Listening to digital music on a portable device used to be enough of a miracle for most music fans. But as the MP3 player gave rise to the iPod and, later, the streaming-capable smartphone, the quality of audio hasn’t improved much.
Audiophiles are starting to question why technology hasn’t caught up yet. The low-fidelity, “lossy” quality of compressed digital music files even led Neil Young to create his own audio device, the $399 Pono Music player. The project was so popular that it met its $800,000 fundraising goal on Kickstarter on the first day the campaign launched.
Young isn’t the only one that seeks to do something about the problem. At a swanky press event in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen district this morning, Sprint (S) announced it has created a Captain Planet-style task force with phone-maker HTC, music streaming service Spotify, and the audio equipment company Harman to combat the problem.
“Because of prior limitations, mobile music was watered down and compressed,” Sprint CEO Daniel Hesse said. “But today, smartphones have multi-gigabyte processors and multi-gigabyte memories and large, hi-def streams of super-fast 4G networks.”
“Video has taken advantage of this,” he added. “Audio should too.”
Harman CEO Dinesh Paliwal said that as much as 90% of the music during streaming gets compressed, which leads to a low-quality listening experience. “We’re losing a lot of the highs and lows that artists took a long time to produce and want us to understand and enjoy,” he said.
The first product to reflect the four-way partnership is a new model of smartphone, dubbed the HTC One (M8) Harman Kardon. The device uses Harman’s software to restore the full sound spectrum to digital audio files, and comes with Spotify’s streaming service pre-installed.
As an incentive to subscribers of Sprint’s “framily” cellular plans, the new phone includes a free six-month Spotify premium account, which would otherwise cost $9.99 per month. The device itself features a “high quality metal body and unique black finish with champagne highlights,” HTC’s chief executive Peter Chou said. It also comes with a set of Harman Kardon earbuds, valued at $140.
In an interview with Fortune after the event, Harman’s Paliwal said he expects to incorporate his company’s audio refining software in other applications. The company recently revealed that its processing software will be rolled out in some Lexus models; several more automotive partnerships are in the works. Harman’s standard audio systems are already in 80% of the world’s luxury autos, Paliwal said. He said he believes that high-quality digital audio will become universal in phones, but the technology is still in early stages of development.
“A lot of people are pushing [up] the volume and the bass, but that makes it worse, because it distorts things,” Paliwal said. “You can’t just correct the problem by boosting the bass.”
At the event, a video showed Sprint’s spokesperson — a hamster with a Brooklyn accent — discussing his desire to listen to the “fine quality sounds” of a good stereo system while on the go. The recording artist Pharrell Williams (Despicable Me 2‘s “Happy”) also made an appearance in the video, rhapsodizing that “innovation, to me, is a step beyond that which did not exist moments ago.”
The legendary music producer Quincy Jones also endorsed the phone in a video, saying that he has “the same sonic destination” as the companies presenting. Sprint hopes that its target customers will say the same.
This post has been updated to remove a statement that new BMW 5 series vehicles will include the same audio technology. A BMW 5 series vehicle was present at the event, but the vehicle does not include this specific brand of Harman’s digital audio-enhancing technology.