Review: Harman Kardon Go + Play High-Performance Portable Loudspeaker Dock for iPod
Pros: The best-sounding transportable iPod speaker system yet released, with impressive detail across the entire sound spectrum, particularly in the bass department, and capable of doing pretty well at high volumes. Includes a good RF remote control, simple carrying handle, D-cell battery option, and USB port for iPod-to-computer synchronization.
Cons: Odd iPod dock design makes screen hard to see; remote’s complexity-adding iPod menu navigation features are thereby worthless. Despite boombox functionality, system isn’t as ruggedized or iPod-protective as some competing options, and its modern looks will appeal more to some users than others. Price isn’t aggressive relative to other all-in-one speakers given lack of certain features, and sound differences between this and considerably less expensive all-in-ones will be lost on many listeners, particularly those who prefer user-adjustable bass or treble controls.
Whether you’ll think Harman Kardon’s new Go + Play ($350) is an excellent or merely a very good new iPod speaker system will mainly come down to one question: how many alternatives you’ve heard. Having tested virtually all of the major brand iPod speakers out there, we’re inclined to call it “very good,” but many prospective buyers will find Go + Play to be excellent: it’s unquestionably the best-sounding transportable iPod speaker out there, and saddled with only three caveats, specifically a poor iPod dock design, polarizing cosmetic styling, and a less than aggressive price point.
Though Harman Kardon - parent company of longtime iPod speaker maker JBL - calls Go + Play a High Performance Portable Loudspeaker Dock for iPod, it’s instantly obvious what the system is intended to be: an ultra-modern boom box, housing as much art and thunder as function and subtlety. Measuring 20” wide by 9.5” tall and 9” deep, the matte black system’s most distinctive feature is a huge stainless steel arc of a handle, which runs fully from side to side, and ties visually into oversized matching speaker grilles on the unit’s front and back. Viewed from the top or front, Go + Play looks like an oversized women’s hobo bag - a vaguely alien design that, like some JBL speakers, may not appeal to all users. Though various elements of its design make it better suited to a modern art gallery than the beach, we actively like how it looks.
There are only three buttons on the whole system - illuminated power and volume, all on top and in metal - and four ports in the back, each covered by rubber for some vague level of protection when the system is toted around. Interestingly, there’s a USB port for synchronization and an S-Video port for video output, plus an auxiliary audio input port and power input, as well. While a data synchronization port isn’t generally a surprise for any iPod speaker system, it bears note that it’s missing from most of the high-end speakers we’ve been seeing recently, and added to an impression we developed after listening to Go + Play: this is a full-fledged tabletop audio system that’s as well-suited to use alongside a computer as elsewhere in your home or outdoors. Unfortunately, you’ll have to provide the USB cable yourself - a stingy omission for a system at this price - as JBL only includes an auxiliary cable, power supply, remote control, eight iPod Universal Dock Adapters, and twin rubber dock inserts in the package.
The reason for all that docking hardware is Go + Play’s dock, the weakest link in an otherwise impressive package. Perhaps 95% of iPod speaker systems somehow render the iPod’s screen visible from the same direction as their audio drivers are pointing, but Harman went a different and somewhat bizarre route with its design - one that won’t fully satisfy most of the different types of people who might buy this system. The iPod’s screen faces towards the sky, under the steel tube handle, and the iPod docks at an odd angle, sitting inside a plastic and rubber groove molded roughly to its size. Those rubber inserts are designed to accommodate smaller iPod minis and the first-generation iPod nano, while a dial in the compartment provides extra back support for thinner full-sized iPods. Suffice to say that this design renders iPod screen access even less convenient than its competitors, and also does nothing to protect the iPod against the elements a boombox user might well be expected to encounter on the road.
It also limits one of Go + Play’s otherwise cool features - an unusually respectable six-button remote control, derived from the one packaged with last year’s Radial. The full details on the remote are here, but it suffices to say that it’s based on RF radio technology rather than Infrared, so you can control the system without pointing the remote at the speakers, and it works from 35 feet away rather than Harman’s stated 20. It also has such unique button functionality that multi-lingual instructions - and two-language stickers - are included to help you use all the features. As most of the “extra” features are for iPod menu navigation, and you can’t see the iPod’s screen unless you walk up to Go + Play and position your head around the steel bar - close enough to use the iPod itself - the added remote complexity here isn’t worthwhile and will likely just confuse people. Meanwhile, both the remote and system lack bass and treble controls, features present to at least some extent in Go + Play competitors such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7 (iLounge rating: A-) and Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi (iLounge rating: B). But then, neither the iM7 nor the Hi-Fi has a RF remote - they use weaker Infrared controls, and we preferred Go + Play’s overall.
