Harman Kardon is a big name in the audio world, blending unique visual design and high- quality performance to make stand-out products like the SoundSticks III PC speakers. Aside from a couple of in-ear models several years ago, headphones have not been part of the speaker manufacturer's lineup, so the Harman Kardon CL, which retails at £170, is something of a debut for the established speaker company.
This well-designed pair of headphones offers solid audio performance and, like most Harman Kardon products, looks good doing it. The headphones are reminiscent of the Bowers & Wilkins range, another iconic speaker firm that has recently tried its hand at consumer-level headphones. The CL is a strong first attempt from Harman Kardon, but it has some fierce competition in the sub-£200 price range.
As we’ve already mentioned, a quick look at the CL, and one headphone pair immediately springs to mind: The Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi headphones. Both pairs are on-ear (supra-aural) headphones with rectangular earpads and a design that feels simultaneously retro – in the space age sense – and modern, thanks to the use of black leather and metallic accents. However, it's the Bowers & Wilkins P3 that the Harman Kardon CL matches up with in terms of price, with both costing bang on £170. And for this price, HK gives you a few more extras than the B&W set.
The CL, which folds down flat like many modern headphones, features a removable cable – which helps increase the value of the pair, as you can replace the cable without having to replace the headphones if it's the only thing that is damaged – as well as a removable headband. The metallic headband acts as a sort of shock mount for the secondary padded leather headband that sits underneath it, which is the part that actually touches your head.
Unlike most headbands, the CL's metallic and leather combo more or less adjusts itself to your head; you needn't fiddle with it to get the right fit. The size of the metallic band makes all the difference in the world here – a small and large band are included – so if they are uncomfortable at first, try switching out the bands. Generally speaking, the fit is very secure and comfortable. But over longer listening periods, the earcups can feel as if they're pressing too firmly against your ears. If you wear glasses, this can be a bit uncomfortable, but not so much that it's a deal-breaker.
The CL ships with a far nicer case than the equally-priced P3. The P3's is sturdy and small, but it's sometimes a struggle to fit the headphones completely into its tight confines, whereas the CL's case isn’t as deep, but it’s larger. It looks like a black leather daily planner from some angles. There’s no need for a deep case here because when the CL's earcups fold down flat, the headphones become quite narrow. That said, the P3's case probably protects the headphones better, if you manage to stuff them entirely in there. But the CL's carrying pouch is one of the classiest accessories we've seen accompanying a pair of headphones, so that's got to count for something.
The iOS controls and microphone built into the cable, along the left ear, allow for answering and ending calls, as well as adjusting the volume and navigating tracks. Call clarity is fine.
In an era dominated by in-canal earphones and bulkier over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones, like the Beats by Dr. Dre, Harman Kardon and B&W seem to be dialling back the bulk and focusing primarily on simplicity and style. Thankfully, both manufacturers are also quite focused on audio performance.
The Harman Kardon CL packs a nice punch, delivering rich, deep bass without going overboard, combined with crisp highs and plenty of definition in the mids. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said about Harman Kardon's excellent Soundsticks III, though those are computer speakers. The CL does produce the slightest hint of distortion at absolute maximum volume on some tracks with seriously deep bass, but the distortion is so negligible and barely noticeable – and that listening level is so unsafe for human ears – we're not going to dwell on this other than to briefly mention it. Basically the CL offers powerful, clean playback for 95 per cent of the music out there at absolute maximum volume, and all music at just one volume notch below, which is still a higher volume level than you should be listening at.
The Knife's "Silent Shout" is the minor distortion culprit, but again, the distortion is so slight, it's nearly undetectable. At a hair below maximum volume, it disappears completely, and the bass response is quite deep, resonant, and intense. This song's powerful electronic kick drum beat is aided by the clarity and crispness of the mids and highs the headphones produce.
The CL really shines on classical music, like John Adams' piece, "The Chairman Dances." The pulsating brass lines are punchy, while the corresponding parts for the lower-register strings are delivered with an appropriate amount of resonance – nothing booming, but nothing too thin, either.
Pop, rock, and hip hop all sound fantastic on the CL. David Bowie's "Golden Years" lets the excellent, hard-panned guitar work shine, while the headphones still provide plenty of clarity for his excellent vocals, and just the right amount of thump and low-end from the rhythm section. Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild" has a beat that the CL delivers with an intensity that at times feels like it could match a massive club PA system, but clarity always seems to be the priority, so with all of these genres, things are never muddy.
This brings us to the primary difference between the B&W P3 and the Harman Kardon CL. The CL's clarity comes from its crisp highs and well-defined mids. There's some exaggeration there, for sure, but it's not over-the-top and it never sounds harsh. The P3 never sounds bad, either, but it delivers a quite different sound signature. Both pairs have substantial bass response, but the P3 couples its low-end with far less sculpting in the high frequencies. Side by side on the same tracks, you might think the P3 even sounds a bit muffled, but on its own, it sounds fantastic, as well – it simply doesn't boost the highs and mids with the same intensity as the CL. If you've whittled your shopping down to these two pairs, that’s the primary difference between their sonic performance.
So what would I pick if I had to choose between the P3 and the CL? That’s a really tough question. I do prefer the added bit of crisp edge the CL packs in the highs, but it is noticeably less comfortable over long-term listening sessions than the P3 – especially if you wear glasses like me. However, there’s no doubting that both pairs are seriously good options if you're looking in the sub-£200 range.
Harman Kardon has produced a good looking and great sounding pair of headphones here. Bass, mids and highs are handled with aplomb, all without any real distortion evident (save for at maximum ear-blasting volume, but even then it’s very rare). The smartly designed carry pouch and removable headbands are definite bonuses, the only real niggle being on the comfort front when it comes to longer listening sessions.
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