Review: Harman Kardon EP720 High-Fidelity Noise-Isolating Earphones
As we noted in our earlier review of Harman Kardon's EP710 earphones (iLounge rating: B+), which were developed by the accuracy-obsessed folks at Etymotic Research, it's been hard for the developer to improve much on its prior designs. Years after release, Etymotic's ER-6i and ER-4 series remain two of our top earphones -- pioneering products in isolation and detail at their price points, which have only become better over time. Consequently, the company's designs have conspicuously made their way into two other companies' earphones: 2005's now-discontinued and heavily discounted Altec Lansing iM616 and iM716s, and now Harman Kardon's $100 EP710, $150 EP720, and $200 EP730. Today, we're reviewing the EP720 and EP730.
Cosmetically and in packaging, it’s hard to tell the three EP-series earphones apart. All are glossy plastic canalphones with rubber cables and integrated shirt clips, sold in black or white versions, packaged with foam and triple flange silicone tips, a nice ballistic nylon carrying case, two replacement ear filters and a filter replacement tool. On close inspection, it’s obvious that the EP710’s earpieces have slightly more bulbous bodies than the EP720 and EP730, which share identical tapered tube designs with each other, and with Altec’s iM716.
Price aside, the only difference between the EP720 and EP730 models is an in-line control box on the EP730—a feature that first appeared in almost identical form in the Altec Lansing iM716. Set at breastbone level, the control box contains a volume dial and a two-position switch, labeled HF and B. When the EP730 is in B (Bass) mode, it sounds exactly like the EP720, but when it’s in HF (High Fidelity) mode, the B mode’s mid-bass boost disappears.
iM716 users expected that the EP730s would sound the same and have the same box, but they’re actually different: the EP730’s box has no integrated metal clip, looks a bit more modern, and its B mode equalization is more aggressive: the iM716’s soft sound curve and mild bass boost are replaced here with sharper highs and lows. Earphone fans, feel free to read that last part again.
In recent months, we’ve spent a lot of time with new canalphones that deliver smoother, more listenable bass or extended bass at low prices, and a trend is becoming clear: you no longer need to compromise on overall detail, or necessarily the highs or mids, to get affordable earphones with enjoyable bass. We’ve noted in recent reviews that new miniature speaker technologies are making dramatic improvements in the sound quality one can expect for the dollar, rendering two- or three-year-old designs less exciting than before unless their prices have fallen commensurately.
Unfortunately, the EP720 and EP730 (in B mode) don’t sound as good as most of the new canalphones we’ve reviewed recently—a plain statement that we wish we could leave without further explanation, but can’t. In short, they sounded like old technology pushed beyond its limits to satisfy a certain type of listener—the bass enthusiast—without succeeding.
Etymotic’s earphones have always been known for superb detail and uncommon accuracy, offering high- and mid-range detail with tight bass. We’ve praised them for this reason, and preferred them on comfort to the majority of their prior competitors. But over the past year, improvements in peer, premium earphones have made the Etymotic designs start to sound comparatively bass-deficient. In fact, new earphone releases now routinely lead to conversations in which informed people argue over whether the Etymotics lack for all bass, only perform part of the spectrum, or merely lack for artificial enhancement. Our feeling is that the first suggestion is the most common and inaccurate; the second is most accurate, and the third somewhat accurate and informative.
The EP720 and EP730 try to remedy these perceptions, but don’t do so in a way that we found enjoyable to listen to. Rather than attempting to present the spectrum neutrally, their default sound exhibits a “boom and tizz” syndrome - harsher highs and lows, rather than the smoother ones we’re accustomed to hearing from Etymotic’s designs, and recent competitors such as Shure’s SE210s. Both the EP720 and EP730 in B position sound artificially equalized and somewhat metallic, as if their miniature speakers were being forced to do things they aren’t really optimized to do; it’s as if some of the speakers’ midrange performance has been compromised to make the highs and lows stand out. That they do.
Microphonics, a common issue with thick rubber cords, are also a concern here. Active users will find that these cords make swooshing sounds in the earphones when they’re moved around, requiring either your tolerance or use of the shirt clip when you’re in motion. Newer braided cords, such as the ones on Etymotic’s more recent revisions of the ER-4Ps, go a long way towards eliminating this issue, but the EP720s and EP730s are just like the Altec iM716s in this regard.
On more positive notes, the EP730s sound fine, not special, when the in-line switch is in the HF position, though we still prefer Etymotic’s ER-4Ps in design and sound. And like the EP710, both pairs benefit from very strong passive noise isolation thanks to their included tips. By comparison with other earphones we’ve seen recently, the EP720 and EP730 aren’t outfitted with a huge array of different tip shapes or sizes, or the most modern soft foam Comply tips we now prefer, but the ones that are included serve their purposes. Similarly, while we like the small pouches Etymotic’s been including with its own earphones, Harman’s boxier, hard designs are quite nice, with multiple pockets and a footprint large enough to hold a full-sized iPod.
We are generally big fans of Harman Kardon’s audio gear and Etymotic’s earphones, but the EP720 and EP730 don’t strike us as the best examples of what either company can do. They look nice and are priced attractively, yet didn’t satisfy either our particular tastes in sound, and are unlikely to do so for bass lovers, who will find these earphones to be rougher than their best peers. Consider the EP730 to be a good option if you can find them on discount and use them in HF mode; the EP720 wouldn’t do much for us even at a lower price. With the combined talent that these companies bring to the table, it’s our sincere hope that there will be successive generations of these earphones, and that they’ll be able to add bass—perhaps with an additional driver—to Etymotic’s existing reputation for superb detail across the rest of the spectrum.