HTC Rezound first impressions: Music to my ears

Verizon's the first to bring HTC's Beats Audio integration to the U.S. in the HTC Rezound. So what's the deal with this Beats Audio stuff anyway--will audiophiles go gaga?

HTC CEO Peter Chou holds aloft the HTC Rezound.
HTC CEO Peter Chou shows off the HTC Rezound. Sara Tew/CNET

To absolutely nobody's surprise ( twice ), HTC today announced the HTC Rezound for Verizon, the first U.S. smartphone to use HTC-owned Beats Audio.

Originally known as the Vigor, the Rezound is HTC's stateside answer to Europe and Asia's HTC Sensation XL with Beats Audio, which CNET got a chance to see in early October at CTIA.

The Rezound, which features the same integration with the Beats headphones as the Sensation XL, will run on Verizon's ultrafast 4G LTE network. In addition, it's packing a 4.3-inch 720p HD display, which should make mincemeat out of qHD displays we've seen from phones like the Motorola Droid Bionic. There's a ton more besides with this Android 2.3 Gingerbread device, so let's jump in.

Design
The Rezound has rounded corners, and a face just barely set into the unit. HTC has long delivered on excellent phone craftsmanship, as the Amaze 4G and Sensation 4G phones have demonstrated.

The Rezound has a matte back cover surrounding an island of ridges on its backing, to help with grip. The camera and LED flash are on the back cover, with the volume rocker on the right spine. The Micro-USB charging hub is on the left, and the 3.5mm headset jack is up top.

It's not as flashy-looking a phone to my eyes as the all-white HTC Radar 4G , or even the purple HTC Rhyme , but HTC phones are solidly built and that interesting patterning on the back does give it a little extra character. I wish it had Gorilla Glass to better protect the goods.

Inside the HTC Rezound
Taking a cue from the HTC Droid Incredible, the Rezound is designed inside and out. Sara Tew/CNET

Features
The features are where the Rezound can soar. Of course it's off to a good start with Verizon's 4G LTE network, which offers currently unbeatable speeds. The big deal is the set of Beats by Dr. Dre earbuds that come with each phone--I cover those in the following section.

Another ballyhooed trait is the phone's 4.3-inch 720p HD touch display. While it certainly sounds impressive, we won't really be able to judge clarity, color, sharpness, and all the rest until we sit it side-by-side with our favorite screens--right now those belong to the Samsung Galaxy S II phones, the iPhone 4S (and iPhone 4), and the LG Marquee .

It's also equipped with a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MDM9600 processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and a 16GB preinstalled microSD card. It'll carry HTC Sense 3.5, the absolute latest version of HTC's custom Android interface. Sense 3.5 will feature a customizable and interactive lock screen from which you can do things like check the weather, stocks, and social network updates.

For multimedia, there's a rear-facing 8-megapixel camera with support for 1080p HD video capture and fun effects like slow-motion recording. There's a front-facing 2-megapixel camera as well. These are the top-notch specs we'd hope for in the Rezound, but of course camera quality isn't about megapixels alone. The Rezound has a low-light sensor to help improve night shots. We shall see.

HTC hasn't had a reputation for the ultimate cameras across the board, HTC said during the launch event in New York, despite the feature-packed HTC Amaze 4G and the T-Mobile MyTouch Slide 4G. Like those two, the Rezound's camera will have instant capture, panorama, and action burst modes. There will also be photo-editing tools, which is a definite plus, especially as more and more smartphones from competing brands include these.

Other details include a 1,620mAh battery, Bluetooth 3.0, DLNA support, hot-spot support for up to 10 devices, and Mobile High Definition Link (MHL) capability for watching content on a compatible HDTV.

Apps like HTC Watch, a movie app, are also onboard.

Verizon/HTC

Beats Audio
Just how good is Beats by Dr. Dre? Good enough to warrant buying the phone? Our team got a demo of the Sensation XL's Beats headphones at CTIA and yes, with the one-two combination of the hardware (the headsets) with the onboard software, they made a big difference.

When you plug in the headphones, the phone recognizes that you've got Beats. When you turn on the software algorithm, it really boosts the sound, specifically boosting the bass and creating louder, fuller, and heavier audio. It's like playing music through your car speakers, versus pumping up a bass line you can feel thrumming in your seat.

One often-heard criticism is that the headphones aren't a one-size-fits-all solution for every musical genre. One common complaint is that the aggressive tones degrade more delicate symphonies and choral music. However, people who predominantly listen to rock, hip-hop, and other genres in that vein will notice a rounder sound. Of course, we'll do some more in-depth audio tests once we get a phone in hand for an appreciable length of time.

The Beats in-ear headphones on their own range from $120 to $180 when you buy them through retail channels, so there's a definite advantage to buying an HTC Beats phone like the Rezound, which has in-ear buds bundled in.

What I will say is that if you're simultaneously in the market for a new phone and some new earbuds, get ye to a Verizon store when these come out and try them for yourself. Pro tip: if you can manage it, take a microSD card filled with songs you like to see how the Beats-enhanced sound plays out.

The Ice Cream Sandwich question
Verizon has a problem on its hands. It's lining up a plethora of presumably fantastic phones, like the razor-thin Motorola Droid Razr and this here Rezound. But it's also going to start selling the formidable Samsung Galaxy Nexus sometime in mid-to-late November, with its enormous Ice Cream Sandwich update. Where does that leave the Rezound?

The good news is, Rezound fans (and HTC devotees) should know that HTC is committed to bringing phones introduced within 18 months of an Android release up to speed, so yes, the Rezound will get Ice Cream Sandwich. HTC has already said during its launch announcement that Ice Cream Sandwich "will likely come early next year." The question I can't answer is exactly when, but look for it in January.

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Price and availability
The HTC Rezound will cost $299.99 with a new, two-year Verizon service agreement and will be available beginning November 14 at Verizon, Best Buy, and Best Buy Mobile stores. You'll also need a $39.99 minimum Verizon Wireless Nationwide Talk plan and a minimum $30-per-month data plan.

This is a costly bundle that makes the Rezound one of Verizon's priciest phones, and that's even without the prestige of Android Ice Cream Sandwich--for now. LTE is expensive, there's premium hardware on hand if you count the prestige headphones, and it has the hottest specs on the market, so the price, while high, is not a surprise. I suspect holiday deals will kick in once the phone hits shelves.

In sum
The HTC Rezound did not disappoint. The screen quality, camera, and speed all promise to be top-of-the-line, and the phone also comes with a pair of celebrity-branded in-ear headphones that are worth quite a bit on their own. At $300 and data requirements, the Rezound may be one of Verizon's priciest phones, but it also promises to be one of its most powerful. It'll be a hot contender against Verizon's other forthcoming handset powerhouses: the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the Motorola Droid Razr.

CNET will bring you a full, in-depth review as quickly as we can once we get a review unit in our hot little hands.

 

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