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Thu04242014

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High-definition voice: coming to your phone

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Smartphone makers have long touted the appeal of their high-definition display screens. Soon they'll be able to add high-definition sound to the mix, too.

"HD Voice," also known as wideband audio, is a technology designed to make a caller's voice, and other noises, sound on phone calls as close as possible to how they do in person.

On Monday, AT&T Senior Vice President Kris Rinne confirmed that the company plans to roll out HD Voice later this year, making it the latest major player officially adopting a mobile feature that, unlike many in recent years, actually has to do with making phone calls.

"HD Voice is part of our voice-over-LTE strategy," said Rinne, speaking at the VentureBeat Mobile Summit in Sausalito, California, speaking of the next generation of cellular phone networks.

In January, T-Mobile announced HD Voice was available on a handful of phones including the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One S. The carrier also said last month it will have HD Voice on the iPhone 5, to be rolled out on T-Mobile's networks in the U.S. for the first time later this month.

Verizon has said it plans to implement the technology in 2014 and Sprint has said it plans to make HD Voice an option on the Sprint-exclusive HTC Evo 4G LTE.

Mobile carriers now have the ability to improve sound quality by transmitting it over their 4G LTE networks, as opposed to the more limited telephone lines of the past.

In simple terms, the human voice has a much wider frequency range than traditional phone connections have the bandwidth to handle. As a result, sounds that are too high or too low get compressed to fit.

Wideband audio is, as its name suggests, wider than traditional voiceband. It's not as broad as the entire range of the human voice, but it's closer.

It might take a while before our on-the-go conversations are pin-drop clear, though. For HD Voice to work, both phones need to be equipped to capture and transmit the higher-quality sound. And, at least initially, they'll need to be on the same network, though the carriers are working to expand that.

Wireless carriers have been rolling it out elsewhere for a couple of years, but only now is the technology beginning to be offered nationally in the United States.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 in September, the company announced that the phone is equipped for HD Voice and that 20 carriers around the globe would have the ability to offer it. But while it's widely available in parts of Europe and elsewhere, the United States has been slow to catch up.

Folks who have had a chance to test the feature have been impressed. PCMag's Sascha Segan tested out AT&T's version at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and called it "really striking."

"Background noise just drops out. The bustle of noises in a coffee shop? Gone. Airport PA announcements? Zapped," Segan wrote. "Even in a quiet room, voices become much, much richer; I won't sound like a nasal Gollum any more.

"It's really lovely. ... But I've seen this demo a bunch of times before. I've seen this demo for two years. Someone needs to actually launch the service."

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