HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio
- Good build quality and aesthetics
- Great packaged headphones
- Beats Audio software is largely a gimmick
- Aging display technology
- Camera isn't up to par, especially with video
- The extra speed isn't worth the battery drain
The XE doesn't improve much on the first Sensation and better phones are hitting the market. Did we mention Beats Audio is a gimmick?
In many respects this is not a complete review, because we've avoided covering the same ground we already trod extensively in our review of the Sensation. Instead, we've focused only on those areas where there have been significant changes, or where the passage of time has altered a particular spec's standing with respect to the ever-eager competition.
In particular, we spent a great deal of time looking into Beats Audio -- far too much time, perhaps, if you've already convinced yourself that this Dre hookup is nothing but a gimmick. But we felt that since HTC has invested untold dollars in Beats in order to differentiate itself from the competition, and since it plans to bring the this technology to many more devices in the US and around the world, then we ought to try to come up with something definitive and -- if at all possible -- scientific. By all means, if you're just curious about this phone's musical prowess then skip down to the Software section, but for now we'll start off with the key hardware features.
Just like the original Sensation, the XE is well-built and beautiful to behold. Its tapered edges and smooth wraparound aluminum case conspire to make it feel thinner than the 11.4mm statistic might suggest. Of course, the XE differs in its coloring and when we first heard about the red accents we were worried they might look cheesy, like a Qosimo gaming laptop or something, but our fears were misplaced. The coloring of the navigation button back-lights, the speaker grill and the ring around the camera lens all helped to lift this phone above the plain black and silver hordes. The speaker grill and front-facing camera both have glinting chrome borders which make them look extra special. Add in the bold red headphones with the Beats logo on the back of each bud and it's an all-round good look -- unless you prefer your gadgets to be more discreet.
If you grip the phone hard you'll feel and hear slight creaks from the plastic-aluminum hybrid construction, but it's far less than what you get on purely plastic phones. We should also mention that no matter how we held the device, we failed to encounter any of the so-called "death grip" issues that people complained about with the first Sensation.
Perhaps the only nits we'd pick -- and they're much smaller than your average nits -- are the tendency of the border between glass and aluminum around the panel to collect dirt which cannot easily be cleaned, plus the strange slant of the power button. We should probably disregard this latter flaw, since the device in our hands-on didn't have it and it could simply be a factory error or a result of transit damage. Nevertheless, if wonky power buttons turn out to be an issue with this phone, then remember: you heard it here first.
We didn't have an original Sensation to compare against the XE side by side, but we did have an EVO 3D to throw into the mix, which has a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8660 processor that's very similar to the Sensation's MSM8260. The comparison isn't perfect, because the EVO 3D has 1GB of RAM instead of 768MB, but it's nevertheless sufficient for an indication of what 1.5GHz delivers in terms of real-world advantage -- which turns out to be not a great deal. The EVO 3D actually booted much quicker than the XE, taking just eight seconds from 'Off' to snapping a picture on the camera. Meanwhile the XE took 11 seconds to do the same thing -- possibly because the extra Beats Audio logo animation takes a few extra seconds at boot up.
Our impression was that anything the XE could do, the EVO 3D could just about as well, so the extra 300MHz doesn't count for much at all in practice. We can't help but notice that the chip in the XE is identical to that in the original Sensation and has merely been overclocked -- something savvy Sensation owners are perfectly capable of doing themselves.
HTC bumped the battery up to 1750mAh in the XE instead of the original 1520mAh, ostensibly to let you listen to more tunes but also perhaps also to compensate for the 300MHz bump to the original Sensation's clock speed. The lower part of the case heats up whenever you put the processor under any serious load and you can just imagine how those two cores must be gulping down energy. After a 14-hour day of heavy use, including tonn of music, a few photos and a bit of video, the battery fell to eight percent by the time we got on a train home. It subsequently fell to three percent after listening to about 30 minutes of music and then finally died after taking four final night-time photographs. In other words, there's no forgiving fuel tank here; when the battery says it's nearly dead, it really is. However, just like with the original Sensation, the phone is frugal with power while it's idle and on a less busy, more normal day we'd still find around 30-40 percent of the battery remaining when plugged the phone in to charge.
In our regular battery test, looping a standard def video with low-to-mid connectivity and push settings, the phone died somewhere between five and six hours, which is slightly below average for a large screen device. For the sake of reference, the 3.7-inch single-core BlackBerry Torch 9850 lasted 20 percent longer in this test -- which merely shows that the Sensation XE pays for its specs in battery life.
The camera hardware in the XE is identical to that in the original Sensation, so check out that review for a full appraisal. All we really have to add is that the slight increase in clockspeed with the XE might translate into a minor improvement in the time it takes to load up the camera app and start capturing video or stills, but it's nothing particularly noticeable -- after all, the original Sensation was no slouch in this regard to begin with.
