Audio design giant Harman/Kardon is no stranger to premium sound. Established in 1953, the Connecticut company was one of the founders of the hi-fidelity industry. It holds credit for several milestones in audio innovation, including the world’s first hi-fi receiver in 1954, and the world’s first stereo receiver in 1958. Since then, HK has maintained a strong foothold in hi-fi, creating a multitude of modern products, from computer speakers, to first-class sound systems for luxury vehicles like BMW, Mercedes, and Land Rover.
When a company with that kind of clout announces it’s putting out a line of headphones, people listen – literally. And after laying eyes on the sleek, minimalist design of Harman/Kardon’s new $200 pair of on-ears, simply titled the Classic (or CL), we were pretty excited to do some listening of our own. Would HK’s newest offering live up to the company’s storied lineage? Probably, but we still had to do a ton of extensive testing to make sure. Here’s what we found.
Out of the box
We’re suckers for good packaging, and Harman/Kardon does it right. The CL comes in a smooth, grey cardboard box with the tactile appeal of a quality book binding. We opened the box’s lid to find the slim headset nested in hard foam inserts on the floor of the box. As we pulled the headphones out, we noticed a second layer beneath, where we found a spare, larger-sized steel headband frame. Also in the box was the CL’s nimble, removable headphone cable, as well as a particularly nice black leather satchel for toting the headphones.
Features and design
True to its name, the Classic have a minimalist design that harkens back to a simpler time, while simultaneously exuding an understated modern aesthetic. The CL’s rectangular earpieces are covered with smooth black plastic on the exterior with a quality feel that exceeds expectations. The edges of the earpieces are outlined by grey matte steel, which comes together to form a connecting piece that inserts into the headset’s detachable steel frame. The interior of each earpiece has a black leather cushion with a screened window cut out in the center for the CL’s 40mm drivers.
Each earpiece swivels almost 360 degrees on a delicate hinge fixed to the bottom of the headphone frame. This allows the user to lay the earpieces flat for storage or for more comfortable wear when off the ears. The CL rest on the head using a suspended leatherette band that adjusts to varying head sizes with ease thanks to elastic tethering it to the frame.
The CL’s removable headphone cable uses a smaller-sized connector on the headphone end, ensuring that loss or breakage will require a visit to Harman/Kardon for replacement. The cable also features an iOS-friendly, three-button mic, and gold-plated connectors.
The feather-light frame of the CL feels a little fragile, but its ultra-light weight allows for an extremely comfortable fit, seemingly melding to the head like a well-tailored piece of clothing. The ergonomic ear pads perfectly hug the ears after some minor adjustment, positioning the drivers in ideal alignment with the ears’ openings. We wore the set for hours at a time with absolutely no comfort complaints.
We tested the Harman Kardon CL using our iPhone 3GS, as well as our MOTU 896 HD A/D converter. As we rambled through a massive variety of songs, taking notes along the way, there were two words that cropped up over and over: balance and detail. The CL did an outstanding job of showcasing both elements, making for an extremely satisfying listening session. These are the kind of headphones that make us love our job.
We started our audition by listening to a few tracks from Coldplay’s Parachutes. We immediately noticed an almost palpable ambience to the CL’s reproduction, which seemed to pull our ears in closer to explore the wide stereo field that opened before us. The CL’s effortless clarity and balance enabled us to pick out minute details in the music – doubled guitar lines placed just slightly apart in the mix, for example – that had gone previously unnoticed. The CL’s rendering of detail reached its zenith towards the end of Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” when a dozen or so percussion tracks come together, banging out rim shots, synthesizer tones, triangle and drum hits, all firing in a barrage of laser-accurate definition.
The CL’s 40mm drivers produce deep and well-refined bass that’s kept on a tight leash. With hip-hop and heavy electronic tracks, the CL do a good job of reaching down low with extremely firm and well-rounded bass. But with most of our listening, the CL’s midrange was in the spotlight. Though it tended to be just slightly forward for our taste on some tracks, the crisp midrange of the CL shined on older recordings. It pleasantly emphasized the granular texture of varied instrumentation, ushering forth the cool, crushed sound of highly-compressed snares on recordings like Lennon’s “Mother,” or the dry, crunchy electric guitar tones from Bowie’s “Stardust” era.
The CL also do exceptionally well with acoustic instruments and vocals. We were delighted with the reproduction of Nickel Creek’s heartache song, “Reason’s Why”. There was a tangibly close presence to Sarah Watkins’ voice as her delicate lip movements and deftly-tongued consonants glided through our ears with gorgeous presence. Her soft, breathy tone was sweetly exposed by the CL, and we reveled in the fine balance of her vocal with the articulately rendered transients of the mandolin and the acoustic guitar, panned out to the left and right respectively.
As with almost any headset, we were able to dig up a few complaints. We could do with a bit more warmth in the midrange, and we occasionally found ourselves longing for just a bit more of a special, three-dimensional effect. That said, we recognize that these issues are inherent to an on-ear design, and that the trade-off is exceptional comfort. We’ll take it, especially considering the CL’s overall excellent execution.
The Harman/Kardon CL is an extremely well-designed headset that had us hooked from the start. Keeping one foot in the past, and one in the future, it’s classic-yet-modern styling is perfectly complimented by its outstanding sonic performance and comfort. We took very minor issue with a lack of depth and bright midrange response. But, overall, we were extremely impressed with HK’s first offering, bringing some welcome balance and elegance to an overly saturated headphone market. For those looking for a great fit, fantastic sound, and a handsome design, we highly recommend taking the Harman/Kardon CL for a test drive.
- Exceptional detail
- Outstanding balance
- Taught, defined low end
- Elegant, ergonomic design
- Midrange a little bright
- Slight lack of depth
- Little passive noise isolation