First thing this afternoon when I got to my battle station, Phil gave me a call. This isn't unusual, we talk a lot, but today he wanted to ask me what I thought of the Nexus 4 and the crazy hissing/buzzing/evil sound you can almost hear coming from the earpiece. The one I can't hear and had never heard of. We threw some ideas back and forth, even got nerdy and spoke of vibrating crystals on the PCB that may be firing the eardrum and tiny bones inside the skull to create a sound, and I told him I would dig around the Internet and see what I could find. That's how this job works a lot of the time. Anyhoo, my non-buzzing Nexus 4 and I went in search of what could be happening.
I found a couple things that I didn't expect. The most telling thing I came across is that my Galaxy Nexus makes a buzz from the earpiece. I had never noticed it, and probably wouldn't ever have if I hadn't went looking for it. But it sure does, both on Android 4.1.2 and Android 4.2.1. I'll probably never unhear it now that I've ran into it.
I also found cases where all sorts of other phones are making a buzzing sound from the earpiece. The Optimus G has the issue (the first device we checked, of course). The Galaxy S3 has been reported to do it. The Samsung Skyrocket does it. Even the iPhone 4S does it. In fact, there is a huge support thread in Apple's forums about the issue. It's a very real issue with intricate consumer electronics. That means now the questions are why is it happening, and can it be fixed?
In my younger days I had an old 1974 Pinto wagon. While you were driving it, a whine came out of the stereo speakers -- even when the stereo was off. I'm thinking this is a similar issue, where electrical noise (electrical noise is simply a signal that you do not want) is causing sound to be created from the speaker. It could be poor component placement, improper shielding, or just a case of too much high frequency crap crammed in a case as thin as possible. Either way, it's going to be very difficult to fix if it's an electrical noise issue. Fixing it in my Pinto meant cutting the speaker wires and buying a Walkman after trying all manner of isolators and filters.
It's possible that software tweaks can be made to cut back on some of the noise. It's also possible to look into the manufacturing process and adjust. It's also very possible that nothing will be done about the issue, because nothing can be done. It's certainly not a new problem for the folks designing cell phones. Folks are staring the issue with Google to get their attention. (That might not be the best place to do that, but good luck stopping folks.) I wouldn't expect a quick fix for this one though, as there's a long line of phones ahead of it that need "fixed" first.