As much as we’ve loved the industrial designs and audio performance of past Harman/Kardon-family speakers, we’ll admit to feeling fully mystified by some — maybe most — of its headphones. Last year’s BT was one of the weirdest pairs of over-ear headphones we can ever recall testing, made from premium materials yet so gigantic, inorganic, and uncomfortable on our ears that we couldn’t actually wear them for long periods of time. For whatever reason, Harman has doubled down on the concept with Soho ($200), an on-ear version that’s much smaller, yet even more uncomfortable and sonically unimpressive. Even with more than a full year to forget about our prior similar sentiments on BT, our first feeling when testing Soho was that we couldn’t imagine these headphones actually being tested on or made for humans.
Made with a combination of leather, stainless steel, and fabric earpads, Soho looks and feels really nice when it’s not on your head. Small square earpieces covered in handsome leather go on top of your ears rather than over them, which actually works a bit better than the giant rectangles used in BT, and the deliberately compact, lightly padded leather headband holds them on tightly. You can swivel the earpieces inwards and fold them up for travel convenience, reducing Soho’s footprint to only barely larger than an iPhone’s. A hard plastic carrying case is included and quite nice, though its boxiness expands Soho’s footprint for travel to nearly the size of an iPad mini, albeit more than an inch thick with a bulging center. Everything looks as deluxe as you’d expect for a $200 price point, but the individual elements really aren’t thought out especially well.
The key culprit here is the use of steel — a fantastic material if you’re trying to provide structural reinforcement for a building, but not the friendliest metal against a head. Despite telescoping arms and pivoting hinges that really look beautiful, we found the headband and earpieces only a little more comfortable on our heads than a tightened metal vise. While BT’s key problem was in sweat-inducing earcups, Soho’s is the band, which is not only angled sharply inward but critically almost comically light on padding. Unlike BT, which one could conceivably get used to, we found Soho literally headache-inducing.
There are a couple of other oddities here, too. For some reason, Harman ships Soho with the headphone cords detached, and the connection points are actually inside the earpieces, behind the earpads. Consequently, you’ll need to spend your first five minutes with the headset looking through instructions and hoping not to accidentally damage the headphones or pads while attaching two separate connectors to them. This was likely because Harman includes two cables — one Apple-specific with a three-button remote and mic, versus one without — but shipping earphones in a state where they can’t be used straight out of the box with at least one type of cabling isn’t really a great strategy if the connection process is involved. That said, microphone performance was unobjectionable, and the remote worked just as expected with iOS devices.
If the comfort and user experience issues weren’t enough to make Soho unappealing, the sonic performance for the price would be a dealbreaker. Audio is performed with a midrange skew that really doesn’t do justice to treble, and doesn’t particularly impress in the bass department, either. Our initial impression of Soho as a flat-sounding headphone wasn’t changed through continued listening, as songs were presented with a certain dull haze interrupted by a little low-end warmth. Sonic performance like this is not surprising in sub-$100 models, but is seriously underwhelming at twice that price.
Overall, our view on Soho is that nothing’s really right here besides the way that it looks; we can’t recommend it on sound, comfort, or practicality. To the extent that the materials Harman selected are undeniably attractive, it’s hard to criticize them, but the steel band and modest padding really mess up the actual experience of wearing and listening to these headphones. It’s very rare for us to give a pair of headphones a D-caliber rating, and it’s possible that people with differently-shaped heads may feel otherwise, but we can’t think of any other pair of headphones that caused us as much discomfort as these. Here’s hoping that the company undertakes a substantial redesign of this headphone line, putting as much of a premium on sonics and comfort as it previously has on aesthetics.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPods