Review: Harman Kardon MS 150 Music System
There are several obvious ways speaker manufacturers can justify expensive audio systems -- outstanding sound quality, great design, and special features -- so on paper, Harman Kardon's new MS 150 Music System ($690) seems to have what's needed to stand out in the premium speaker segment. While the extruded oval chassis looks a lot like Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin Mini, MS 150 is comparatively large, with a roughly 19.4" wide by 9.5" tall by 7.5" base profile, comparable in physical volume to B&W's full-sized Zeppelin Air and Bose's SoundDock 10. Moreover, unlike its $600 rivals, MS 150 checks off the "extra features" boxes by including not only iPod and iPhone support, but also a CD player, FM radio, and alarm clock. Yet while MS 150 looks nice and sounds pretty good, it's insanely expensive given the experience it delivers, and falls a couple of steps behind the times functionally; it might have been more compelling had it been released two or three years ago, rather than now.
To start on a generally positive note, MS 150 is a substantially impressive industrial design—a system that looks like a soulmate to Sony’s original PlayStation 3 console. While its curves aren’t nearly as daring as the football-like Zeppelin Air’s, that fact actually works in MS 150’s favor to the extent that it occupies a middle ground, serving as a somewhat fancier alternative to the SoundDock 10’s slate-like shape, complete with all the class and substance you’d expect for the price. A bluish-white screen shines through the unit’s angled and fingerprint-susceptible glossy black top surface, displaying a simple clock at all times, with a recessed panel of buttons on the right side. The power button glows red in standby mode, and all the buttons glow bright white when MS 150 is turned on. Harman’s use of a simple column to position its power, volume, track, play/pause, and source buttons is an elegant touch; 3.5mm headphone and aux-in ports are located immediately below the buttons on the front.
One of MS 150’s design deviations is uncontroversial: the bottom rear of the system bulges out from the extruded oval in a way that B&W’s Zeppelin Mini does not. This gives MS 150’s body some extra room to vent the speakers and accommodate internal components, while leaving front viewers with no clue as to the hump on the back. Harman situates a collection of RCA-style ports on this bulge, including old school composite video out and RCA-style left/right audio inputs, as well as 3.5mm/optical aux-in, S-video, power, antenna, and subwoofer output ports. A USB synchronization port shown in the manual never made it into the final unit, but Harman does include optical and analog audio cables if you want to use them, a large brick-shaped wall power supply, plus an external FM radio antenna and Infrared remote control.
The second design deviation is the problematic one. Unlike the Zeppelin Mini, Zeppelin Air, and SoundDock 10, all of which place their Apple device docks front and center at various heights, MS 150’s dock feels like an afterthought. Compatible only with iPods and iPhones—not iPads—it is shipped physically separated from the rest of the unit, and plugs into the bottom left hand side, extending the unit’s width to roughly 23”. That’s nearly as wide as the somewhat unwieldy Zeppelin Air, but without the elegance. There’s also a large seam between the dock and the rest of MS 150, which contributes to the sense that the dock wasn’t originally supposed to be there, and we felt static electricity more than once when going to remove an iPhone from the dock. This is an unusual industrial design hiccup for Harman, which has developed some of the most iconic and clearly iPod- and iPhone-specific speaker systems in the world; one gets the sense that the company just added Apple support at the eleventh hour to an otherwise pricey CD player and radio unit. The only nice thing we can say about the dock is that it offers universal support for different iPod and iPhone models, as well as enough room inside to accommodate many cases.
It’s also worth mentioning that the MS 150’s iPod/iPhone dock is a little slow on the uptake. To its credit, Harman Kardon makes a deep connection with the docked device, pulling track details to display on the unit’s top screen, but the feature is marred by inelegant implementation. There is so much scrolling and flashing of alternating track text details that you won’t want to look at the MS 150’s display very long, if at all, and there’s a multi-second “connecting” pause every time a device is plugged in. Unlike some of the best speakers we’ve tested, MS 150 doesn’t wake up from standby mode automatically when an iPod/iPhone is plugged in and playing music; rather, you’ll need to switch the unit on and over to the “dock” source before it will start to play. This will sometimes mean skipping through six other input sources, including four separate auxiliary audio inputs.
