Editors' note: The Harman Kardon SoundSticks II reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced with the , which appears to be identical.
Updating the unique, 2000-issue Apple-only SoundSticks, Harman Kardon has given the $200 2.1-channel SoundSticks II an equally aesthetically pleasing design. But in a diplomatic move, Harman Kardon bridges the platform gap, allowing anyone with a 1/8-inch minijack input to take advantage of the SoundSticks II and their fantastic output. The transparent, 10-watt speakers, each equipped with four 1-inch drivers, rest on sturdy, adjustable bases. Accompanying the speakers, the 20-watt subwoofer features a blue internal power indicator and a bubblelike contour, creating an appearance that's more like that of an exotic jellyfish than an audio component.
If you believe their technical specifications, the Harman Kardon SoundSticks II speakers don't look as good on paper as similar systems such as the . With a rated frequency-response range of 44Hz to 20KHz, the SoundSticks II should strike out compared to the I-Trigue 3450s and their allegedly wider-range 30Hz low end. But that's not what we heard. On Spoon's "Everything Hits at Once" (an MP3), the drums and the bass sounded glorious. A round low end accompanied the crisp definition in the low mids and high mids to deliver some of the best sound we've heard through a 2.1 computer setup. Occasionally, the overall mix sounded a bit too bright and the vocals a bit too sibilant, but it is always better to err on the side of clarity, and you certainly can't describe the SoundSticks II's output as muddy.
The SoundSticks II speakers were similarly successful when we tested them on the Spider-Man DVD's scene 18. Although the low-end rumble during the scene's main explosion could have been more powerful, the subwoofer sounded fantastic on the Green Goblin's punches, plus the dialogue was clear, and we heard absolutely no distortion at the maximum volume level. As for gaming, when we tested the speakers on Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, the story was the same: overall, excellent definition but occasionally lacking in the heavy low-end rumble that many would expect from a subwoofer.
Although we were impressed as much by their audio quality as we were by their design, we do have some usability gripes with the SoundSticks II--minor complaints normally, but they are amplified by the $200 price tag. The SoundSticks II features two "capacitance touch" volume control buttons on the right satellite--interesting, but hardly any easier than turning a knob, and the absence of a visual display for the volume level--easily provided by a knob--is slightly annoying. And those who like to rock out in the office will also be disappointed by the lack of a headphone jack.
If you can overlook a few missing details, you should find the Harman Kardon SoundSticks II speakers attractive, versatile, and accurate. Prepare to pay a bit more than you normally would for a 2.1 set, but the audio quality is definitely worth the price.