Your phone may now have tools for making your calls sound less lousy


In between fielding emails, firing off texts, and sifting through DMs, you probably still find yourself taking the occasional, traditional phone call. And if you’re like many of our readers, you’ve probably noticed that those calls often sound less than amazing.

We’ve explored this topic in the past here at the Help Desk, and offered a few tips for improving your call quality on the go. But since then, companies like Apple and Google have baked new features into their smartphones designed to help make your phone calls sound less lousy than usual.

Here’s what you need to know about them and how to use them:

iPhones running iOS 16.4 and certain Google Pixel models have built-in features that may make voices easier to understand. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Voice Isolation for iPhones

Fun fact: For the last year or so, Apple iPhones running the company’s iOS 15 software or newer included a Voice Isolation feature that tries to make it easier for other people to hear you on calls by blocking out background noise. The catch? It only worked for calls conducted in certain apps, and didn’t play nice with standard phone calls at all.

That changed with Apple’s iOS 16.4 software, which was released at the end of March. Now, you can use the feature to help you sound clearer when you need to call someone while running around — here’s how to turn it on:

  1. While on a phone call, open the Control Center by swiping down from the top-right corner of the screen
  2. Find the option labeled “Mic mode” and tap it
  3. Select the “Voice isolation” option

Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that this feature makes you sound better to the person on the other end, not the other way around. (That is, unless they enable the feature on their end too.)

But how well does this actually work? Better than I expected, to be honest. We made a few test calls while running around in downtown San Francisco and dealing with the midday din; with the feature turned on, there was a notable reduction in the amount of ambient sound people could hear on the other end. My voice, meanwhile, mostly came through loud and clear.

I say “mostly” because — while Voice Isolation lived up to its name — it sometimes made me sound a little unnatural in the process. The people I spoke to deemed the change an improvement compared to hearing more background noise, but still, you may want to leave this tool turned off unless you know you’ll have to make a call from somewhere noisy.

Clear calling for Google Pixels

Google regularly updates its Pixel smartphones with new features throughout the year, and a “feature drop” from December added a new Clear Calling tool to certain Pixel models.

In theory, at least, Google’s approach here makes a little more sense than Apple’s. As long as your phone has an internet connection, it makes every incoming phone call sound better than it normally would. But there’s a big caveat here, too: this feature only works on the company’s Pixel 7 phones, which were released this year. Owners of last year’s Pixel 6 models are out, as are people who own basically any other kind of Android smartphone.

(In an email, Google spokesperson Matt Flegal said this was because the feature specifically required the company’s Tensor G2 chipset to work.)

If you own one of Google’s Pixel 7 or Pixel 7 Pro smartphones, here’s how to turn on Clear Calling:

  1. Open the Settings app
  2. Find and tap on “Sound & vibration”
  3. Scroll down to “Clear calling” and tap on it
  4. Tap the toggle next to “Use clear calling”

As I ran around the city making phone calls next to idling trucks and oncoming traffic, the people listening to me from a Pixel 7 Pro couldn’t detect much difference between when the feature was on and when it was off.

Turns out, that wasn’t because of a failure in software; the folks I was speaking to barely heard background noise from the Pixel’s microphone in the first place. They did hear more of a difference in another test, in which I chatted while washing my hands — something I do maybe more than I should — though the effect was still pretty subtle.

What about other phone makers?

Apple and Google aren’t the only companies out there trying to fix our phone calls through software. Samsung bakes a similar feature, called Voice Focus, into some of the more affordable smartphone models it sells around the world. While some of the company’s higher-end devices — like the flashy S22 phones announced earlier this year — include multiple microphones to improve your voice quality on phone calls, a spokesperson told The Washington Post that the Voice Focus feature isn’t available on any phones it sells in the United States.

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