Messing with Music to Mixed Results
The most hyped additions to the One (M8) Harman Kardon edition come, naturally, from Harman Kardon, which has fitted the device with a pair of audio-altering software tricks dubbed “Clari-Fi” and “LiveStage.”
The former claims to restore the detail that’s lost when songs are compressed to fit lower-resolution formats like MP3s. It’s impossible to fully do that, so Clari-Fi instead uses an algorithm that analyzes tracks in real time and adds high and low sounds where it assumes they were before. The latter, meanwhile, seeks to make audio sound like it’s being played through multiple channels, theoretically giving it a greater sense of width and depth. It’s only available through headphones.
Both pieces of software certainly have an effect on tracks, but neither of them is consistent when it comes to improving the listening experience. Clari-Fi has its moments, sometimes giving cymbal crashes some added oomph or boosting the texture of gasped vocals, but more often than not it sounds like your everyday bass and treble booster. It weirdly emphasizes some parts of a track over others, but that doesn’t always enrich audio so much as change it. Again, it’s the sort of thing that’ll only pass as “audiophile’s software” to the easily impressionable.
LiveStage is much the same way. Enable it with a more subdued, vocals-heavy track and it makes things sound a bit more stretched out, but too often it just cuts the legs out from most songs’ instrumentation in the process. And that’s only when you can hear it — sometimes it’s barely noticeable, and its effect often gets swallowed when it’s used in conjunction with Clari-Fi.
In both cases, the software here is fundamentally altering the integrity of your music, and messing with what the artists and engineers originally intended. They’re algorithms fumbling around in the dark for better sound, hitting whenever the stars align but serving as ordinary equalizers most of the time. They don’t necessarily degrade tracks (though Clari-Fi is much more useful than LiveStage), but they’re not nearly as revolutionary as Sprint’s marketing would suggest. The fact that they’re both buried within a lengthy settings menu only furthers their inconvenience.
The Highs and Lows of Lossless Audio
Despite Clari-Fi and LiveStage’s stumbles, listening to music through the One (M8) Harman Kardon edition can still be a great experience. The audio processing of the One (M8) sounds richer than most phones by default, HTC’s BoomSound external speakers are still the best in the business, and, as with the original device, the Harman Kardon edition supports the FLAC codec for lossless audio playback.
For the unfamiliar, this is essentially the “4K” of music — it takes up more storage space than the usual MP3 file, costs more, and requires a trained ear and some high-end equipment to notice, but it provides higher-resolution sound for your troubles. You’ll have to go through a third-party shop like HDTracks.com to get these FLAC files, however, since Sprint doesn’t sell them in its own music store.
This is an appreciated touch for music nerds, but again, it’s something you can already enjoy on the old One (M8). The one difference here is that the One (M8) HKE supports FLAC playback up to 24-bit/192kHz, which is the highest bit rate and sample rate currently available for commercial music downloads. By comparison, the standard One (M8) supports up to 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files.
Some will say this is an improvement, but that’s only in number alone; even with super expensive gear, its benefits are more or less impossible for the human ear to discern. It isn’t worth the extra money and storage room required to hear it. In many ways, the difference between 96kHz and 192kHz audio is symbolic of the difference between the One (M8) and the HKE as a whole — in both cases, the latter is theoretically a good idea for audiophiles, but proves to be overblown and propped up by marketing when push comes to shove.
Sprint’s Bog of Bloatware
The One (M8) Harman Kardon edition comes with the same Sense 6 UI that launched with the original One (M8), and on a base level, it’s still a great improvement over past iterations of HTC’s Android skin. The BlinkFeed news widget is still worth its weight; the Motion Launch home screen gestures are still wonderfully convenient; and most everything runs smoothly over the latest version of Android KitKat. That’s all good.
What’s not so hot is how much Sprint has tinkered with Sense to suit its own ends. Carrier bloatware is nothing new, but Sprint’s badgering here is almost commendable in its shamelessness. As soon as you turn on the One (M8) HKE, for instance, you’re bludgeoned with the cluttered “Sprint Live” wallpaper, which displays a few dozen tiles of shifting album art. Seeing Drake’s face randomly enlarge behind your apps is distracting, but it’d be fine if Sprint made it so those albums changed based on what songs you’ve been digging lately. That’s not the case, though. Instead, the wallpaper is essentially a breathing advertisement for Sprint’s built-in music store, as the only albums displayed are mainstream pop hits that are featured purchases in that shop.
If that bit of subliminal trickery doesn’t work, the wallpaper goes and plants two unseemly shortcuts to Sprint’s music services on the home screen anyway. The first is a page-corner-like icon that peels down to reveal Sprint’s proprietary music portal, which itself is a sluggish and redundant collection of ads, music news, ringtones, and tracks for sale.
The second is a small yellow button that reveals the carrier’s ID Song app, which is a Shazam clone that doesn’t work as well. Whenever it does identify a song that’s playing around you, it then prompts you to purchase it from Sprint’s music store, because of course it does.
Thankfully, you can remove this desperate nonsense by swapping out Sprint Live for a wallpaper of your own. That doesn’t alleviate you from the rest of Sprint’s superfluous software, though. Expect to get familiar with the icons of Sprint TV and Movies, Sprint Money Express, NBA Game Time, Eureka Offers, Scout, NextRadio, the Lumen Toolbar, eBay, and few other apps and widgets, because they all come pre-installed whether you want them or not.
Although most of these apps can be stashed out of sight, none of them are vital or functional enough to warrant such forced inclusion. The HTC One (M8) is a damn good phone in its own right, and fattening its UI up with so many unnecessary programs only keeps it from being as fluid as it could be. It makes you dig further to get where you want. It’s understandable for Sprint to use an exclusive device to promote its services, but the blatant sloppiness of its approach here is damaging to the phone as a whole. That Sprint is charging extra for all this makes it even worse.
Cheap Spotify for the Framily
One pre-installed app that makes at least some sense for this device is Spotify, which is given a spot right at the top of the Harman Kardon edition’s main home screen. I’m a Google Play Music guy myself, but Spotify works well enough, and it’s still most the most popular streaming music service around.
That’s part of the reason why Sprint has featured the app here, but its primary motivation is promoting its recently-announced partnership with the service. Much like how AT&T locked up an exclusive promotion with Beats Musicearlier this year, Sprint is giving six free months of Spotify Premium (which normally costs $10 per month) and lessened rates thereafter to its customers — so long as they’re on one of the carrier’s contract-grouping Framily plans. This isn’t exactly a deal — you’re paying more to pay less — but it’s a neat little bonus if, and only if, you already plan on signing up for a Framily plan.
A Better Class of Earbuds
This should tell you something about the value of the One (M8) Harman Kardon edition: the one undoubtedly positive aspect of it has nothing to do with the phone itself. Instead, it’s the pair of Harman Kardon-built AE earbuds that come included with every purchase.
Normally priced at $80, these pods are a genuine steal here, and they’re significantly better than the typical headphones you’d get with an iPhone or Galaxy device. That doesn’t make them world-beaters, but they still provide distinct range, ample amounts of bass, and decent volume. They come in the same goofy black and champagne styling as the phone itself, and you’ll probably need a better set to really enjoy those lossless audio files, but they’re a definite upgrade over what we’ve come to expect from bundled buds.