CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Harman Kardon Soho-I review: Small and swanky on-ear headphones

The $200 Harman Kardon Soho-I headphones are appealing if you're looking for a compact on-ear model, but they do have a few shortcomings.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
3 min read

Harman Kardon, a relative newcomer to the headphones market, impressed us with its debut models, which include the CL (Classic), BT (Bluetooth), and NC (noise-canceling). They're a good blend of unique styling, impressive sound, and a fairly comfortable fit.


Harman Kardon Soho-I

The Good

The <b>Harman Kardon Soho-I</b> are stylish, compact on-ear headphones that are relatively comfortable, fold up, and offer strong performance for their size. The headphone cord is detachable and replaceable and the headphones come with an Apple-friendly remote/microphone (Soho-I) or universal remote (Soho-A) for making cell phone calls.

The Bad

The hard clamshell case is ill-suited to the headphones' compact design and hard to use; the headphones let in a fair amount of external sound; could sound better for a $200 model.

The Bottom Line

The Harman Kardon Soho-I headphones are appealing if you're looking for a compact on-ear model, but they do have a few shortcomings.

I had high hopes then for the company's latest edition to the roster, the Soho, a more compact on-ear model that features Harman's sharply angled square earpads and vintage-inspired industrial theme. The Soho-I model reviewed here is an Apple-friendly version with an integrated remote/microphone. There is also a Soho-A version that has a "universal" inline remote designed for use with non-iOS devices.

Unlike the aforementioned Harman Kardon models, the Soho trims away excess material, including the company's signature interchangeable metal headbands that allowed you to tweak the headphones' fit according to your head size. Instead, the stainless-steel arms on the sides of the headphones gently taper into the unified leather headband for a padded listening experience. For sturdy headphones, they're pretty light, and I thought their overall comfort level was good, though some people may find that the thin headband doesn't offer an incredibly secure fit (if you shake your head with some force, the headphone may move around a bit). And due to their smaller size, they don't seem to work great for those with larger heads (I had big-headed editor Ty Pendlebury give them a whirl and he didn't like their fit as much as I did).

The Soho comes in a version for iOS devices and one for Android and other smartphones. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Soho-I, which comes in black, white, or camel, reminded me of Bowers & Wilkins' P3 headphones. Those, too, have square earcups that are removable (they adhere magnetically). You take off the earcup to attach or detach the included cable, which can be replaced should it get damaged. That's a nice plus.

However, I wasn't too thrilled with the hard, clamshell-style case that ships with the headphones. I felt similarly about the B&W P3's case, but at least with that case, the headphones were easier to put away. In general, Harman Kardon could do better with its cases across its line, and the Soho-I should come with a simpler soft case. The fact is these headphones are very compact for an on-ear model -- they fold up -- so they should come with a case that preserves that compactness. Instead of the P3, HK should have looked at Bose's OE2i, which come with a perfect carrying case that takes up little room in a bag.

You remove the earcups to detach the cable (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

Considering the Soho-I has smaller, 30mm drivers (the CL model has 40mm drivers, for example), the headphones sounded better than I thought they would. Harman Kardon's headphones tend to be well-balanced with good clarity and pleasantly plummy bass. The Soho-I headphones are in the same vein but they just aren't as dynamic or rich-sounding. That said, I thought they sounded slightly better than the Bowers & Wilkins P3. The two models offer similar bass performance, but the P3 headphones sound slightly duller (translation: the Soho had a bit more bass definition). However, the P3 headphones are arguably more comfortable to wear and fit those with bigger heads better.

The Soho headphones in camel. They also come in white and black. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

It's also worth noting that the Soho-I headphones don't do a great job of passively sealing out noise. I walked around with them in the streets of New York and they let in quite a bit of sound, so they aren't ideal for noisier environments.

In the end, they sound good, but with the competition so fierce these days in the headphone market, I've come to expect a little more from $200 headphones. So while they exceeded my expectations on a certain level, from a performance standpoint they're not at the same level as the company's larger headphones. (And the CL model is down to $120 online).

The carrying case looks good but is less than ideal (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

When I first saw the Harman Kardon Soho-I headphones, I was excited because I liked their design and was keen to try a higher-performance on-ear headphone that was relatively compact and hopefully comfortable. If that's what you're in the market for, on many levels, the Soho-I headphones deliver, though their styling certainly isn't going to appeal to everyone. If they offered exceptional performance, I'd worry less about the design of their case, but when the sound doesn't blow you away -- it's very good but not excellent, especially for the price -- a poorly designed case bothers you more.

To put it more succinctly, I liked the Soho-I headphones, but I didn't love them -- and I was kind of hoping I would.


Harman Kardon Soho-I

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Sound 7Value 6