Those speakers are especially relevant for comparison here, as all three are in the same general category: they’re all big, “transportable” speakers, capable of running off of wall power or D-cell batteries, with the iPod Hi-Fi requiring six and the others requiring eight. At $250, iM7 is the best value of the bunch, while the $350 iPod Hi-Fi is maximized for high volumes and has bass-slanted audio. Harman’s option is as expensive as Apple’s, but sounds better for typical listening: it has similar high-volume power, yet dramatically superior balance, thanks to classic Harman tuning and a strong driver/amplifier package.
Go + Play packs twin, rear-firing Atlas drivers for low-end - only one Atlas is used for the subwoofer in JBL’s Spot and Spyro systems - plus twin Ridge drivers, previously found in JBL’s On Time, for mids and high-end. The system also includes a 120 watt amplifier, with power spread evenly across all four of the drivers. While we’re not big believers in comparisons based strictly on numbers, it’s worth noting that JBL’s design packs much more dedicated bass horsepower than either of its competitors: Apple uses a single 5” driver backed by unspecified amplification, and Altec uses one 4” driver; Harman’s two dedicated bass drivers are each roughly Apple’s size, and together given more power (60W) than the entire 50W Altec system. Even when the volume’s turned down, you can hear the difference in quality: Go + Play’s entire range, but particularly its low end, has detail and texture that makes even good systems sound less expensive. It’s not the sort of sound system that can rumble with aid from a standalone subwoofer unit, but it’s as tight as we’ve heard in the bass department from an all-in-one thus far.
In fact, though Go + Play lacks bass and treble controls, its default sound balance was spot on: listeners all agreed that they liked how it sounded out of the box, as it offered cleaner highs and lows than even Logitech’s excellent, $300 AudioStation, even when we tried our best to tweak AudioStation’s levels to match Harman’s. We honestly weren’t expecting so much from Go + Play given its on-paper driver design: our gut feeling was that the system would be heavily slanted towards bass response, and that its “full range” Ridge drivers would be incapable of delivering the sort of highs we’d expect at the $300 or $350 price level. That wasn’t the case: most likely because all of its drivers have been locked into a Harman-tuned, smart sound signature without user adjustability, and aided by a digital signal processor, the company makes the most of all of its hardware, and neither the highs nor mids suffer at all. There’s also the possibility that Harman has a little extra audio hardware inside the enclosure, aiding the unit’s high-end performance.
It’s important to put all this praise in some perspective, however. There’s no denying that there are positive differences between Go + Play and, say, a properly tuned iM7 or AudioStation, or that it’s entirely possible that users will hear better balanced, somewhat more detailed sound right out of the Harman Kardon box. These are legitimate justifications for Go + Play’s premium pricing in much the same way as Bose attempted several years ago to justify the then staggering price of its SoundDock. But it’s equally true that with slight tuning, the iM7 and AudioStation can be brought close enough to Go + Play’s performance levels at typical volumes that most listeners wouldn’t care - especially for a $50 or $100 price difference, and also when considering these other systems’ other positive features. In sum, this is an audiophile’s boombox, which would be somewhat of a conceptual curiosity if it wasn’t for the wide range of “unique” iPod speaker designs we’ve already seen and heard.
All of that leaves us with an increasingly common question: if Go + Play sounds great - better than the A-rated $300 AudioStation and $250 iM7 - why doesn’t it merit an equally high recommendation? There are two answers: pricing and “other positive features.” Putting aside the issues of whether one likes the styling and can deal with the weird dock, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Go + Play has once again emerged at a price point that is $50 to $100 over what we’d consider aggressive, a recent Harman trend that we really hope will soon come to an end. When you consider what’s in the $300 AudioStation box - a full-fledged AM/FM radio, clock, and very nearly comparable stereo system, with a nice remote control - Go + Play looks overpriced, a small upgrade on sound and a big downgrade on extras, with a poorly-designed dock. Similarly, even if the average listener can hear the differences between Go + Play and the feature-similar iM7, it’s a good question as to whether they’d pay a $100 premium for them. The good news for Harman is that Amazon’s already selling Go + Play for only $300; the bad news is that iM7 can be had from the same store for $155 - clearly a superior value, and one likely to repeat no matter what store you look at.
Overall, we feel that Go + Play is a very good iPod speaker system - it’s the best-sounding boombox design we’ve yet heard, but also the priciest, and not necessarily the one you’d actually want to carry someplace where it or your iPod could be damaged. At $350, it’s neither a steal of a speaker deal nor a perfectly designed boombox, but it’s so visually and sonically attractive that wealthier users looking for simple, great sound should place it high on their lists, especially if transportability or high style is a priority. Those looking for greater value or user-tweakable sound may want to hold off and consider other options.