MS 150 doesn’t lack for other features, even if some of them similarly seem outdated and oddly implemented. Front and lower-centered on the unit’s black metal speaker grille is a front-loading CD player, limited track information for which appears on the top screen. While the CD player works essentially as expected, performing audio with roughly the same volume and clarity as iPod/iPhone audio input—something that hasn’t always been the case with CD-integrated iPod audio systems—one wonders why such a feature is even being included in a high-end speaker in late 2011. It’s sluggish, the track information displayed on MS 150 is threadbare, and the CD feature further complicates what otherwise could have been a more streamlined and less expensive design. Additionally, switching to the CD input source results in an extended disc scanning process, though one that can thankfully be interrupted by just hitting the source selection button again.
In addition to the FM radio, which performs audio powerfully and with only a small hiss when the included rear antenna is connected—losing tuning capabilities without the antenna—the unit’s top screen also includes a clock with a simple alarm system, which is oddly adjusted using the included AAA battery-powered remote control. We say “oddly” because the remote’s button labels are a little weird, using a mix of on-button and above-button markings that initially make alarm- and even clock-setting unnecessarily confusing. Once you figure out how the buttons work, you can set one alarm for everyday, weekday, or weekend repetition, using the radio, CD player, or dock as an audio source. Given its price and release date, MS 150 could really have benefitted from a more integrated and powerful menu-based settings system, and/or app support.
If MS 150 has any saving grace, it’s the speakers. Harman’s two primary drivers are 125mm in size, billed alternately by the company as 5” or 4 15/16” speakers, while two 3/4” dome tweeters are downplayed, but surely necessary to handle the treble and mid-treble. Relatively few iPod/iPhone audio systems have such large main drivers inside, and in some companies’ hands, 5” speakers could really skew bass-heavy and overbearing without 2” or 3” midrange drivers to balance them out. But as with all Harman/JBL audio systems we’ve tested, the company has done an atypically impressive job with the speakers it picked: at safe listening volumes, the system has a very nice balance, relying on the 5” drivers to cover midrange, mid-bass, and just enough bass to avoid sounding anemic in any way. Additionally, MS 150 can reach the same blistering, medium room-filling volume levels as the Zeppelin Air without distortion. MS 150 doesn’t have the extreme highs or super-deep lows that we’ve heard in some iPod/iPhone audio systems, but it’s sonically in the same league as Bose’s and B&W’s $600 all-in-ones, with the type of clarity and high-volume performance that premium customers are generally looking for.
Ultimately, MS 150 is a tough premium speaker to recommend without serious qualifications. The core of its industrial design is beautiful, but between its fingerprint-attracting top, somewhat wonky integrated screen, and afterthought-like iPod/iPhone dock, it isn’t all that it could or should have been. Sonically, MS 150 is certainly a rival to the Zeppelin Air and SoundDock 10—and that’s a good thing—but the user experience isn’t on par; the less than ideal integration of the dock, screen, and CD player all detract from its appeal rather than augmenting it, and the features too often feel behind the curve in concept and implementation, which shouldn’t be the case for a $690 MSRP. There’s also the issue of wireless support, built into the Zeppelin Air and offered optionally for SoundDock 10, while Harman doesn’t include the feature at all. In summary, unless you’re already in the market for an iPod/iPhone system with a CD player and radio built in, our advice would be to pass on MS 150. In concept and execution, it’s a 2009-caliber design, and worthy today of only an “okay” rating. That said, there’s enough here to appeal to users who value sexy aesthetic design over superior interface and user experience touches; hopefully Harman will preserve the better features of this unit for an improved sequel.