The HTC One Harman Kardon Edition is more than just a high end smartphone for its manufacturer and Sprint. It's one of the first main deployments of Harman Kardon's new MP3-repairing Clari-Fi audio technology.
Already well-known as a head-on combatant for the iPhone, the standard HTC One smartphone comes with a full suite of industry leading features. The Duo Lens Camera avoids blurring, takes larger panorama shots and allows for photo effects quickly from the photo app functions. Blinkfeed focuses all of your personally chosen news feeds and social media updates on your home screen. HTC Sense TV turns the smartphone into a more than a remote control — transforming the device into a multimedia hub tracking social media on the show being watched, or updating stats and sports news while the user watches a game.
What makes the Harman Kardon edition special are special music tuning improvements, dedicated in-ear headphones and the debut of Clari-Fi. Debuting at CES 2014 under the then-working title of Signal Doctor, Clari-Fi restores to MP3s the sounds the compression process removes.
While MP3s sound like music, they’re really compressed data. The compression technology that compacts and reads that data limits the size of music files, allowing consumers to pack thousands of them on something as small as a thumb drive. Unfortunately, that digitized compression process squeezes sound out of the songs. Even the most generous compression formats that produce the largest data file sizes cut bits of music out of what we hear.
The missing sounds might be a little reverb, an extra tough of percussion or a high end vocal echo. The song might seem complete without these elements, but the ear doesn’t know what it’s missing. The dropped sounds are why many high end stereo fans insist old analog music on polyvinyl and tape had a fuller, warmer sound.
Harman looked at this problem and came up with Clari-Fi, software that restores those lost sounds to MP3s while they’re played using bandwidth extension.
When I interviewed him at CES 2014, Chris Ludwig (Chief Engineer with Harman) explained that listeners lose up to 90% of the music in MP3s due to discarded data, tossing out higher frequencies.
“(Clari-Fi) analyzes for lost frequencies coming in and restores them,” Ludwig said. “The analysis returns percussion, guitars and quirks. (Clari-Fi) restores musical elements most MP3 players lose. It returns to higher fidelity — as the original recording engineers intended.”
The system’s Real Time Analyzer scales the amount of restoration on the quality of the source signal — never applying the same packaged treatment to every song. And, the same technology works beyond MP3s, adjusting automatically between MP3s, online streaming and songs ripped from CDs.
I had a chance to experience best way to understand what Clari-Fi does. Ludwig played tracks of what Clari-Fi puts back into a song. Sometimes it's some echo or reverb. Sometimes it's percussion. When it's all focused back into an MP3, it makes for a much fuller sound.
“The philosophy behind this is “as much as necessary, but as little as possible,” Ludwig said.
Clari-Fi will be an ingredient across Harman's product spectrum. It launched in JBL’s Authentics line and is now finding its way into Harman’s automotive systems and devices like this HTC One. In a car, it can be turned on or off by the driver and will be tuned to the individual’s car’s audio.
The HTC One Harman Kardon Edition is one of the first devices devoted to Clari-Fi throughout its audio performance. It's easily the best sounding smartphone I've ever tested. Whether I used the dedicated Harman Kardon headphones or my own collected models, the music sounds like it's coming from a much more elaborate audio device in a much larger space.
In an era in which smartphones are looking for niches to fill with some focusing on camera functions or video, the HTC One Harman Kardon Edition is positioned well to become the audiophiles phone of choice.