History laughs at those who declare certain products to be past the point of further innovation, but wired headphones appear to have hit a creative wall, differentiated more these days on looks than audio performance at given price points. Components are hugely similar from model to model: miniature speakers connected to cables, Apple-sourced three-button remote control and mic units, and 3.5mm audio plugs, each generally straddling the fine line between cosmetic and functional improvements. Apart from big industrial design differences and comparatively small sonic ones, little other reason besides branding tends to get users excited about one model over another.
As the owner of vaunted audio brands JBL and AKG—each with well-respected audio engineers and industrial designers—Harman/Kardon has all of the key advantages necessary to compete in the overcrowded headphone market. Beyond its trusted brands, it has historically squeezed surprisingly good performance from common speakers, and enclosed them in distinctive, resilient housings. Now Harman is bringing these strengths together for a new family of Apple product-ready headphones that are apparently the first to bear the parent company’s name. We previously reviewed the top-of-line wireless model BT, deluxe headphones that typified the family’s rounded rectangular box shapes with black and silver color schemes. Today, we’re covering NI ($100) and AE ($150), two pairs of in-ear headphones that have a lot in common with each other and BT, though they’re obviously pocketable and wireless rather than huge and Bluetooth-based.
At first glance, NI and AE look so similar to each other that only color distinguishes them—after taking them out of their nearly identical cardboard boxes, we initially couldn’t tell which model was which until we looked again at the outer packaging. Both enclose one 9mm audio driver per ear inside 0.5” tall, 0.3” wide rounded rectangular boxes; each box is tapered through 0.3” of depth, finishing with silver tubes that attach easily to silicone rubber ear tips. Whereas NI’s housings are entirely black with frosted white tips, AE’s are primarily matte silver metal with black on the outermost edge and silicone tips. Apart from “AE” and “NI” markings on their three-button remotes, and 3.5mm plug tops that match their respectively colored housings, they’re virtually the same design, with thick black cabling that tangled easily and often during our testing. Each model comes with a soft-lined, magnetic-sealed vinyl and cardboard carrying case lined with foam and fabric.
Whereas the expensive, large BT model struck us (and others) as almost nerdy, NI and AE look a lot nicer, despite the design DNA they share with the family. The rounded rectangular shapes aren’t as organic as similarly priced Ultimate Ears canalphones, but they’re distinctive like ear jewelry, particularly the higher-end AE model, which feels cool to the touch thanks to its metallic cladding. Harman’s long, straight 3.5mm headphone plug housings aren’t ideal from a strain relief perspective, but they look sharp, particularly alongside the steel center bands of black iPhone 4 and 4S models. We’d call both NI and AE reasonably good-looking by comparison with other canalphones in their price range, and thanks to the silicone tips, they’re quite comfortable and stable—certainly more than we’d expected from their boxy shapes. That said, Harman’s included carrying cases awkwardly undercut the sense of premium design, using cardboard-reinforced vinyl that manages to feel cheaper than zippered ballistic nylon or particularly well-designed drawstring bags. If the Harman name is to maintain its premium perception atop the JBL and AKG labels, it’ll need better components than this.
Cosmetics aside, there are two key differences between NI and AE. First, Harman has added one pair of Comply eartips to the AE package, well-regarded and comfortable foam inserts that expand inside your ear canals for extra isolation and comfort. They do not compromise the sonic experience in any major way from what you’d get with silicone tips—assuming the Comply tips fit your ears. Both NI and AE models come with small, medium, and large silicone tips, but the Comply tips are medium-sized, shrinking to accommodate smaller ear canals but offering no solution for larger ones. Sound isolation and apparent quality will vary for users with large ear canals.
The other difference between NI and AE is in sonic tuning. NI is best understood as a reasonably neutral, restrained earphone—it actually sounds somewhat flat at regular volumes, with an expansive midrange, just enough bass to have bass, and obvious but not particularly sparkly treble. Only when we turned the volume up above the 50% level on an iPhone 4S, which is arguably unsafe for extended listening, did the apparent depth of the soundstage markedly increase and bass levels go up. Put simply, NI’s audio has been optimized for people who listen at high volumes; others will find it to be dull.
By contrast, the $150 AE model has been specifically tuned to add bass range and emphasis. Even at the 50% volume level on an iPhone 4S, there’s no shortage of low-end power, and the sonic curve goes beyond “warm” to actually sound a little powerful in the bass department. Again, turn the volume up a little higher to potentially unsafe levels, and the staging increases a little while the bass becomes even heavier—not better, just heavier. It’s also worth noting that the remotes and microphones on both models worked identically to one another, and sounded virtually indistinguishable from Apple’s own remote-and-mic-laden earphones, apart from an occasional hint of cable movement noise getting picked up by both NI and AE.
Taken as a whole, NI and AE feel as if they were artificially engineered to justify different—and frankly overly separate—price points: AE looks, feels, and sounds like the $100-$120 earphone Harman really wanted to make, while NI is a deliberately cut-down model that’s less distinctive cosmetically, and despite incorporating similar speakers, has been tuned to sound sort of boring unless turned up to potentially problematic levels. If we had to choose one, there’s no doubt that we’d pick AE over NI even at a higher price, but both models strike us as at least a little too expensive given the sound and design quality on offer. This is a particular issue because the headphones are all being offered as Apple Store exclusives, without price discounts, at least for the time being. Should these models follow suit with most Harman products and enjoy superior street pricing from other retailers, consider them worth testing and possibly buying; otherwise, AE would be nice to receive as a gift, and NI may merit attention if you listen to music at high volumes and like the industrial design.
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