It may seem strange to post a review about a Smartphone equipped with enhanced audio capabilities on a site dedicated to high-resolution audio but trust me it’s the right time and the new HTC One M8 Harman Kardon phone is the right device. While I’ve been patiently waiting for Apple to get the message that high-resolution audio is the next big thing, Sprint, HTC and Harman have gone ahead and delivered a Smartphone that can equal or beat the best portable high-end players AND do all of the stuff Smartphones do. I’ve mentioned a few of the features of this new phone over the past few weeks but it’s time to dedicate an entire post to the HTC One M8 because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to it.
Figure 1 -The phone loaded up with AIX Records HD-Audio files.
How did I come to have one of these remarkable phones? It turns out that one of my readers saw the post that I wrote following my visit to Harman about a month ago (click here to read the post) and reached out to me. He mentioned that Sprint had just released the HTC One M8 HKE phone and asked if I would be interested in checking it out. This guy is an executive at Sprint…you never know who’s reading what you write. It turns out he’s an audiophile and was instrumental in bringing other HTC and Harman executives together in hopes of delivering a phone that would measure up to audiophile standards. I told him that I would love to get my hands on one of the phones and within a few days, it had arrived.
This was my first experience with an Android phone. I’ve been an Apple user…and owner…since before the Mac. My kids and I would play the “Olympics Game” on my Apple IIe by rapidly pressing on a few of the keys and watching clunky sprites move around the screen. That was a long time ago.
It didn’t take long before I located the “HD-Audio” folder and auditioned the “high-definition” content that came bundled with the phone (yes, the folder on the M8 calls it HD-Audio…not high-resolution audio. I’m with them on that name…but the labels and other organizations have opted for high-resolution audio.) I auditioned ALL seven of the “HD-Audio” tracks that came with the phone they sent me through the two front facing speakers. I’d never heard sound this big coming from speakers/drivers built into a cell phone. It wasn’t far from the sound of one of those small Bluetooth speakers that are all the rage. Really.
Once I plugged in a set of Oppo’s PM-1 headphones, things were better but there wasn’t anything really stunning about the playback. The sound was about the same as a good quality MP3 file (at 256 kbps or even 320 kbps)…quite good but not up to audiophile standards. No wonder some of the other reviews that I had read online were lukewarm about the device. More than one online reviewer said not to bother with the Harman Kardon upgraded sound. They were wrong because they listened to standard resolution music files.
My thoughts immediately went to the content. There must be something wrong with the tunes that were bundled with the phone. So I offloaded all seven of the “HD-Audio” files and analyzed them for frequency response and dynamic range. To no great surprise, all but one of these tracks were PCM conversions that were clearly derived from 1-bit DSD sessions! The amount of ultrasonic noise was not just purple but bright red…this is where the problem was. Check out the spectrograms of a couple of the tunes:
Figure 2 – The spectra of a couple of “HD-Audio” tracks that were bundled with the HTC One M8 HKE phone. Notice the extreme amount of ultrasonic noise and limited dynamic range. [Click to enlarge]
I’m a stickler for clean and accurate tracks to show off the benefits of HRA but these tracks were clearly not carefully considered. The levels were all over the place and the recordings very distant sounding.
So what’s the solution? Load the phone up with some real HD-Audio files…so I did just that. I put over 30 tracks from my own catalog and started listening again. I auditioned big band music, classical piano, rock guitar, jazz, folk, vocal and just about every genre of music I have available and the output from the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition phone was as good as I’ve heard from dedicated devices costing four times the cost of the phone.
I listened to AIX Records tracks in my studio, through my Oppo HA-1 and PM-1 headphones, using the analog inputs on my Benchmark DAC2 and using the included Harman Kardon AE in-ear headphones designed specifically for use with the HTC One (M8)…the fidelity approaches that of the best source components I own! All it took was to play some real high-resolution audio files to bring this amazing phone to its full potential.
Figure 3 – The Harman Kardon AE in-ear headphones.
The in-ear headphones are worthy of special recognition. Maybe it’s because I’m so disgusted by standard Apple ear buds and haven’t actually experienced many high-end in-ear monitors, but I was thoroughly impressed by the in-ears that came with the phone. They feature aluminum casings and custom 9mm drivers, which deliver the full range of both frequency response and dynamics directly to your ears. Even the low end was present because the soft silicone seals off the ear channel. I listened for over 3 hours on the way back from Boston last Tuesday without ear fatigue.
I’m going to do some research today on the Harman Kardon Clari-Fi and LiveStage signal processing technologies and will report my findings shortly. From looking at the TV and print ads, the folks at Sprint are leveraging these technologies as strongly as the audiophile capabilities of this phone. If it were up to me I’d make some real HD-Audio files available to reviewers/purchasers of the HTC One M8 HKE phone…one listen to a real 96 kHz/24-bit music file and you’ll steer your money away from the dedicated “high-resolution” players to this phone. It’s that good!
If you sign up for a 2-year plan with Sprint, the cost is $229.99…the phone by itself will set you back $799.99.