Harman Kardon BT review

Pros

  • Powerful wireless audio performance
  • Clean sound with rich lows
  • Great quality accessories
  • Includes microphone and on-ear controls
  • Comfortable fit

Cons

  • Could use a bit more high-mid presence

With metallic and leather accents, Harman Kardon's latest headphones have a distinct look that practically screams luxury. The good news is that the £195 price tag for the Bluetooth streaming Harman Kardon BT is not nearly as sky-high as a lot of comparable wireless options. Lovers of deep, rich bass will enjoy the BT's sound signature, which manages to lean heavily to the low frequency end of the spectrum without sacrificing clarity.

Purists seeking flat or brighter responses may not love the BT, but it packs a powerful audio performance in a good looking body, and ships with quality accessories. It's not flawless, but given its comparatively reasonable price and overall solid design and performance, the BT earns our Best Buy award.

Design

The Harman Kardon BT is nearly identical in design to the Harman Kardon CL. Both use the same sleek, stylish, metallic and leather accents on the headband and earpads, which are strikingly large and rectangular. Because of their shape, the earpads almost feel like they're on-ear (supra-aural). They do seem to sit on the ear, but they're large enough to press on the head around the ear, as well, like circumaural pairs do.

A button for playing, pausing and skipping tracks, as well as volume controls, are all located on the left earcup. The volume controls on the headphones, for the record, are independent of the internal volume controls for whatever mobile device you choose to pair the BT with. The same button answers incoming calls. Call clarity through the microphone on the left ear cup is fine, but it's not quite as clear (for your call partner) as it might be if the mic were on an inline cable. (Though the BT does ship with a cable, it lacks inline controls or a mic).

A connection point on the left earcup is for the charging cable, as well as the included 3.5mm audio cable for wired playback. The inclusion of a way to listen without Bluetooth is a nice touch, but it would also have been nice if the BT came with its own charger at this price point.

The unique metallic headband auto-adjusts the leather padded headband which you attach it to, so the headphones seem to immediately fit themselves to the contour of your skull. Two metallic headbands of different sizes are included.

The Bluetooth pairing process is simple and quick – just hold down the pairing button and the BT appears in your list of items to pair. Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, A2DP v1.2, and A VRCP v1.0 profiles are supported.

Included with the headphones are the aforementioned detachable audio cable that terminates in 3.5mm jack for wired use, a USB charging cable, the extra headband, and possibly the classiest carrying pouch we've ever seen – its outer surface is padded black leather, and it closes via a flap and a band that secures it. The drawback of such a cool pouch is that it's quite large, even though the headphones fold down flat into it.

Performance

There is little difference between the audio performance of the BT when it is wired and when it is streaming via Bluetooth – the second option seems just a smidge less loud at maximum volume.

On tracks with serious sub-bass content, like the Knife's "Silent Shout," the BT holds its own quite well. Without avoiding the deep bass frequencies, it delivers a rich, powerful response that never distorts, even at top volumes. While it's not a wise idea to listen to music at maximum volumes, it's worth noting that the BT gets slightly less loud than a typical pair of earphones or headphones. This is a good thing, in my opinion – it protects human ears from human nature, but the difference is not so dramatic that it makes listening at top volumes a good idea.

On Bill Callahan's "Drover," his vocals receive just enough treble edge to retain some contour and focus in the mix. This is a track that can sound muddy on a bass-boosted pair, and the BT boosts the lows enough that it would be a legitimate concern here. The drums receive a healthy dose of lows that makes them sound pretty thunderous, for instance. Some boosted and sculpted high-mids and highs, however, keep things crisp enough so that Callahan's vocals don't compete with the drumming for your attention. Purists might not appreciate just how much the low frequency response seems to be boosted in spots – those drums probably sound less thunderous in real life – but it's an exciting sound nonetheless.

The attack of the kick drum loop on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild" has a decent punch to it, but more high-mid presence would help it retain its crunch in this layered mix that receives a lot of low-mid and low preference from the BT. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with the same kind of thunder that graces the drumming on the Callahan track – it's not over the top, but it's definitely a boosting that makes the low frequency elements of the mix stand out. Vocals on this track, also like Callahan's, receive just enough treble edge that they're not lost in the mix to the powerful lows and mids, but with both of these tracks I found myself wishing for a bit more high-mid boosting. Things are clear, they're just not always as crisp as I prefer.

On classical tracks like John Adams’ "The Chairman Dances," lower register strings and brass get a nice low frequency boost that highlights their richness without sounding unnatural. The higher register strings and percussion have a strong presence in the mix, as well – the lows pack more of a punch, but the bowing of high strings and the growl of higher brass still jumps out in pleasant ways. The huge drum hits that close out the song are delivered with some serious sub-bass impact. It's just shy of making things sound unnatural, but the bass-leaning mix definitely makes them sound even more massive.

If you're looking for a Bluetooth headphone pair with a bit more overall balance between the highs and lows, the Logitech UE 9000 is an excellent option, as is the beautifully designed Parrot Zik, but both cost significantly more (to the tune of £100 more, in fact). If you want a much cheaper option than these or the BT, the excellent TDK WR700 uses a Kleer wireless dongle instead of Bluetooth, and its audio performance is still impressive.

Verdict

At £195, the Harman Kardon BT is a good looking, well-built, strong performing pair of Bluetooth headphones. It'll appeal more to those who favour bass than to those who want something a bit brighter or flatter, but its sound signature is exciting and distortion-free, and it earns our Best Buy award with the acknowledgement that the Bluetooth headphone field has several compelling players.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Harman Kardon BT

Wired Connection

Stereo 3.5mm

Removable Cable

Yes

Wireless

Yes

Type

Circumaural (over-ear)

Frequency Range

16Hz-20kHz