Harman Kardon's recent push into the earphone market brings us the in-canal AE earphones which, at the £130 mark, are priced to compete with a very talented group that includes the Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphones (which cost £150).
The AE's drivers offer ample bass, but it's delivered in a more reserved manner than much of the immediate competition. Overall, the subtle response lends itself well to a variety of music genres. While there may be better-fitting and looking pairs on the market, the Harman Kardon AE is a breath of fresh air in an era of booming bass and overly tweaked treble.
Harman Kardon keeps things sparse and modern in the design department, with rounded rectangular, black and matte metallic-coloured earpieces connected to a thin black cable. A three-button remote along the right ear's cable handles phone calls, volume, Play/Pause, and Track Navigation controls. Only the middle button has a raised marker, and it's hard to feel where one button ends and the next begins. Since you can't easily look at the compartment when wearing the AE, this is a slight annoyance.
The earphones integrate controls for Apple devices. The microphone is built into the right earpiece, and call clarity is comparable with other iPhone remotes – not great, but passable. Included in the box are three pairs of silicon eartips in various sizes, a pair of Comply foam tips, and a high quality snap-shut carrying case with padded compartments to hold the earpieces firmly in place (a feature usually found inside cases for higher-end gear).
Recently, earphone designers have been making subtle improvements to audio cables, utilising cloth or new plastic coatings to reduce tangling and retain shape. The AE, however, does not employ this type of evolved cable. Instead, we have a simple, easily tangled and quite coil-prone cable. The AE looks good, but the rigid cable itself feels like an afterthought.
The overall response of the AE is more subtle and reserved than recent models like the intentionally bass-heavy Denon Urban Raver AH-C300. The AE not only has a less intense bass response, but its high frequency response also appears to be less exaggerated. This is not to say, however, that the AE lacks power or clarity.
On deep bass tracks like the Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones never distort, even at maximum volume (a level you are hopefully not planning on exploring much for your eardrums' sake), and the low frequencies are delivered with a definite boost – just nothing on the level of the Urban Raver. On tracks with significant thump, like Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the sub bass frequencies are well-represented when a distorted synth bass enters the song, but the mid frequencies also shine, adding extra power to the attack of the persistent kick drum beat.
On instrumental tracks, like John Adams' classical piece, "The Chairman Dances," the mids again take centre stage, with the lower register strings and percussion adding the occasional deeper bass presence to the mix – it's never overwhelming or too thin of a sound. Some purists may wish that the bass was dialled back a tad more, but the overall sound signature here is quite balanced and articulate without being overly crisp or bright.
If you're looking to spend less, the Shure SE215 (priced at around £75) has a comparable sound signature. Compared with the similarly priced Bowers & Wilkins C5, the AE sounds more subtle – it focuses on mids and providing ample bass response and articulation, but it offers less bass and crisp high-end than the C5.
Both the Bowers & Wilkins C5 and AE offer a response that is far from truly flat, so deciding which pair sounds better is a matter of personal preference. I find the more sculpted sound signature of the C5 exciting, and its fit is significantly more secure. Still, the Harman Kardon AE is a bit cheaper, and certainly a worthy contender – its audio performance is clean and well-matched with its price, and the pro-gear look of the case is an added bonus.