Review: Harman Kardon Soundsticks II 2.1 Speaker System
Pros: A step above our top-rated Creature stationary speakers in overall performance and style, comparing favorably (on sound and looks) with certain more expensive offerings.
Cons: Trumped modestly in certain audio categories by specific competing speaker systems - generally at slightly or considerably higher prices. No treble control or power switch.
The temptation to fall in love with beautiful products is considerable; that which appeals to your eye is an easier draw on your pocket. While not a new offering, Harmon Multimedia’s transparent Soundstick speaker systems have been drawing stares ever since their introduction, first as a Mac-only alternative to Apple’s USB Pro Speakers, and now as a more broadly compatible offering that works with any stereo minijack-equipped device. Most of the speakers we review at iLounge match the iPod’s white plastic; this new clear plastic and chrome metallic system is more a match for full-sized iPods’ glossy clear acrylic and mirrored backs.
The Soundsticks II ($169.99) set is a 2.1-channel system, and thus consists of three major components and associated connecting cables. Most noticeable are two satellite speakers that stand tower-like on a flat surface, each equipped with four one-inch speaker drivers. Second is a large bass-adjustable subwoofer with a six-inch down-firing woofer at its bottom, and no visible controls on its front surface. All three components are transparent, revealing the wiring and other details of their parts - a mad scientist design touch unlike daughter company JBL’s more recent alien designs.
Not surprisingly, the multi-driver Soundsticks II are more expensive than our top-recommended JBL Creature II speakers ($99.99, iLounge rating: A), and are in the same general price category as JBL’s larger, even cleaner-sounding Encounters ($199.99, iLounge rating: A-). However, the Soundstick satellites are more the visual match of the tower-like speakers in Altec Lansing’s considerably more expensive metallic FX6021s ($299.99, featured in iLounge’s Buyers’ Guide 2005), which similarly feature multiple satellite drivers (six versus Harmon’s four).
Given the price differences between these options, it’s not surprising that the Soundsticks aren’t as feature-laden as the two more expensive offerings mentioned here - the FX6021 system includes a full breakout box with adjustable volume, bass, and treble plus a remote control, while Encounter has adjustable bass and treble knobs on its rear. The Soundsticks are comparatively threadbare - no treble knob, and no breakout box or remote control. Like other JBL offerings, the Soundsticks’ right satellite includes chrome touch-sensitive volume adjustment pads near its base, while a gray bass control knob is found on the subwoofer’s rear.
There’s no power switch, though pressing the two touchpads mutes the system, and thus the subwoofer constantly emits a modest purple glow unless you unplug it. A non-detachable wire leads from the back of the subwoofer to your audio output device, and detachable wires are used for power and both of the satellite speakers. Iridescent donuts at the bottom of each satellite can be positioned into your choice of positions to give the speakers a gentle recline, or keep them standing straight up.
We tested the Soundsticks against each of the aforementioned speaker systems, and were a bit surprised by the results. On an audio level, they held up quite well against the more expensive FX6021 system, delivering an unchangeable default level of treble that was superior to the most aggressive setting on Altec’s system, and coming pretty close on bass as well. The FX6021’s larger 6.5”, 50-Watt subwoofer delivers a bit more thump at normal listening levels than Harman’s 6”, 20-Watt sub, but the difference is more apparent at high volumes. At comparable volumes, the Soundsticks also put out a bit less base-level noise than the Altecs, though neither is dead silent. In sum, those looking for a “theater” experience from speakers may prefer the bass and volume potential of the FX6021s, say nothing of the remote control and greater bass/treble tuning capabilities, but those listening at typical volumes and even a bit above will find a lot to like in the Soundsticks, especially for the lower price.
As compared with Encounter, the Soundsticks showed some other surprising differences. They were significantly stronger in the bass department at normal volumes than Encounter, which our review noted was surprisingly underpowered given its tall 34 Watt subwoofer, and the rear knob seemed capable of driving bass right to the fine edge of distortion. The added bass mades the Soundsticks a better choice for bass-heavy tracks such as rap, and for those who constantly strive for richer sound. However, we found the Encounters to be stronger in the treble department when pushed - somewhat of a surprise given the Soundsticks’ eight total satellite drivers versus the Encounters’ four. As it turns out, the adjustable treble knob on the Encounters made the difference, though the Soundsticks still sounded very good. Their mids were comparably clear and enjoyable.
Then there were the Creatures, which we’ve continued to love because of their great treble and bass knobs, low price, looks, and overall performance. Tests against more expensive speakers have shown them not to be the clearest offerings on the block, but for the price, they’re as good as they get, and the average person will find them one of the best values anywhere in the audio world. By comparison, the Soundsticks are a little clearer, a bit more powerful in the treble department, and a better choice for high-volume listening. They lack the Creatures’ easy to reach knobs - and any treble knob for that matter - fully detachable cables, and low price.
Our biggest gripes with the Soundsticks II were actually small ones - the lack of power switch and treble knob are omissions JBL’s fixed in its more recent products, and not ones that significantly detracted from our use or enjoyment of these speakers. Their compromise of size, design, overall sound quality and price left us impressed. Though we could name some of the alternatives we haven’t mentioned in this review, suffice to say that the Soundsticks sound better overall than many of the speakers we’ve seen in the $170-$200 price range. And they look leagues better - even more appealing than the best of the systems we’ve reviewed.
As for the ones we noted above, the Soundsticks are a superior alternative to the Encounters for bass-loving iPod owners, and a good price-to-performance compromise against the more expensive FX6021s for those who don’t need theater-filling volume or extra control frills. Price being an legitimate factor, we’d still pick the Creatures in a pinch, but that constraint aside, we wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to add a set of the Soundsticks to an iPod or computer setup. They look great, sound great, and won’t kill your wallet.