I recently had an hour or two to play around with Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)’s latest flagship phone, the Nexus 5. With a low(ish) price tag ($349 unlocked)  a 5-inch, full-HD (1920 x 1080), quad-core, 16-GB device that is among the fastest benchmarking phones on the market, it’s truly a marvel of engineering.

Google Nexus 5

Or so I thought. Unfortunately for buyers of the Nexus 5, who sold out the Google Play store in mere hours following the handset’s release, a number of them are experiencing problems with third party wired microphones.

While Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) could play down what users are calling low-microphone output, the company has chosen to both acknowledge the problem as well as clarify the issue. It’s not just “low”, its nearly non-existent, rendering wired microphones useless.

Google’s Nexus 5 software problem?

Before getting into the recently discovered workaround and confirmed problem as explained by Kurt Marko at InformationWeek, it’s important to note that this issue is not present when using the phone’s standard phone mic nor Bluetooth mics suggesting a software problem(?).

For the tech savvy I’ll let Mr. Marko explain the process he used to find that most complaining about this issue weren’t exaggerating:

Using a production Nexus 5 with a T-Mobile SIM, I went through about a dozen different wired headsets, both earbud and over the ear, and found only two — an old set of Samsung earbuds and a Turtle Beach over-the-ear headset with boom mic — that didn’t have the problem.

Digging deeper, I used the Smart Voice Recorder (SVR) app to verify that the problem is systemwide, and not unique to the Android KitKat OS’s phone app. SVR has a handy feature that provides a clue as to the root cause: a setting for microphone adjustment. The recorder app allows you to calibrate levels for different microphones by overriding Android’s auto gain control (AGC). Doing so, and recalibrating the gain setting, produced crystal-clear recordings with every headset I tried, strongly suggesting a software bug in Android’s autocalibration.

Hardware problem?

While this makes a fairly strong case for a software problem, others suggest that it’s a hardware problem. The majority of wired headsets on the market employ a three-button control: volume, pause/resume, and call pickup. Mr. Marko continues:

These use a TRRS plug (short for tip-ring-ring-sleeve) with three bands separating the plug into connections for left and right audio, microphone, and ground. There are two standards for wiring the microphone and ground connections, but Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) uses a different pin out than most other non-Apple devices. Since most headsets are designed for iPhones, it means the microphone input is connected to a ground inside a phone that’s wired the other way.

Mr. Marko consequently discovered that by holding down the middle headset button you essentially short both the mic and the ground and if this technique is employed while plugging your headset into the Nexus 5 you will effectively fix the problem. Of course, this disables your ability to pause music or end a call using the headset but it does “fix” the problem.

This “fix” is not, however, stopping people from returning their phones. On the other side of the coin, Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) is promising a permanent fix for the more patient with its next software update now that the company has been able to reproduce the problem.

As annoying as those “Can you hear me now?” ads are/were, at least Google is listening. Never mind the fact that no one else can hear you if you’re using a wired headset.

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