Handheld gaming devices have been around since the dawn of video games. They first started as blinking lights in a plastic case with some buttons on it, but have since transitioned into powerhouse gaming machines that rival the power of traditional consoles.

Mobile gaming has exploded over the last seven years thanks to the invention of the iPhone and its App Store. This device along with Android-based units have turned non-gamers into casual gamers, and have opened the joys of the video game industry to a much broader audience than even ten years ago. These days it’s no longer strange to see a person with grey hair playing a game on their phone, or watching a toddler use a touchscreen as if it were with them in their mother’s placenta.

The addition of smartphones and tablets for mobile gaming has added some serious competition to the likes of Nintendo and Sony, which are the only two major console makers in the mobile gaming business these days. With that being said, there’s something to say about gaming on a traditional handheld unit versus a multi-functional device like a phone or tablet.

Rather than ranking the technical merits of some of today’s handheld units to establish a pecking order, I’d like to rank them based on their sound capabilities. Sound is a key feature in game design, and can add all sorts of depth to a gameplay experience. Without sound, gaming definitely wouldn’t be the multi-sense affecting medium that we all have come to love so dearly.

This applies even more so to the handheld gaming space because devices of this nature don’t sport high-end surround sound systems like consoles. If a mobile gaming device doesn’t boast strong built-in audio capabilities it can definitely tarnish the experience of playing games on the go. Sure headphones can be used to amplify sound on handhelds, but not every gamer wants to pack a pair of high-end cans with them every time they play a mobile game.

Luckily, most of today’s modern mobile game units do indeed offer solid built-in speakers. Some are superior to others, which is why this editorial came into existence in the first place. Without further adieu, here’s how some of today’s most popular handheld gaming units stack up against each other when it comes to their sound capabilities.

Editor’s Note: There was no scientific testing that went into the ranking process. Decibel levels weren’t analyzed, so the rankings are purely based on opinion of how each device sounds in a nice quiet environment. The products ranked do not include Android devices (sorry Fandroid Nation!)

4. iPhone 5

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The iPhone 5’s speaker placement makes it impossible to hear in stereo when gaming. Source

The iPhone is responsible for starting the casual mobile gaming craze of this decade, and it is a fantastic device for playing mobile games on, but its ability to produce high-quality sounds while gaming is lacking. The biggest factor for the iPhone’s less than satisfactory sound capabilities is the fact that the speakers don’t produce any type of surround sound effect. The placement of the speakers on the bottom of the phone make this almost impossible to pull off since most of the time the phone is held horizontally, which causes your hands to muffle the speakers. This position also makes it impossible to hear in stereo since the speakers are only present on one side of the phone. Apple’s smartphone is a magical device that can do many things very well, but it definitely suffers in the speaker department when it comes to gaming (pretty decent for other audio sources though.)

3. iPad

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The iPad suffers from many of the same issues as the iPhone 5. Source

The iPad has slowly become an impressive piece of gaming hardware, and some of its titles rival the production value of triple-A console games, but like its little brother, the iPad also suffers from single speaker syndrome. Its lone speaker actually produces some very loud sound, which is definitely impressive, but its placement and limitations prevent the sound from games being played in stereo. Any level of surround sound effect is key to fully immersing yourself into a video game world, so when you only hear a game played with a mono sound profile, the experience feels flat and imperfect. Although, out of this list the iPad does offer the best bass sounds of the bunch.

2. PS Vita

The Vita's dual speakers definitely provide solid stereo sound.
The Vita’s dual speakers definitely provide solid stereo sound.

The fact that Sony has struggled to make the PS Vita relevant and popular is quite unfortunate, because it truly is a fine piece of mobile gaming hardware. Its design allows it to have two adjacent speakers, one by each thumb stick, which do indeed produce stereo sound. These diminutive sound makers can produce a solid surround sound effect as long as game developers do their due diligence on a game’s sound design. Games like Uncharted, or even Plants vs. Zombies produce amazing levels of surround sound that mimic the console versions, albeit on a smaller scale.

The one downside to the PS Vita’s sound though is the fact that it can’t be turned up very loud, and each game’s sound level isn’t uniform, so one game may sound louder than another.

1. Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL

Nintendo does at least one thing right, and that's coaxing amazing sounds out of tiny speakers!
Nintendo does at least one thing right, and that’s coaxing amazing sounds out of tiny speakers!

Nintendo’s latest handheld, be it the regular or XL edition, definitely sports the most amazing small scale surround sound that has ever graced this gamer’s delicate ear drums. This capability is made abundantly clear in the recently released Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which is the first title on that platform that really hammered the 3DS’s sound capabilities home. The level of surround sound showcased by this game, as well as others, is simply astonishing when you look at the tiny little speakers that grace the top half of the handheld. It’s so deep and rich that it can be used to decipher which direction in-game sounds are coming from, which comes in handy while hunting for bugs in an AC:NL gameplay session.

The excellence of the 3DS’s sound capabilities has to be directly related to Nintendo’s extensive use of audio tricks with the Wii and Wii U controllers. Both of these devices add a whole new layer of sound to gameplay that sometimes produces an ambience not found on any other platform. Nintendo’s mastery of these tiny speakers, and their ability to add new layers of sound to a video game, most definitely played into the design of the 3DS’s speakers and their ability to belt out some mightily impressive stereo sound effects.

Unfortunately, just like the PS Vita, the 3DS’s volume is also capped, which sometimes makes it necessary to play in silence to truly experience the magic of its baby speakers.

Final Thoughts

In a perfect world the 3DS would have the decibel levels of the iPad, which truly would make it the ultimate handheld for sound. Taking things a bit further it would be even better if it offered the graphical powers of the PS Vita or iDevices, but even in its current state, the Nintendo 3DS still provides the best overall auditory experience for mobile gaming without using headphones.

Feel free to weigh in with your own opinions by using the comment section down below!


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Tags : 3DS XLBest OfiPad HDiPhone 5PS VitaSound Design
Matt Heywood

The author Matt Heywood

Matt Heywood is the founder and EIC of where he strives to make you a better geek, one post at a time! When he’s not scouring the Internet for interesting nuggets of awesomeness he can be found in his secret lair enjoying the latest and greatest video games, taking pictures of toys, or talking Star Wars on EB’s Star Wars Time podcast show.