It’s quite hard to review a phone that’s similar in most respects to an older model I already extensively reviewed. The HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio is essentially the Sensation handset, save for a few specs bump and color tweaks, so most of the things about the Sensation XE have already been covered in my review of the older model which you can find here.
This review will therefore be mostly about stuff that are exclusive to the HTC Sensation XE like the aforementioned specs bump, the color tweaks and of course, Beats Audio.
Hardware, Design, Display
Like I said, the HTC Sensation XE is still the original Sensation in many respects. It uses the same materials that made the original Sensation a fantastic handset. The Sensation XE still has the same aluminum and rubber finish that was a hit on the original phone and the dimensions are the same, so the phone still feels the same when held.
The Sensation XE is slim at 11.3mm, with the tapered edges enhancing the slim profile. The back is of the handset is curved and the front glass is contoured, a design combination that makes the Sensation XE really great to hold and operate. I like the shape of the handset since it offers a very natural grip compared to flat handsets like the iPhone 4 or the Samsung Galaxy S II.
The HTC Sensation XE sports a stunning 4.3-inch qHD display. This is the same screen on the original phone and I still consider it as one of the best displays I’ve seen on any handset. The qHD display is clear and vibrant, with accurate color reproduction. I already said this before and I still say it now –the Sensation XE’s display is just as stunning as the iPhone 4’s. Pixel by pixel the iPhone 4 may be better but in real-world settings, the difference is not noticeable. Photos and videos look great on the Sensation XE’s display, something that makes it really a great multimedia device. But just as in the old Sensation, the XE’s screen is glossy and this creates glare when the handset is used outdoors.
Pry the back cover open and you see the phone’s battery, the microSD card slot and the SIM card slot. On the bottom front of the display are the four control buttons which are now red in color. There are still two cameras, one in front near the top of the display and another at the back that snaps 8-megapixel photos. A dual LED flash and a speaker grille are found near the camera lens at the back. On the left of the Sensation XE are the volume rocker and the micro USB slot, while on the top are the headphone jack and the power button.
Now on to the new stuff.
The HTC Sensation XE may be a deadringer for the older model but HTC successfully gave it a unique character with just very minor changes, mostly just involving color changes. The Sensation XE has red accents which greatly increased the appeal of the phone. The four illuminated control buttons in the lower front now emit red light. The other red parts include the earpiece grille in the upper part of the handset, the ring surrounding the back camera’s lens, and the round Beats logo emblazoned at the lower part of the back cover. These are just a few, small parts but they certainly make a lot of difference to the phone’s overall charm. Add the uber sexy red iBeats earphones and the whole setup is a total stunner. There is so much Beats by Dr. Dre infused with this phone and the effect is totally positive.
Beyond the aesthetic enhancements, the HTC Sensation XE also got some hardware boost. The dual-core processor now has a clock speed of 1.5GHz which is higher than the 1.2 GHz clock speed in the old Sensation. To compensate for the higher processing speed, HTC increased the battery’s capacity to 1730mAh. These few hardware changes added some weight to the Sensation XE as it now weighs 151 grams, while the old model weighed only 148 grams.
The HTC Sensation XE is infused with Beats audio technology. Beats here refers of course to Beats by Dr. Dre, the audio company launched by rap musician Dr. Dre and Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine. Beats by Dr. Dre has grown exponentially since its launch in 2008 and has already made a name as a lifestyle brand, with products named after popular artists like Lady Gaga, P. Diddy, and even Justin Bieber. HTC invested heavily on Beats around August of this year, taking majority ownership of the company. Among the first handsets that got Beats Audio branding are the Sensation XE and its bigger brother, the Sensation XL.
The HTC Sensation XE greatly benefited from the Beats styling but most importantly, it comes with custom made Beats headphones that HTC promised would deliver “extraordinary sound”. The Sensation XE is also infused with what HTC calls “a specially tuned software and user interface that delivers the ultimate mobile audio experience”. Just how good is the bundled Beats earphones and how effective is the “specially tuned software” HTC installed in the Sensation XE? Is Beats Audio really that special for HTC to come out with an update to the Sensation with audio enhancements as the main draw?
The Beats earphones bundled with the HTC Sensation XE are modified versions of iBeats in-ear headphones that cost P7,000 when purchased separately. The bundled headphones however lost some of the fancy styling of the iBeats. The buds lost the chrome finish, the control buttons lost the edgy styling, the cable plug has also been changed into silver instead bronze, and the Monster logos prominent in iBeats vanished. In soul and essence, though, the modified Beats headphones are still very much the iBeats headphones. The red cable is the heart of Beats styling much like white is the heart of Apple accessories, and it looks really good when plugged into the HTC Sensation XE. The black and red combination simply works.
The headphones come with a Beats designed black carrying case and four sets of ear tips with different sizes.
How good is the sound on the modified Beats headphones? I used the headphones on the iPhone 4 and on my laptop to see how good they are even without the audio software included in the HTC Sensation.
Here are my findings. The Beats headphones are really good and they really shine in the bass department. Low frequencies have too much detail and so much power, yet, there is this mysterious warmth and softness to the overall sound. The effect on the ears is therefore pleasing. However, and this is a sort of disappointment and turn-off for me, the bass overpowers the mids and highs on most tracks.
The Beats headphones are good for listening to bass-heavy tracks like Jay-Z’s On to the Next One or Far East Movement’s Like a G6 where you really get treated to the amazing abilities of the headphones. However, when you listen to songs that have about the same treatment when it comes to lows, mids and highs, the Beats headphones disappoint. Listening to songs like Urbandub’s Alert the Armory or even the relatively laid back sound of The Stroke’s Is This It makes you wonder if the luster on the Beats brand is just pure hype. Maybe other Beats products are good but unfortunately, the modified iBeats that came with the Sensation XE are not that good overall. In Beats ads, Dr. Dre promised to deliver the sound that’s meant to be heard, but people are not just interested in hearing bass.
