plus module in place, so we had to stick the original part back in before it returned to life. Luckily, slotting the Hi-Fi Plus in place is easy, albeit scary at first.
There’s a flush-fitting button on the side of the G5, which releases the bottom of the phone from its secure connection to the G5. You’ll need to give the button a solid press to pop the base away from the body, and your G5 will turn off. A firm tug removes both the bottom of the phone and the battery inside. Unclip the battery from the original piece, refit it onto the Hi-Fi Plus, and slot it back inside the G5 to complete the process.
We’re deeply conditioned to treat our smartphones gently and with great care, so the process of swapping modules may seem daunting at first. However, it is simple to change the modules once you get used to it. We asked a couple of our friends to try it, and they had no problem with the process.
The module contains a 32bit Sabre ES9028C2M DAC (digital to analog converter) and the Sabre 9602c amplifier, enabling it to play hi-res 24bit/192kHz music files. Similar technology and ability can be found in hi-res audio players costing more than $500, so at £150 (that’s about $220), the Hi-Fi Plus is great value if you already own the G5.
The Hi-Fi Plus module’s cover holds a secret so don’t throw it away. A USB Type-C connection lets you plug the whole thing into your computer, so it operates as a standalone DAC to listen to hi-res audio through headphones from your computer. It’s a handy feature, and makes the Hi-Fi Plus even better value.
Crisp, clear, sweet
Hi-res audio is quite new to me, and aside from a few demo sessions at trade shows over the years, it’s not something I’ve listened to extensively at home. To try out the Hi-Fi Plus, I found and downloaded a selection of music that I already owned — mostly ripped from CD, or downloaded from iTunes — but this time, I downloaded the hi-res format to do a back-to-back comparison. The Hi-Fi Plus module has its own headphone socket, which must be used to playback hi-res files. There’s also a primary headphone jack on top of the phone.
The LG G5’s Hi-Fi Plus is a dream come true for audiophiles.
Armed with six hi-res songs that took up just over 300MB of storage space, six original files that barely reached 50MB, and a set of Marshall Mode in-ear headphones, I listened to each song over and over again. I didn’t weep with joy as I discovered previously unheard sections, instruments, or lyrics; but the sound was undeniably crisper, sweeter, and clearer. It wasn’t necessary to raise the volume as high when playing the hi-res files, and there was more bass response. However, I was really making an effort to listen for the detail, which is all very well at home or in a quiet environment, but if I was listening on the train, or in the gym — which is where phones often get used for audio — then I’m not sure the nuances would be noticeable. Or if I’d care they were there at all.
It’s difficult to convince anyone who isn’t an audiophile or hardcore music fan that hi-res audio is important in general – let alone trying to convince them to spend more money on the Hi-Fi Plus module for the experience. Finding, buying, and storing hi-res audio files is also a pain. It took me an hour of searching to find a site that provided hi-res versions of music I liked, then the files cost three times that of the iTunes equivalent, and took up six times the storage space. Yes, they sounded better, but it’s not like going from DVD to Blu-ray for picture quality. It’s a subtler difference, and many may not hear much of a change.
Other opinions, and other uses
Opinions differ, and Digital Trends associate editor Ryan Waniata, a far more experienced hi-res audio listener, tried out the Hi-Fi Plus earlier this year and had some thoughts of his own, which were more positive than ours. He listened using Westone W40 balanced armature in-ear headphones, saying:
“The bass rich and full, while drums had a smooth, textured thump that really grabbed hold. The dynamic expression wasn’t mind blowing, but the system offered a crystal clear exposure of the instrumentation, and sparkling details in the vocals that exposed subtle nuances like the soft puff of lip movements in the mic.”
Interestingly for a smartphone accessory, the LG Hi-Fi Plus impresses when plugged into a computer. Using the supplied USB Type C cable, it’s easily connected to a laptop. We tried it out on a MacBook Pro with Denon’s MM400 Music Maniac over-ear headphones, and the results were considerably better than using the G5. Hi-res concert tracks sounded wonderful, with the audience’s shouts and refrains were lifelike enough to put you in the venue with them, while bass response was rich and deep. It transformed the performance of the MacBook Pro’s audio output, in a way that it didn’t quite manage on the phone.
If you’ve already got a library of hi-res music, the headphones to make the most of them, and are looking out for a really top-notch DAC for use on the move and at home, the G5’s Hi-Fi Plus is probably a dream come true. If that’s not you, and you’re tentatively taking your first steps into the hi-res music world, you may wonder what the fuss is all about.
Compared to the dreary Cam Plus, the Hi-Fi Plus has genuine benefits, and exactly the kind of niche appeal that will attract audiophiles who loves their music. It’s incredibly irritating that LG decided not to sell the Hi-Fi Plus in the U.S. and the U.S. version of the G5 doesn’t even support it, so don’t bother importing a European Hi-Fi Plus module, either.
The DT Accessory Pack
If you’re in the U.S. and you want a phone that supports hi-res audio, but offers comparable specs, you should check out the HTC 10, which supports high-res audio natively, as does Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge.
LG’s failure to sell the Hi-Fi plus module in the States is an utterly bizarre decision that could hurt the G5’s success. A modular phone should offer a wide selection of modules to attract buyers, not limit which ones they can purchase. It’s a real shame.
While it’s not the end of the road for the G5, it does restrict U.S. buyers’ choices to one module: the CamPlus. More modules are going to come for the G5, but now the Hi-Fi Plus is M.I.A. in the States, the next modules need to be really good and come really soon. However, if you live in a country where LG’s happy to sell you the Hi-Fi Plus, then it’s the one G5 module that’s worth your money.