Review: Harman/Kardon Go + Play Micro Portable Hi-Fi Speaker for iPod/iPhone
Over the past six years, JBL and Harman/Kardon released a wide range of attractive, deliberately alien-looking iPod audio systems, most priced in the sub-$200 range and sold under the JBL name. One exception was the 2007 speaker Go + Play, a huge and deluxe $350 boombox with a huge arc-shaped handle and big, powerful speakers inside -- the distinctive enclosure and price point reflected Harman's and Apple's aspirations to see iPod audio systems fetch higher asking prices. Three years later, Harman has released a sequel called Go + Play Micro ($300), which modestly lowers the price and adds iPhone compatibility while making some non-trivial changes to the audio hardware and enclosure. Go + Play Micro doesn't do a great job of addressing its predecessor's issues, but it's still a standout in the less saturated iPhone speaker market.
To call Go + Play Micro a “micro” system is almost funny given how much smaller JBL and Harman’s other “micro” speakers are: even though the new enclosure has shrunk—a point that incorrect measurements currently listed on Harman’s web site don’t reveal—it’s still huge. The original Go + Play measured 20” wide by 9.5” tall and 9” deep, weighing 8.6 pounds, while Go + Play Micro measures 18.5” wide by 9.5” tall by 8.5” deep, and weighs a still significant 6.7 pounds, which feels surprisingly manageable and portable because of the comfortably large carrying handle. Notably, the very tiny differences in length don’t take into account more substantial changes to the newer unit’s curves.
Harman has cut the front silver metal speaker grilles down to roughly 3.75” circles, now housing smaller twin Odyssey drivers on each side rather than the larger individual Ridge drivers found in Go + Play. It has also dramatically slanted Micro’s top so that the iPod and iPhone dock on top now sits on a steep recline rather than roughly flush and upright as it did before. This is the most substantial correction Harman made to the prior design, enabling users to actually see and use the connected device’s screen, but the new dock still has a problem: it doesn’t work with encased full-sized iPods or iPhones. That the dock is so tight, albeit rubber padded, is the single biggest reason some users will find Go + Play Micro to be inconvenient to use; Harman appears to have been focused more on reducing the prior number of plastic and rubber inserts that were formerly packaged in with Go + Play than on improving the new dock’s versatility. Go + Play Micro also shifts all of its three buttons—an illuminated power button and separate + / - volume buttons—over to the left of the dock, which is somewhat more convenient than before while preserving their classy brushed metal looks.
Other changes to the chassis are also noteworthy. The original Go + Play had speaker grilles on its back, and actually projected bass from them; by comparison, Go + Play Micro removes these grilles and delivers bass through a large mesh grille on its bottom. Harman has consequently moved the prior bottom-mounted battery compartment for 8 D cells to the back of Go + Play Micro, which now instead runs off of 8 C cells. There are still four rubber-sealed ports on the rear bottom for wall power, USB, video-out, and audio input, but the video output has switched from S-Video to a composite port. Oddly, our review unit also had a slightly off-kilter Harman/Kardon logo, with the “h” falling lower than the rest of the shiny front lettering.
The last of the changes are found in Go + Play Micro’s remote control. Harman previously included a six-button RF remote that could be used at 35-foot distances from the original Go + Play, including visual obstructions. Now Go + Play Micro uses a less stylish and more conventional Infrared remote control that needs to be used in the unit’s direct line of sight, but ups the button count to 10 and makes iPod and iPhone menu navigation easier than on the prior remote—assuming you manually unlock Apple’s touchscreen devices before using the buttons. We found that the remote communicated properly with the Micro at or below 20-foot distances, short of the prior unit’s 35-foot remote reach; it notably does not include a dedicated power-off button for the speakers.
Sonically, Go + Play Micro falls into the “good” category rather than “great,” and is thus a few steps down from its predecessor, which we noted had the best sound of any boombox back then, but was saddled with too high of a price tag and other issues. On a positive note, Harman’s switch to the smaller Odyssey drivers has had the predictable effect of accentuating Go + Play Micro’s treble performance: high-pitched sounds are crisp without sounding tinny, and stand distinctly apart from the bass. As is typical of Harman and JBL audio systems, Go + Play Micro sounds good right out of the box and requires no bass or treble adjustments, dynamically equalizing songs to match its speaker capabilities—all of the test tracks we tried were presented with a modest bass push that most users will enjoy. But Micro has also lost some of the midrange detail of the original Go + Play, and as the system’s volume goes up, you hear far more of the highs and the lows than the mids.
The volume doesn’t quite rise to ear-splitting levels, either, as Harman has chopped Micro’s amplification and bass hardware in half: it loses one of the two roughly 5” Atlas drivers from the original Go + Play, half of the prior 60 Watts of dedicated bass amplifier power, and half of its prior 60 Watts for the Odysseys, falling to 60 total Watts rather than 120. At its absolute peak, Go + Play Micro is loud enough to fill a small room, but it’s not the boombox you’ll want to rely upon outdoors when someone’s mowing the lawn nearby. That said, it’s solid for near-field listening, and not bad for outdoor use, somewhat unconventionally equipped by the standards of high-powered boomboxes.
Overall, Go + Play Micro is a partially satisfying new audio system: it remains a visual standout, with no comparably stylish iPhone-ready boombox rival, and its sonic performance is as solid as we’ve come to expect from JBL and Harman audio products. But between its limiting dock, diminished horsepower, lower-grade remote, and the fact that it’s nearly as large and expensive as its predecessor, Go + Play Micro is the product of some odd design decisions that will continue to limit its appeal. With three years of time for improvements, we’re surprised and a little disappointed that the original model is easier to recommend—the new model will only appeal more to people who are specifically in need of its iPhone-specific charging and interference shielding. If you’re in that crowd and like Micro’s looks, check it out in person and see if the sound is enough to meet your needs; if not, the original Go + Play remains a powerful option, particularly for iPod owners.