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Harman Kardon BT review: Excellent sound without the wires

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Harman Kardon makes a few different full-size headphones, including the Classic (CL), Noise Canceling (NC), and Bluetooth (BT). They all offer excellent sound quality and have very distinct designs, with a modern take on an old-school double headband and square earcups that harken back a little to the Bowers & Wilkins P3 and P5 headphones.

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8.1

Harman Kardon BT

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Unique design; excellent fit and finish; impressive sound quality for Bluetooth headphones; built-in rechargeable battery offers decent battery life (12 hours); the <b>Harman Kardon BT</b> fold flat (a nice carrying case is included); works well as cellphone headset; can also be used as wired headphones.

The Bad

A bit bulky for mobile headphones; the battery charging cable is not a standard Micro-USB cable.

The Bottom Line

While its design may not be for everyone, the Harman Kardon BT is one of the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones available.

The BT model reviewed here looks almost identical to the over-the-ear NC model, but it features wireless audio streaming for smartphones and other devices that are Bluetooth-enabled. At $250 list, this is considered more of a high-end Bluetooth headphone, but it does cost significantly less than other high-end competitors such as the $400 Parrot Zik, Sennheiser MM 550, and Denon Global Cruiser.

Aside from its excellent fit and finish, the big thing the BT has going for it is its sound quality. It's a well-balanced headphone, with good clarity and tight bass, making it one of the better-sounding Bluetooth headphones currently available.

The Harman Kardon BTs have memory foam in their earpads. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
As I said, the headphone has a very distinct look; it's a modern take on an old-school design and won't appeal to everyone. The build quality seems robust, with the top portion of the headband made of metal. Here's what's interesting: Harman includes two sizes of that metal piece, and you can easily swap one band in for the other, depending on the size of your head.

I personally don't have a very big head (at least I didn't think so), but as with the company's CL headphones, which feature the same headband design, the default small band didn't feel great, especially over longer listening sessions, so I swapped in the larger one. It made a significant difference.

The headphones fold flat. Sarah Tew/CNET

I prefer over-the-ear headphones to on-ear models, so it's not surprising that the overall comfort level of this model felt better to me compared with that of the CL. Like the NC, the BT features memory-foam earpads that conform well to your head and offer a tight seal. The only issue I had was that I though the headphone was a tad weighty -- and yes, that heft helps contribute to the impression that the BT is solidly built. The BT weighs 0.62 pound, which is a touch less than what the NC weighs with the smaller "metal bow" headband. By comparison, the popular Bose QC 15 comes in at 0.44 pound.

The headphones don't fold up, but they do fold flat -- not as much so as the smaller CLs, but still fairly flat. While the included carrying case is fairly large in terms of height and width, since the headphones fold flat there isn't a lot of depth to the package. It stows away nicely in a laptop bag or backpack, or potentially, in your suitcase.

As with virtually all stereo Bluetooth headphones, the BTs have a built-in microphone for making calls. The three-button remote is integrated into the back of the left earcup and can easily be operated by feel. You can adjust the volume up and down, answer and end calls, and advance tracks forward and back (you tap the call answer/end button twice to jump a track forward and tap it three times to go back a track).

The three-button 'remote' is integrated into the left earcup. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's also worth mentioning that these headphones are apt-X enabled. For those who've never heard of apt-X, it's a bit of technology that's supposed to make Bluetooth audio sound better. However, it works with only a small (but growing) list of devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4 that support apt-X (currently, no Apple iOS device supports it). With certain tracks, particularly uncompressed "lossless" tracks, apt-X can make your music sound slightly more dynamic.

One thing I didn't love: the headphones are charged via a jack on the left earcup using a non-standard USB cable (you get up to 12 hours of battery life from a single charge). It works well, but the problem is that if you lose the cable, you won't be able to charge the headphones (you can't just use the Micro-USB that comes with a lot of phones and other devices). I therefore suggest keeping the cable stowed in the inner pocket of the carrying case for safekeeping.

The headphones come with a headphone cord for 'wired' use and a special USB cable for charging. Sarah Tew/CNET

Finally, if you want to make maximize the sound quality of the headphones, they have a detachable cord (it plugs into the jack I just mentioned) that allows you to use the BTs as wired headphones. I suspect the vast majority of people won't bother using them that way (after all, why buy a wireless headphone if you're not going to use it as a wireless headphone?), but the wired option is there, which is good.

Performance
The big problem with Bluetooth headphones is that they have a tendency to sound a little muddy and fail to deliver crisp, clear sound. In the last year, several higher-end Bluetooth headphone managed to overcome that problem, delivering a sound more like wired headphones. The Harman BT joins that group of very good-sounding Bluetooth headphones.

Like the NC, the BT sounds comparatively natural and accurate. It has a sound profile similar to that of the CL, which is considered a balanced, more neutral set of headphones that doesn't overaccentuate the bass or treble. Still, like that model, the bass here is plump and pleasant (it seems to be a touch more plump than the CL's) but not overreaching. As with the CL, there's a bit of restraint in the treble, so you're not going to get that edgier detail of "faster," more aggressive headphones that push the treble harder. I wouldn't call these laid-back, but they're fairly warm. I tried them with a variety of music and came away feeling that they were quite versatile.

The headphones come with a nice carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

For instance, the Black Keys' bass-heavy "Everlasting Light" held together well. With lesser headphones, the bass line can come across as mushy, but with the BTs, it had some decent snap to it. Yeah, you're going to get a little more detailed, open sound and a bit better bass from a wired headphone such as the Audio-Technica ATH-M50. But for a Bluetooth headphone, the BT offers very respectable sound.

I thought it was neck-and-neck with the Parrot Zik and Nokia Purity Pro by Monster for sound quality. But I did think the Zik was a little more comfortable to wear.

As a headset, I found the call quality to be quite good. Indoors, callers said that I sounded clear and didn't sound like I was on headset or speakerphone. However, it's worth mentioning that, as with a lot of headphones that have the mic placed on the earcup (and not so close to your mouth), if you're in a noisier environment or there's some wind blowing as you're making a call, people may not hear you as clearly.

Conclusion
The Harman Kardon BT offers excellent sound quality for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, with an impressive fit and finish. Like with the NC, my only reservations about them concern their design. While it's distinct and eye-catching, it won't appeal to everyone, and the headphones will seem heavy to some folks. While I found the Harman BT comfortable, I suspect that some people won't be totally enamored of its fit.

In an ideal world, of course, you'd get a chance to try these before you buy them and compare them with competing products. The alternative is to try them and return if you don't like them (stores like Amazon and Crutchfield have a window to return the products without incurring a restocking fee). I think most folks will like them a lot, but each person's ears and head are different, so there are no guarantees. Still, as far as premium Bluetooth headphones go, the Harman Kardon BT is one of the top models available today and is comparatively well priced at less than $250 online.

Harman_Kardon_BT_35645547_07.jpg
8.1

Harman Kardon BT

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 9Value 8