Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Headphones Connected to the iPhone

Michael Calore/Wired

Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
Harman Kardon first made its name as an audio powerhouse over half a century ago. The company started out making sleek and (for the time) technologically advanced radios and home hi-fi equipment, then later branched out into car stereos and digital audio components. But Harman Kardon is perhaps best known to the current generation of consumers for those fancy, see-through desktop speaker systems you’ve seen plugged into iMacs at the Apple Store. The iconic, clear plastic iSub 2000 and Sound Sticks speakers, tailor-made for Apple’s computers, have won the company industrial design awards, more importantly, a deep level of brand recognition among Apple fans.

Which all leaves me wondering why it’s taken so long for Harman Kardon to branch out into iPhone-friendly headphones. But here they are — new for the fall of 2012 is an entire line of sleek, compact earphones and headphones primed for use with smartphones and tablets.
Harman Kardon’s new headphones have aluminum-alloy bodies that match the look and texture of Apple’s hardware.

There are two over-the-ear headphone models (one wired, one Bluetooth), and two compact in-ear models, the $100 noise-isolating NIs and the $150 “acoustically enhanced” AEs. The company sent me a pair of the nicer AE in-ears to test.

Not surprising: the Apple-inspired design philosophy is on full display here. The AEs have aluminum-alloy bodies that match the look and texture of Apple’s hardware. The small details get just as much attention, from the attractive mic/remote assembly to the luxe carrying case, which has soft little nooks to cradle your buds.

What is surprising: The sound isn’t spectacular. Harman Kardon is pitching these in-ears as offering true low-frequency reproduction, but I found them to be quite muddy in the low end. Also, they have a fairly dark sound profile overall. Certainly bass-heavy, but also murky and dreary. I listened to some reverently recorded acoustic music from Sean Hayes, and some of my favorite rock albums of late (Dungen, Lower Dens, Kelley Stoltz) and the AEs erased too many of the small details in the high end. EQing the iOS music player to show more high-end just made the AEs sound more hollow.

What did sound good? Moody, gothy stuff like My Bloody Valentine, Ty Segall and Joy Division. Music that was born from the dark fog sounds pretty good in a dark fog, it turns out.

One definite high point is the fit. The AEs ship with a few different sizes of rubber tips, plus a pair of Comply foam tips. As with any in-ear headphones, finding a good seal in the ear canal is crucial, especially if you want the best bass response. I actually found all three sizes of rubber ear-nubs to fit me comfortably, and all four tip choices gave me different sound profiles. So there’s plenty of room to experiment.

And the flip-top, hard-shell carrying case is awesome — it’s a small thing, but if you’re spending $150 on a pair of headphones, I certainly hope you’re taking care of them. HK’s case makes it easy, offering two little nooks where you nestle the buds, and enough room to neatly coil up the cord. Speaking of the cord, it’s also really nice; stiff and high-quality with a 3-button remote that echoes the design of the aluminum and black ear-pieces.

So here are a pair of headphones that get almost everything right: a smart design, excellent comfort, and longevity-minded details. It’s too bad the biggie — the sound — is an acquired taste.

WIRED Sleek, pretty and austere. All aluminum and black plastic — if you want some headphones to match your iPhone 5, look no further. Comfortable fit from both rubber tips and the Comply foam tips. Lots of bass from the 9-millimeter drivers.

TIRED Sound is dark. Not enough detail in the high-end. Too heavy to wear while exercising. Expensive.

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