Guess who's back? HTC let us play with the new and improved Sensation XE in London last night and we even managed to find a secluded spot to bop our heads to the integrated Beats Audio and packaged YourBeats headphones. The XE is very similar to the original 4.3-inch flagship Sensation in terms of hardware, except there's a 300MHz clock-speed bump to 1.5GHz, a slightly larger 1750mAh battery and also a packaged 16GB (instead of 8GB) microSD card. But aside from that, we expect it'll be the audio credentials and related marketing hype that will attract most attention when the device reaches shelves later this month. Current Sensation owners probably won't even consider the upgrade unless they're chronic Dr. Dre fans, but what about those with more sticky icky icky devices? Should they be enticed by all the fuss? Click past the break if you think rap's changed and you want know how we feel about it.
Update: HTC has been in touch to clarify that this device is not coming to the US. An intriguing decision to say the least.
Update: The latest word is that HTC is working on bringing "other Beats-integrated devices" to the US market -- "soon." So, you might find this hands-on relevant after all.
You can get a good overview of this device by combining our review of the original Sensation with the video hands-on and gallery directly above, which will also help you to discover if the XE's fiery red accents jibe with your personal tastes. But for the rest of this feature we're going to focus on the key differentiator: Beats Audio.
The idea is that the Sensation XE will recognize Dre-approved headphones and give you the option of enabling a Beats sound profile tailored to those 'phones, which is meant to deliver the music "just like the artist intended." The device has tailored profiles for the packaged YourBeats as well as Beats Solos -- just in case you happened to own a pair of those over-ears. If you plug in some other set from the Beats range, the phone will only activate a generic Beats profile -- although HTC tells us that more model-specific profiles will be coming at some point in the future. Whichever sound profile gets loaded up, it doesn't change in response to what type of music you're listening too -- it'll just apply the same profile to every song, to lift those (primarily bass) frequencies that Dre thinks ought to be lifted.
So, gimmick or no gimmick? The question still haunts us despite the fact that we've now tried out Beats on the XE with a range of different tracks and even though we generally enjoyed the whole experience. But let's start with the negatives: To our ears, enabling Beats primarily boosted all-round volume. Our cynical minds suggest that this is quite deliberate: if only the bass was lifted, then everyone would dismiss the Beats profile is just an over-hyped equivalent of the Super Bass button on your old-school Aiwa personal stereo.
But that's not the full story: in addition to an all-round volume jump, it feels like you also get some bass and upper mid-range frequencies boosted on top. This harks back to our days with WinAmp and its array of equalizer knobs: we'd pump up the bass and some of higher frequencies for vocals, thereby creating a kind of horizontal 'S' shape, and then we'd leave that profile unchanged because it improved the majority of tracks we listened to. If we're right on this subject -- and we'll have to wait until our full review before we can be absolutely sure -- then effectively Beats is just a specific version of this S-curve, to which Dr. Dre presumably gave a nod, and which manages to preserve itself despite the particular acoustics of your headphones.
And here's the good news: quite aside from the issue of sound profiles, the headphones which come with the XE are fantastic. HTC will make sure that 'iBeats' gets replaced with 'YourBeats' on the final packaging, but aside from that they're identical to Dre's single-driver in-ears that retail for around $100. We're not sure how they'd stack up against say, Sony's new XBA-1 balanced armature 'phones that might well have a similar price tag when they arrive stateside, but they'll nevertheless slaughter more budget sets. If HTC's pricing allows you to buy these phones with the XE at a hefty discount, and if you can get on with the red styling, then this might be a smart purchase after all. Please stay tuned for the final word in our full review.