On the other hand, one thing has changed significantly since the XE's predecessor, and that's time. As the months have progressed and new handsets have come to market, we've become less forgiving of XE camera's flaws -- particularly with video. The auto-exposure isn't particularly smart, and it adjusts too quickly when filming video, with ugly results compared to the camera in the HTC Titan and Sensation XL -- which have far better camera units. Moreover, as you'll hear in the sample video above, the sound recording is terrible: its default sensitivity of the mic is way too high, resulting in clipped audio whenever the person holding the camera speaks, or when there's a gust of wind or any other sharp noise.
Still images suffer from the fact that you can't change the compression settings, which means the output from the eight megapixel sensor is often ruinously over-compressed to as little as 600KB. HTC's panorama mode, which we've enjoyed on the Titan and XL, is absent here, too. Altogether, the camera counts firmly against the XE and feels way more outdated than the display panel.
HTC's marketing department has gone to town with Beats Audio. For the record, here's some of the language they've used to describe it:
- "Beats by Dr Dre and HTC will work together to reengineer how sound is delivered so that the consumer feels the music the way that the artist intended.
- "When it comes to doing music justice, you're way ahead of the crowd with... Beats Audio™"
- "The tailor-made headset is specially engineered to deliver extraordinary sound. Finally, hear what you've been missing."
Beyond these two claims, there's very little in the way of factual information from HTC about what exactly Beats Audio is. When we've interviewed HTC reps on this point, the conversation has generally ended up being about "sound profiles," which we take to mean EQ settings -- or the way certain frequencies are lifted or depressed in order change the way music sounds. This fits with the impressions we had in our initial hands-on with the XE: that Beats Audio is simply an EQ setting that comes to life when you attach Beats-accredited headphones in order to lift the bass and some of the upper frequencies and hence deliver a more lively experience with certain genres of music.
We know that the Beats Audio EQ can sound great with the right type of music, but we need something more objective than that. So, with EQs as our starting point, we decided to test out HTC's claims about Beats Audio with help from the friendly chaps at AMS Acoustics in North London. Thanks to their input, we now have a ton of objective information about exactly what Beats Audio does. Indulge us with your patience and we'll do our best to explain.
We started out by testing the XE with the packaged YourBeats in-ears, which are re-branded iBeats with the addition of HTC's in-line controls. As you'll see in the video above, our test involved playing pink noise on the XE, with BA first enabled and then disabled, and recording the sound using a mic specially modified for the analyzing this type of earphone. This yielded two different power spectra, which are presented as simple tables showing the amplitude (in dB) of each frequency (in MHz) of the pink noise. Subtracting the first spectra (BA off) from the second (BA on) revealed the Beats Audio EQ, -- i.e. how, exactly, the XE modifies the sound when you activate Beats Audio. For corroboration, we also ran a different test signal through the XE and YourBeats in order to get a "frequency response curve," which is basically just a higher-res power spectrum depicted as a line graph. (Look in the gallery above for more tables and graphs at a higher res.)
The first thing our tests revealed was that the Sensation XE and packaged headphones form a bass-heavy system, even before you activate Beats Audio. Looking at the raw data with BA disabled, we see that the lowest frequencies still have the highest amplitude, while the higher frequencies get steadily quieter. This EQ is the equivalent of old-school "bass boost" and we've listened to enough music with BA off to know it sounds just about as boring.
Our next step, of course, was to enable Beats Audio, and this changed the picture entirely. Suddenly, there's a massive boost to most of the treble frequencies as well as the bass, which prevents the treble from just trailing off so dismally. Looking at the Beats Mode EQ column above, we can describe the EQ as S-shaped: it has a hump at the lowest frequencies, then a valley in the middle, and a second hump at the top. This is significant because, for many types of music, an S-shaped EQ is greatly preferable to one which simply emphasises the bass. Subjectively, activating Beats Audio when listening to music does exactly what we'd expect from a good S-shaped EQ: it gives the music more presence by emphasising the bass and vocals, while depressing the less interesting mid-tones -- but only when we're listening to an appropriate genre of music such as hip-hop or house. When listening to orchestral music, activating Beats Audio does nothing good.
In addition to the treble boost, most of the other frequencies are also amplified to a greater or lesser extent, delivering an overall jump in loudness that screams "Beats Audio ON!" in the language of pure decibels. This is supported by the frequency response curve below: the BA-enabled curve follows the BA-disabled curve very tightly, but is significantly higher (i.e., louder) all the way along -- with the extra boost at the bass, upper mid-range, and highest trebles that we've already observed.
At this point, we can debunk one of HTC's more ostentatious claims about Beats Audio, which is that it somehow "reengineers" music to make it sound "the way the artist intended." For this to be true, the Beats Audio EQ would need to flatten the system's output, to make music sound more faithful to the source recording -- just as studio monitors do. But Beats Audio does no such thing. We'd suggest that this makes music sound the way Dr. Dre (or his engineers) intended: with a certain S-shaped EQ that suits his kind of music. In fact, when we suggested this to an HTC rep during our hands-on video, he didn't contradict us. Round one therefore goes to the skeptics -- albeit, with the caveat that Dre's EQ can actually sound really good when you try it with the right type of music.
But we have another question to answer before we call it a match: HTC's second claim about Beats Audio being tailored to the packaged Beats headphone. Does the same Beats Audio EQ get activated regardless of which headphone is plugged in? If the answer is "yes," then the consumer is simply being duped into thinking a dumb EQ is more than it is. If the answer is "no," then the marketing spiel has some justification.
