Review: Harman/Kardon Go + Play Wireless Bluetooth Speaker
Faced with uncertainty over Apple's Lightning connectors and the viability of AirPlay, many speaker developers have opted to update old products with Bluetooth streaming capabilities rather than create entirely new Apple-specific designs. The latest such release is Harman/Kardon's Go + Play Wireless ($400), a direct sequel to 2007's Go + Play and cousin to 2010's Go + Play Micro. Virtually identical to the original Go + Play except for changes to the pack-ins and top surface, Go + Play Wireless is still a very good-sounding audio system when judged on raw speaker quality, but its higher pricing and hacked-together Bluetooth functionality undermine its value for the dollar.
Viewed though the lens of history, the Go + Play series was Harman’s ultimate expression of style over practicality. Described in our 2007 review as resembling “an oversized women’s hobo bag,” with “a vaguely alien design that, like some JBL speakers, may not appeal to all users,” Go + Play measured 20” wide by 9.5” tall and 9” deep, packing four speaker drivers and a compartment for eight D-cell batteries. Harman used a combination of matte black plastic and metal with brushed silver metallic accents, notably adding an iconic aluminum handlebar that ran from edge to edge, creating two of Go + Play’s four rubber-capped metal feet. All of these elements remain in Go + Play Wireless, and although they still won’t appeal to everyone, we’d call them almost timeless—few similarly-sized speaker systems have come along in the last six years with designs as memorable as this. It’s worth underscoring that Go + Play sounded pretty great by 2007 speaker standards, though not great enough to justify its $350 asking price.
Pricing aside, the chief problems with Go + Play and its smaller follow-up Go + Play Micro were their dock designs. Neither supported encased devices, and both were on odd angles that made viewing iPod or iPhone screens nearly impossible, without offering any protection against the elements. The dependence on numerous large D-cells for portable power also limited Go + Play’s ability to “go” at a time when most rivals were smaller and more power efficient. While none of these issues were shocking, they undermined both Go + Play models as truly portable boomboxes, relegating them to largely indoor use by people who really appreciated extra audio quality.
Go + Play Wireless changes the formula in a few ways. In a design decision that we would most charitably describe as practical rather than beautiful, Harman effectively cut a large hole in Go + Play’s top, inserting a giant rubber pad in place of what used to be the iPod/iPhone docking area and power/volume buttons. The only cosmetic positive to this odd, inconsistent alteration of the prior design is increased symmetry, as the original Go + Play previously had two silver buttons off to the left side of the dock, and one button on the right. Now, all three of the circular buttons look cheap and rubbery, with volume down, power/Bluetooth button, and volume up buttons spaced nicely in a line across the top. The power button is ringed by a light that dimly glows white for power, then blue when a Bluetooth connection is established. It’s not the best-looking way Harman could have handled Go + Play’s evolution, but it’s functional enough.
Beyond the removal of the Apple dock, one small change to the unit’s back demonstrates that this isn’t just a hastily hollowed-out Go + Play. Harman has cut the prior four rear ports down to three, with power, a full-sized USB charging port, and an aux-in port in a row, all rubber-sealed for protection. The USB port notably cannot be used for audio input, which is unfortunate. It would have been great—smart, even—for Harman to acknowledge the major evolutions in Bluetooth speaker evolution by replacing the bottom battery compartment with the sort of capacious rechargeable cell one might expect from a $400 boombox, but that’s been left the same. Consequently, the eight D-cells is requires for portability will need to be self-supplied and replaced after roughly 15 hours of play time; you’ll also need a coin to open two thumbscrews that hold the battery compartment in place. Harman also omits a remote control from this model’s package, which isn’t a huge deal given the way Go + Play Wireless will likely be used, though it bears mention that the prior model’s remote control used atypically fancy RF signaling rather than cheaper Infrared, slightly helping to justify Go + Play’s price. The only extra left in the package is a wall power adapter.
Sonically, Go + Play Wireless starts strong. It benefits from the continued presence of four drivers—two large Ridge drivers with front and rear ventilation, paired with two small aluminum-domed Atlas tweeters—plus 90 total watts of amplification, slightly but not meaningfully down-specified from the 120-watt package in the original model. Together, these components enable Go + Play Wireless to play at small room-filling volume levels, delivering very nicely equalized audio that’s particularly capable in the bass department by comparison with common Bluetooth speakers. We’d characterize the bass as dominant in songs but never bloated or flattened, a sound signature that makes this system stand out. Even as the volume levels become dangerous, distortion isn’t evident, a benefit of Harman’s extremely capable audio engineering and component sourcing teams. While the midrange isn’t particularly detailed, this remains a fun boombox-style audio system, great for rap, dance, and rock music, particularly when played loud.
The part that makes Go + Play Wireless less than thrilling by $400 speaker standards is some amplifier noise, possibly attributable to the new Bluetooth hardware. On a positive note, the system streams reliably from a longer distance than the basic 33 feet promised by most Bluetooth speakers, working from roughly 50 feet away before audio packets begin to drop out. And it needs to be said that the sound quality isn’t so different from the original Go + Play that average people will be markedly disappointed with Wireless’s issues. Unfortunately, there’s a mosquito-like droning sound in the audio during quiet moments that becomes markedly more noticeable as the Bluetooth device’s volume increases. At really high iOS device volume levels—regardless of the speaker’s unmirrored volume—the interference can become really annoying. While this is a better state of affairs than we previously found in some of Harman’s JBL-badged Bluetooth speakers, which suffered from odd dribbles of audio after starting new tracks, it’s still not good.
Taken as a whole, Go + Play Wireless is a mixed bag: more expensive than its six-year-old predecessor despite the continued march of technological progress around it, it adds only one new feature—Bluetooth streaming—while dropping dock, remote, and classier design elements that had previously helped to justify a higher rating. On paper, it’s hard to understand why any typical user would choose to pay a $300 premium for this system over an aggressively-engineered contemporary boombox such as G-Project’s G-Boom, which similarly sports four reasonably powerful speakers, Bluetooth functionality, and a rigid top handle, plus the rechargeable battery Harman omits. In reality, however, the comparison is akin to brushing off a Mercedes SL in favor of a Toyota Prius: both will get you where you want to go, but while one is economical and small, the other is made to appeal to people who will pay extra for something bigger, flashier in design, and more powerful. If you appreciate high-volume, bassy audio and modern design enough to spend a princely sum on them, consider Go + Play Wireless; otherwise, you’ll find many other Bluetooth audio systems that deliver more bang for the buck.