Harman Kardon Does Little to Improve the HTC One (M8)

REVIEW: Save yourself $30, and a lot of buffing of fingerprints, and just buy the original HTC One (M8).

Harman Kardon HTC One (M8)

In March, HTC introduced its newest flagship, the HTC One (M8). A month later, at a Sprint-hosted event, it introduced the One (M8)-Harman Kardon edition.

The latter features Harman Kardon audio technology that's said to restore much of the fidelity lost in the process of compressing audio files. It also ships with special earbuds, designed in collaboration with Harman Kardon, and features a matte-black finish that's a step aside from the metallic look of the original M8. The phone also comes with an offer for several free months of Spotify service (how many months depends on subscribers' service plans).

Here's the short of it: The HTC One (M8) is a great phone; it's among the very best Android phone available today. But there's really no reason to buy the Harman Kardon edition, which is exclusive to Sprint and slightly more expensive.

On the Sprint network, the M8 is $199.99 with a two-year service contract, or 24 monthly payments of $27.09. The Harman edition is $229.99 with a contract, or 24 payments of $28.34. (Those special included earbuds retail, when sold separately, for $149.)

Here's the long of it.

In the Harman edition's Settings, there's a special section, under Display & Gestures, for turning on and off two features, Clari-Fi—which within the menu explains that it "restores the quality of compressed audio"—and LiveStage, a feature that only works with earbuds and is said to separate individual instruments and voices for an experience more like being in the room with musicians.

When HTC says that technical information is lost when music gets put on a compact disk, and that even more information—information that makes music sound richer and truer to what an artist created—is lost when music is compressed for streaming, I know they're reciting facts. These are not contested ideas.

I also have no doubt that there's additional technology that surely many brilliant people labored over inside the Harman edition M8.

But I really can't tell the difference.

I listened to different kinds of songs, and to home videos with people speaking and singing, tapping Clari-Fy and LiveStage on and off. I did this wearing the Harman earbuds and wearing my Apple earbuds, and I plugged both earphones into the HTC and into an iPhone, listening for differences.

And still I can't say the Harman edition's sound was markedly better. More often, I couldn't say it was any better at all.

It's like when the eye doctor asks, "A or B?" and you know there's some difference—she wouldn't be asking if there weren't. Yet, to your eyes, it's just another version of the same thing. Maybe slightly different, but not better.

I can say that I'm perfectly happy to leave the phone in default mode—which is, with both Clari-Fy and LiveStage on. Also, listening to songs with live audiences, I could hear a difference between LiveStage on and off, but the difference was that with it on, I could hear the audience and the other sounds more, and with it off, the focus was more on the singer. That didn't necessarily seem inferior.

Maybe to real audiophiles I sound like that person drinking an old-vines Bordeaux and saying it tastes just like a Two-Buck Chuck.

The only clear and obvious differences I heard in all my listening was when I pulled out the Harman earbuds (which are comically ugly like a '70s take on "modern" jewelry). Like the original M8, the Harman edition has fantastic front-facing speakers. Playing the same song from Spotify with the M8, an iPhone 5S and a Samsung Galaxy S5, there was no question that the M8's (either M8's) front-facing speakers offer superior sound quality.

As for the final feature that sets the Harman edition apart, that, too, disappoints.

When I heard the words "matte-black," my mind instantly went to the aesthetic of sports car wrapped in matte-black vinyl—a look that can be incredibly hot. What HTC managed, however, is not that.

The metallic versions of the M8 look high end. It's a far more sophisticated look than the plastic on so many Samsung Galaxy devices, as well as the puffy faux leather look on the Galaxy S5. The matte-black, though, lacks the literal and metaphorical polish of the metallic versions. It holds fingerprints, and the gold accents further cheapen the look. (Even matte-black on black—the automotive look—would have been a better look than the gold-on-black HTC went with.)

If you bought an HTC One in March and felt duped after the April announcement, don't. If you're in the market for an Android phone, you should absolutely get your hands on the HTC One (M8) and consider it. And if you have excellent hearing, a respect for the Harman Kardon brand and an extra $30, go for it and enjoy the effort that went into this special edition. Someone should.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.