Review: Harman/Kardon BT Premium Wireless Over-Ear Headphones
Generally, we've really liked Harman/Kardon's Apple accessories: it has released some of the most iconic Mac and iPod speakers under the Harman and JBL names, and its Austrian arm AKG has created quite a few good wired headphones, as well. But it's had less success and seemingly less interest in wireless headphones. Back in 2008, JBL released the Creature speaker-inspired Reference Series 610 as an early Bluetooth model for iPods, then subsequently focused almost exclusively on wired headphones. Now Harman has released a new Bluetooth headset called BT ($250) as part of a lineup of Apple Store-exclusive headphones, all employing industrial designs that are clearly Apple-inspired, hewing closest to the look of the black iPhone 4/4S.
From a technical standpoint, BT isn’t hugely different from the old Reference Series 610. Inside is a Bluetooth 2 chip paired with a 12-hour rechargeable battery, a small but welcome bump from 610’s 8-10 hour run time, while both units feature 40mm audio drivers, integrated track and volume control buttons, and soft carrying cases. The largest electronic addition is a microphone—more on that in a moment—while a number of parts have been omitted from the prior package, including a wall adapter, iPod Bluetooth dongle, and adapters for non-Apple headphone ports or international charging use. BT’s paradigm is a little simpler than 610’s: it works with any iPad, iPhone, or iPod using either Bluetooth streaming or an included headphone port cable, recharges from any USB port with a second cable, and folds flat for carrying.
Cosmetic differences between the models are numerous. While plastic ovals were the dominant design theme in Reference Series 610, BT uses large boxy black plastic earcups surrounded by plenty of steel, starting with a replaceable headband and continuing through to rotating and pivoting earcup frames. Leather padding is used inside, and the headband pad is particularly interesting, designed with internal moving hinges and extenders rather than any sort of external lengthening arms. If the pre-installed headband doesn’t fit, you pop the earcups off and attach them to the other, larger handband. BT is conceptually smart, and the materials definitely help to justify its “premium” positioning and price.
That said, we can’t tell you that we loved or even liked BT’s industrial design; it struck us as a little off before we wore it for the first time, and just looked weird when in actual use, falling well short of the best past headphones we’ve seen from Harman’s labels. The plastic and steel combo is iPhone-esque without looking organic in a head-matching way, and the large, boxy cups quickly inspired perspiration around our ears. Harman also carried the rounded rectangular theme through to the controls, which hide on the front edge and bottom of the left earcup, itself so subtly labeled that we had to hunt for the lettering. Apart from the curved top band, all of the components feel like they were designed to be touched and worn by a robot (or Lobot), not a regular person. At best, the design can be called retro; at worst, it feels as if it’s ignored ergonomic lessons headphone makers have learned over the past 30 years.
BT’s sonic performance is also unusual for a Bluetooth headset, operating very well in its secondary wired mode, with wireless issues that suggest—once again—that Harman really needs to improve its Bluetooth headphone technology. When BT is physically connected to an Apple device with its included cable, almost everything sounds and works really well: the headphones are respectably efficient, delivering clean and fairly powerful sound at around the 50% volume mark, fully opening up with balanced treble at around 60%. At that level, which struck us as just a little high for extended safe listening, BT actually has really nicely controlled bass, low-distortion midrange, and just enough treble to sound like you aren’t missing much. The sound signature is skewed a little towards warmth, with plenty of apparent depth and nice clarity. And in wired mode, the microphone does as good of a job as any Apple-approved headphones we’ve tested when making phone calls and using Siri. Only one thing—the fact that the three-button remote doesn’t work in wired mode—will remind you that this was really supposed to be used as a wireless headset.
Unfortunately, BT doesn’t perform quite as well when used as an iOS Bluetooth headset, a serious issue given that it’s being pitched as a primarily wireless product. The first thing we noticed in Bluetooth mode was a high-pitched droning sound that’s evident before and after songs, as well as during quiet parts in tracks—thankfully, this noise is entirely drowned out during most music. Second, BT’s treble and midrange clarity are reduced a little in wireless mode, a difference that seems much more pronounced until you take the time to manually and separately set the headset’s and iOS device’s volume levels; if you don’t do this, BT sounds really flat in wireless mode. Third was an issue that couldn’t be remedied: the microphone worked very poorly when used as a Bluetooth headset for phone calls and Siri, becoming “muddy, like a shirt is being held over it” for phone calls, and routinely failing for even simple Siri requests.
There are two positives in BT’s wireless performance. One is an impressive Bluetooth receiving range that extends at least 100 feet from the broadcasting iOS device; in our testing, the audio signal only fell off on the very opposite side of a house, even including a number of obstructing walls. The other is support for Apt-X, a Bluetooth codec that isn’t currently supported by iOS devices, but may improve BT’s sound quality when used with other products and computers.
Overall, Harman/Kardon’s BT falls directly on the edge of “good” and “okay” ratings. Viewed most generously, it offers powerful wireless performance, and users who either like or will tolerate its inorganic design will find—with a little manual adjustment—that it sounds pretty good by $250 wireless headphone standards, then even better when used with a cable. On the other hand, the industrial design and ear perspiration are both issues, its microphone and remote oddities may well bother some people, and the fact that it’s a decidedly better overall performer in wired mode all run counter to what iOS users would likely expect from a “premium wireless” headphone. If the design strikes your fancy, and you’re looking for a headphone that you will primarily use with a cable or often use at great distances from your device, consider BT viable. Otherwise, you’ll find this model easy to skip, and like us, hope that Harman pushes forward with softer-looking, even better sounding alternatives in the near future.