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Hands-on: HTC One (M8) Harman Kardon Edition

updated 02:54 am EDT, Sun May 25, 2014

Harman Kardon Edition of the HTC One (M8) sounds fantastic

The HTC One (M8) has received universal acclaim as arguably the best high-end Android smartphone on the market. We awarded the HTC One five stars in our recent full review, noting among other things, its exceptional audio performance. Not only are its outstanding BoomSound speakers powered by on-board amplifiers, but its headphone socket also gets special amplifier treatment as well producing double the voltage output of any other smartphone on the market for excellent sound through headphones. HTC has teamed with Sprint to deliver an even better sounding version of the HTC One powered by special Harman Kardon software, while also giving the handset a special look and matching it with a set of Harman Kardon AE-S in-ear headphones. So how does it perform?

The good news for owners of the standard HTC One (M8) is that other than the addition of some special software settings and a different look, the basic hardware of the Harman Kardon edition of the HTC One remains identical, with both sporting Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoCs. High resolution audio (better than CD-quality) 24-bit/192Khz recordings are starting to make an impact with Sony already developing a full range of hi-res audio gear, and news that the next iPhone will also support hi-res audio files sold through the iTunes Store . For now, though, the both versions of the HTC One (M8) are among the very few handsets that support high-resolution audio files, with the addition of third-party software like Poweramp. The inclusion of a headphone amplifier is icing on the cake, producing rich, powerful sound through everything from good in-ear headphones through to full-size over-ear headphones.

The look:
While it is always nice to have an exclusive look, the aesthetics of the HTC One (M8) Harman Kardon Edition are not necessarily going to be to everyone's taste. It features an onyx black paint treatment on the rear with a champagne (gold-colored) highlights on the front speaker panels and around the rear main camera trim. This, ostensibly, has been designed to match the Harman Kardon AE-S in-ear headphones that also feature gold trim on the metal framed part of the earbuds. Unfortunately, however, the black and gold look has been spoilt by mismatched silver trim on the remote control and on the 3.5mm connector. This is the standard color that they are sold in and it looks like, despite the earphones featuring all-gold trim on the retail packaging, Harman Kardon may have rushed these to market for this special edition version of the phone.

Harman Kardon Clari-Fi:
Interestingly, just has HTC has dropped Beats Audio and sold its stake in the company, Apple seems to have swooped in and purchased Beats outright (more for its music streaming service and the industry connections of its owners). However, the Beats Audio integration didn't go a long way to improving the audio of the first-generation HTC One, even with special discounts on Beats headphones that came with it. We have previously done a direct comparison between Harman Kardon's on-ear CL headphones (sold exclusively through Apple stores) and the Beats Solo HD headphones, which found that the Harman Kardon headphones performed substantially better. The same is true of Harman Kardon's special 'Clari-Fi' software that comes pre-loaded on the HTC One (M8) special edition. It performs substantially than the Beats Audio settings we have previously heard on HTC's devices.

While the Beats Audio settings boosted bass and treble response, they were effectively nothing more than a pre-set EQ. The Harman Kardon Clari-Fi setting has been specially designed to 'upscale' compressed MP3 and MP4 (AAC) files so that they sound more like CD-quality by 'replacing' missing sound data. According to Harman Kardon, Clari-Fi works by scanning music in real-time, intelligently correcting waveform deficiencies to recapture missing highs and lows. Harman Kardon has put together a dedicated website dedicated to its Clari-Fi technology, giving users a chance to listen to how it improves overall sound that will give you a good idea of how the special edition of the HTC One sounds. There is no question that having Clari-Fi makes a substantial difference to the sound, with bass and high notes sounding punchier. Most noticeable, however, is that it creates a wider soundstage without making it sound too artificial, while also boosting stereo separation. When listening to streaming music sites, or downloaded or stored compressed audio files, it does make an impressive difference. We were less impressed, however, with special 'Live Stage' setting designed for the included AE-S earphones, which sounded too artificial and washed out.

Harman Kardon AE-S earphones:
The included Harman Kardon AE-S earphones are worth up to $150 if purchased separately, making the small premium you pay to get this version of the HTC One (M8) on Sprint very worth while. As far as in-ear headphones go, the AE-S earphones produce a pleasing sound, especially if you achieve the ideal seal when placing them gently into your ear canal. Bass response is strong, while the treble response is also relatively clear. They are good enough for even discerning listeners who might prefer this style of headphones, particularly when on the go. However, while the Harman Kardon AE-S earphones are streets ahead of any set of standard earphones included with smartphones, they are no match for Harman Kardon's own CL on-ear headphones, or any other quality set of on-ear or over-ear headphones. These produce a much larger sound stage with much greater dynamic range.

Both the standard version of the HTC One (M8) and the sound great when paired with a decent set of headphones, particularly when listening to lossless audio files thanks to the in-built support for 16- and 24-bit formats. This is also thanks to its built-in headphone amplifier that makes the most substantial contribution to the overall quality of the sound. However, if you subscribe to a streaming service as well,or still have plenty of compressed AAC or MP3 file in your collection, having the Harman Kardon edition with Clari-Fi makes the overall listening experience that much better. However, if all you listen to are lossless audio files on your standard HTC One (M8), you are not really missing out on anything, as it is the best sounding smartphone on currently on the market.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



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