Our approach in this round was to run the pink noise test with three other sets of headphones: Senn CX300 in-ears, Senn HD598 over-ears and a pair of Beats Studio active over-ears. We threw in the Beats Studios to mix things up a bit -- they're part of the Beats range but they're not officially supported by the XE. Currently, the only supported headphones are YourBeats and Beats Solos, with the latter soon to be sold with the new limited edition Sensation XL.
We should also clarify at this point that our XE allowed us to activate Beats Audio with whatever headphones we liked. However, it only explicitly acknowledged the YourBeats headphones, which triggered a popup message on the XE's screen when we plugged them in. We're not sure this is how HTC intended the software to behave -- in fact, we've been told that Beats Audio should not be available with the third-party headphones. But this is how the review device worked for us -- and a good thing too, because it allowed us to learn a lot more about Beats Audio.
So, starting with Beat Audio disabled, we noticed that the same excessive bass was apparent with the CX300 in-ears. However, when we moved on to the more expensive and more balanced over-ear headphones, the bass boost was matched by a similar boost to the lower trebles. This suggests that XE has been designed with a relatively common S-shaped sound profile already, even without Beats Audio enabled, but this treble amplification is largely lost with the in-ear Senn CX300, just as it was with the packaged YourBeats.
What happened when we activated Beats Audio in these tests? Well, this is where it got interesting. With the Senn CX300, Beats Audio further boosted the bass as well as some mid-range frequencies, but it totally failed to remedy the lack of treble. In other words, the EQ it applied was clearly different to that with the YourBeats, and the end result was nothing like Dr Dre's S-curve we discovered in the last round. The same can be said of both the over-ear headphones we tried: they generally displayed the same pattern, with a bass and mid-range boost, but the end result was nothing like with the YourBeats. This is illustrated in the graph below, which compares the Beats Audio EQ with the YourBeats, versus the average Beats Audio EQ with the other headphones. The shapes are totally different, and the key difference is the treble.
This tallies with what an HTC rep told us about the way Beats Audio works: the XE has multiple sound profiles stored within it. It has separate and specific profiles for the YourBeats and Solos, plus a third 'generic' Beats Audio profile for other headphones, which are inherently less tailored. We can only assume that the YourBeats EQ above represents the tailored sound profile, while the other headphones were all given the generic BA profile, which looks significantly different. It's entirely possible that the Beats engineers were aware that the YourBeats headphones have trouble delivering the treble end of the S-curve and so deliberately adjusted the tailored EQ to compensate. This means we must notch up a point for HTC: Beats Audio does appear to tailor the XE's output to suit compatible headphones and deliver a predictable and good-sounding S-shaped power spectrum.
This leaves us at a 1-1 draw between HTC and the skeptics. The skeptics won a point when the Beats Audio power spectrum proved to be S-shaped and hence have nothing to do with "what the artist intended." HTC drew level when it turned out that Beats Audio only delivers this particular S-shaped spectrum with the compatible headphones. So can we call it quits? Nope, we need a final round.
If we take a step back from all these charts and consider the fundamental value of what Beats Audio achieves, then we have to come down squarely on the side of the skeptics. No matter how much effort we put into testing this thing, the fact remains that these 'sound profiles' are just EQ settings. You can achieve exactly the same effect using PowerAMP, which costs $5 and allows you create your own EQs. PowerAMP can tailor and save your EQs to suit current headphones and even to the track you're listening to, in order to get the sound just right. The app can also apply the EQ to lossless music, which cannot be played by the XE's stock player and therefore cannot be listened to with Beats Audio enabled. Listening to the Black Eyed Peas in Apple Lossless format, with our own PowerAMP EQ and the YourBeats headphones, provided a great experience -- and it was achieved while Beats Audio was switched off and irrelevant.
Sure, you might think lossless is overkill, and you might not have the patience or the time required to experiment with your own EQs. But we think that anyone who loves listening to music would surely appreciate having full control, and if HTC was true to its marketing they would have made this possible. If, in addition to Dre's EQ and headphones, Beats Audio also meant we had an amazing stock player, with tons of EQ customization and a better user interface than PowerAMP, we'd be happy. If HTC went whole hog and threw in a high-end DAC to improve the overall quality of the XE's output, we'd be over the moon. There's still plenty of time for HTC to make improvements like that, but until then we can only conclude that Beats Audio is mostly a gimmick.
The Beats Audio software isn't complete marketing vapor, but it's still inherently gimmicky and adds nothing in the XE's favor: you could achieve a better result on the original Sensation simply by downloading a third-party music player that lets you play with the EQ settings yourself.
The only thing which might sway us to by the Sensation XE over its predecessor is the packaged YourBeats headphones, coupled with the red styling on the phone. But for us to opt for the XE, it'd have to by priced similarly to the original Sensation, such that we're not paying much extra for these headphones. They're only good if they're a bargain -- otherwise we'd prefer to take matters into our own hands and spend $80 to $100 on some Etymotics, which would be even better.
HTC Sensation XE