First Look: HTC Bolt Smartphone With Sonar-Powered Headphones

HTC smartphones are known for their solid, unibody aluminum cases. And in Consumer Reports' tests, they generally earn solid scores for display quality, camera performance and battery life. They also excel in the sound department.

The new HTC Bolt smartphone, a Sprint exclusive available today for $600 directly from the carrier and its retail partners, seems likely to follow that tradition.

That's particularly true when it comes to sound quality. The phone supports 24-bit, hi-res audio and packs an amplified stereo speaker that sounds good enough—and loud enough—to let you enjoy music without headphones.

While these features are currently available on two other HTC phones in our ratings, the One A9 and the HTC 10, the Bolt adds a new twist: It includes a set of earbuds that use a sonar-based technology to scan and map out the shape of your ear canal in order to optimize music for those ears.

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The Bolt is rated water resistant to 1 meter for 30 minutes and supports both wireless and rapid charging. Other features include a 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization, 32 gigabytes of onboard memory that’s expandable to 2 terabytes via an optional microSD card, and a relatively capacious 3,200 mAh battery.

We'll be testing the phone in our labs in the coming weeks, but here are our first impressions.

Key HTC Bolt Features

Speedy network access. Sprint named this smartphone after Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who is regarded as the fastest human ever timed, because it supports the fastest portion of Sprint’s LTE Plus data network.

It takes advantage of a technology called carrier aggregation that combines multiple frequency bands of LTE spectrum to create a single, fatter data pipe. Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all at various stages of rolling out this technology. The result: download speeds of more than 100 megabits per second (mbps).

Usually, two frequency bands are used. But the new HTC phone is one of a handful on the market that can take advantage of three LTE bands, and phones using this version of carrier aggregation have clocked data download speeds approaching 300mbps.

The goal is less to break data-speed records than to minimize congestion when lots of phones in a small area want to jump on their data networks at the same time. The technology currently only available to in parts of Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland and Columbus. Users of the HTC Bolt in other regions will experience the slower dual-band aggregation.

But 100 mbps is still plenty fast. The FCC defines a broadband connection as 25mbps—and that’s for an entire home with computers and Netflix streaming to large-screen HDTVs. So 100mbps delivered to a single phone with a relatively tiny screen is pretty amazing.

I've been using the HTC Bolt on the Sprint’s network in the New York area, without three-band carrier aggregation. And the connection speeds were more than fast enough in my informal trials. Apps and websites often seemed to download information almost instantly.

Sonar-powered earbuds. The Bolt, like the iPhone 7, did something many consumers might not like: It ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack and instead comes with a set of earbuds that plug into its data/charging port (USB Type-C).

This puts the headphones in direct competition with the charging adapter, whose services can’t always be ignored, and adds the extra hassle and expense of retrofitting conventional headphones you probably already own with a port adapter.

Unlike the iPhone, the conventional headphone adapter isn't included in the box.  But the Bolt does have an advantage over the iPhone 7 in that it supports both wireless and quick charging, so you can continue listening to you favorite tunes using the headphones while the Bolt replenishes its battery cells resting on a wireless charging pad (not included).

More interesting is that these earbuds scan your ear canal with what HTC says is a “sonar-based” technology and also samples ambient noise  to adjust audio output to “suit your personal hearing capabilities.” This feature, which HTC calls BoomSound Adaptive Audio, can compensate for hearing loss, according to an HTC spokesperson.

The feature automatically flips on whenever you plug the BoomSound earbuds into the Bolt’s port. If it’s your first time using the headphones, the app pops up on screen and prompts you to perform a quick, 2-second scan. From then on, it functions in the background, though you can toggle it on or off at any time, as well as rescan your ears or create new sound profiles by tapping the app in the Android notification bar.

Our engineers will assess Adaptive Audio’s sound quality and hearing-customization prowess over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I found songs like Saint Motel’s “My Type” sounded quite good with the feature turned on, but suspiciously flat and tinny—worse than the cheap headphones I use with my LG G3 smartphone—when turned off.

Sharp, tough display. The Bolt’s QHD display that provides about 534 pixels per inch of resolution, which is more detail an unaided human eye will probably notice. Still, it’s good to know that when you’re streaming an HD-quality video off of Netflix, every pixel of that movie will find a home on your phone’s screen.

The screen is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5, which the company says should protect the screen significantly from cracking when dropped “shoulder-height drops onto hard, rough surfaces up to 80% of the time.”

Seemingly impressive battery life. The Bolt’s 3,200mAh battery is just a about right for phone supporting a fast Snapdragon 810 processor and jumbo 5.5-inch quadHD display.

I used the phone sporadically for about 24 hours since fully charging it, and yet the phone’s gauge indicated the battery still had 67 percent capacity. I found that quite impressive, though I’ll leave it to expertise of CR testers to pronounce the final verdict on this phone’s battery life.

I didn’t have the opportunity to test the Bolt’s rapid-charging abilities, though my experience with such phones is that you can expect several hours of battery life if you can connect the phone with a near-dead battery between 15 to 30 minutes.

It’s a dunk-resistant. HTC says the Bolt meets the IP57 standard for dust and water ingress. The “7” according to the standard, means no water should be able to enter the phone if its submerged in a meter of water for 30 minutes.

That useful quality is becoming standard with many top-shelf smartphone lines. Some models, like the iPhone 7s and late-model Samsung Galaxy smartphones, are rated to survive deeper dives (about 5 ft) for that same amount of time.

The important thing is smartphone water resistance is that you'll still have a functioning phone if it accidentally drops into the sink or bathtub.

It’s a bit bulky. While some phablet-screened phones manage to present their 5.5-inch displays with palm-friendly comfort, including Samsung’s Galaxy S7 edge and ill-fated Note7, the Bolt seem just tilts a tad over to the chunky side, a measuring little more than 6 inches x 3 inches x 0.3 inches.

The edge, whose display curves way from the viewer to form the phone’s tapered edge, it just 0.02 inches less thick and less wide than the Bolt, yet that seems more than enough to push noticeably affect comfort.

We'll have more on the HTC Bolt when we finish testing in our labs in the coming weeks.

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