Review: Harman/Kardon SoundSticks Wireless
We've been on a Bluetooth speaker reviewing tear over the last several days, covering dozens of new models that are all being released in time for the 2012-2013 holiday season. Two days ago, we looked at small portable all-in-one speakers; yesterday, we covered several distinctive designs that did more than just stream music, and today, we're looking at three "new" models that add Bluetooth wireless streaming to previously-released wired, multi-component speakers. The fanciest of the bunch is Harman/Kardon's SoundSticks Wireless ($229), based upon the $170 system SoundSticks II we previously reviewed and loved. Since all three of these speakers are first and foremost computer speakers, with iOS wireless compatibility as an afterthought, we're not going to dive too deeply into them, but they may appeal to some users looking for multi-component Mac or PC speakers and the ability to quickly play music from Bluetooth devices.
The world has changed a lot since we reviewed SoundSticks II back in 2005, but up until this year, the SoundSticks have stayed pretty much unchanged—for generally good reasons. Harman won a place in MoMA’s permanent collection for the original design, which was created along with Apple for use with its clear plastic desktop computers, combining a breakthrough transparent subwoofer and freestanding satellite housings with silver and black speaker drivers that could be seen through the enclosures. Minimalist in controls and features, the speakers featured capacitive volume buttons on the bottom of the right satellite, a subwoofer level knob on its back, and a light inside, but not much else.
Without much fanfare, Harman released the modestly tweaked SoundSticks III two years ago, replacing the previously iridescent blue satellite speaker bases with black versions, and swapping gray cabling for transparent silver versions, both welcome cosmetic improvements. The rear subwoofer knob could be pressed in to turn the system power on and off, an inconvenient location for the feature, but an addition nonetheless. Meanwhile, the core of the system—two sets of four 1 1/8” drivers in each satellite speaker, plus one 6” bass driver—remained the same. Cabling enabled users to separate the satellites from one another by up to 10 feet, while the subwoofer remained in the center as an icon to modern industrial design.
Although the name is now “SoundSticks Wireless,” Harman hasn’t actually cut out any of the speaker-to-speaker wiring—all it has done is to add support for wireless audio streaming. Once the system is turned on with its inconvenient rear-of-subwoofer power button, power being indicated with a small white light hidden towards the inner back of the large unit, SoundSticks Wireless automatically becomes discoverable as a Bluetooth wireless receiver by iOS devices. Pairing is simple, leading to the secondary illumination of a small blue light inside the clear subwoofer’s front, nestled below a white-inked Bluetooth logo. The lights will be too subtle for some users; others may appreciate the lack of ornamentation.
Harman appears to have used the same Bluetooth hardware and input management approach found in its JBL-branded Jembe Wireless system: there’s no input selection button for wired or wireless audio, so both sources are instead merged into a single audio stream, overlapping one another. Audio purists may not like this, as the lack of discrete listening channels can muddle sources, but others—particularly people who don’t want to have to stop hearing a computer’s sound effects while music is playing from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod—may appreciate it. Harman could easily have included power and input selection buttons on the left satellite speaker, mirroring the volume buttons on the right, but chose not to.
Unfortunately, one Bluetooth-related problem we noted in Jembe Wireless carries over to SoundSticks Wireless: an odd dribbling and skipping issue. When pausing songs or changing tracks, you may hear a little stutter or extra beat from the prior song, similar to a drip or two of extra water coming out of a turned-off faucet. This doesn’t kill the value of SoundSticks Wireless as a Bluetooth streaming device, but it didn’t sound great in a $99 speaker system, and is a little more objectionable in a $229 model.
The strongest reason to consider SoundSticks Wireless is the aggregate aesthetic and sonic quality Harman includes in this model. While many other excellent audio systems have been released over the past seven years, this particular JBL design remains cosmetically iconic—one of very few designs that have stood the test of time despite changing computers and audio devices. Moreover, the sound quality is a big step up from common $100-$150 speakers. Judged against other alternatives, the SoundSticks’ use of eight identically-sized drivers isn’t necessary ideal for reaching either the highest highs or incredibly detailed mid-bass, but despite that, the overall audio balance here is very nice. Users can enjoy very rich and even modestly overpowering bass from the 6” subwoofer, while toning it down to lower levels with the rear knob. Turned up to the maximum volume level, the SoundSticks Wireless speakers are capable of filling a medium-sized room, reaching much higher amplitudes than smaller multi-component Bluetooth systems such as Jembe Wireless or Edifier’s Prisma BT, while preserving respectable clarity and across-the-board audio balance.
Overall, SoundSticks Wireless is nearly as good of a choice today as the SoundSticks II system was when we reviewed it years ago. Despite the great design and ample audio hardware, Harman didn’t price the prior models at unaffordable or unreasonable premiums, and although the new model’s price is higher, it’s not offensively expensive given what’s being offered here. However, the needlessly imperfect Bluetooth implementation and still somewhat inconvenient controls detract from what would otherwise be a completely thrilling update to a long-beloved design. We’re holding out hope that Harman will consider revisiting the entire concept behind SoundSticks Wireless for a more major update in the future; for now, this is a very good option, and will certainly generate both beautiful music and plenty of discussion anywhere it’s placed.