I then used the Beats headphones on the Sensation XE to see if the “specially tuned software” will improve its performance. Luckily, it did. When Beats Audio is activated, the bass has more oomph and the highs are more defined. However, the mids were still getting the same treatment. They tend to get drowned out by the overpowering bass.
The Sensation XE is programmed to recognize Beats headphones. When you insert the Beats headphones, a Beats logo appears on the notification bar which indicates that it was recognized and the “specially tuned software” is already at work. I had one surprising observation, though. I inserted Braiwavz Beta headphones and the Beats notification still appeared. I guess this is something good since it means that you still benefit from the Beats software even if you are using non-Beats headphones.
In terms of overall performance, the Beats headphones are not much different from cheaper quality headphones. Brainwavz Beta is five times cheaper than iBeats yet it delivers just about the same amount of bass detail, although admittedly the Beats had more power. Brainwavz Beta is in fact better in delivering mids and highs. As to the “specially tuned software”, I suspect it is nothing more than a set of equalizer preset that loads whenever Beats is plugged in. This means that a player with equalizer settings can duplicate what the HTC software does.
So what do we make of the Beats Audio label in the HTC Sensation XE? Did the Beats branding put higher value on the Sensation XE compared to the original Sensation?
My answer is somewhere in the middle. The Beats headphones are not so special as they are made to appear. Admittedly, though, the headphones are the ultimate fashion statement and they also deliver rich bass details and powerful lows. Overall, though, the Beats headphones were disappointing.
Performance, Battery Life, Camera, Software
With a higher 1.5GHz dual-core CPU, you would probably expect a change in performance with the HTC Sensation XE. There is none — none that’s noticeable, at least. The Sensation XE is blazing fast. Apps load as soon as you press the icons and games and videos are handled very well. But the older Sensation was no slouch to begin with. The 1.2GHz dual-core CPU on the old version was very quick by any standard and the Sensation XE is no different. But if you’re expecting a much faster performance, there is nothing noticeably faster on the XE. I ran a Quadrant test on the Sensation XE though and it scored a whopping 2161. This handset is definitely no slouch in terms of computing power.
Battery life on the Sensation XE is still pretty decent. The CPU may have increased in clock speed but the battery has also been improved. The 1,730mAh battery lasts me a whole day on extensive use and lasts longer in moderate use.
The camera on the Sensation XE is the same as that in the original Sensation, hence, I no longer need to review its performance. I was fairly impressed with the stills and video on the original Sensation and it’s the same in the Sensation XE.
The software on the HTC Sensation XE is the same as the one running on the original Sensation. It features Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Sense 3.0 UI running on top. The lock screen is the same, the 3D carousel is still the same and the animations and transitions are also the same. The only thing different is the presence of the Beats logo on the notification bar and on the drop-down menu when the Beats mode is active. Here are a few screenshots of the the Sensation XE’s UI.
The HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio is a very attractive looking handset. In most respects it is the same as the older HTC Sensation but with the addition of red accents, a faster 1.5GHz processor, an improved 1730mAh battery, and of course, Beats audio.
The suggested retail price of the Sensation XE is P31,500, or about P5,000 more than the older Sensation model. However, the improvements do not seem to add higher value to the older model. The bump in processor speed isn’t noticeable in the Sensation XE’s performance. It’s very fast but not noticeably faster than the original Sensation. The battery is improved, but this is a necessity because of the bump in the clock speed.
Beats Audio is not just gimmick. The modified beats in-ear headphones look good and sound good. But the premium placed on them doesn’t seem justified. Yes they delivers rich, powerful bass but that’s about all they have to offer in terms of sound performance. If you’re into “bassy” music like rap, hiphop, dance, and probably house music, you’ll be happy with the Beats headphones. If you’re into all types of music though, the Beats headphones will disappoint.
The “specially tuned software” promised by HTC for the Sensation XE’s audio performance works. The sound improves whenever the Beats headphones are used, but something tells me this is just an equalizer preset, more than any form of intelligent software that’s able to change along with the type of music played.
As an entire package, the HTC Sensation XE is an attractive proposition. The Beats Audio adds flare to the handset and it boasts of an improved audio experience. However, what HTC is offering can be duplicated using cheaper headphones and a player with equalizer settings but the difference in cost might not be big enough when everything’s considered. This means you can get the lower priced Sensation, get cheaper quality headphones, and still get the same experience as owning the HTC Sensation XE.
If you are considering the Sensation XE purely for the Beats branding, by all means go ahead and purchase the phone. The infusion of Beats certainly did a lot to improve the coolness factor of the original Sensation. But if you want to get the handset because you want to get the best audio experience, expect to be disappointed at some point.
HTC Sensation XE With Beats Audio Specifications
- 4.3-inch qHD display at 540 x 960 pixels
- 1.5 GHz dual-core processor Qualcomm MSM 8260 Snapdragon
- Adreno 220 GPU
- Android OS, v2.3 (Gingerbread)
- HTC Sense v3.0 UI
- 1 GB storage, 768 MB RAM
- up to 32GB via microSD, 8GB included
- HSDPA 14.4 Mbps, HSUPA 5.76 Mbps
- WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, WiFi hotspot
- Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP
- 8MP autofocus back camera, dual-LED flash, VGA front camera
- 1080p @ 30fps video, stereo sound recording
- GPS with A-GPS support
- Li-Ion 1730 mAh
- 11.3 mm thick
- 151 grams
- Contoured glass edging