31
May
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The Harman / Kardon BTs are a pair of high-ish end over-ear Bluetooth headphones, and the current street price for them is around $200. They don't offer active noise-cancellation, but they are extremely striking and very obviously a premium product. So, are they worth two-hundred of your big ones?

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Wireless, hardware, and battery life

I paired up the HK BTs with a Galaxy S4 and Note II with zero problems. Audio transmission sounded fantastic, and latency was well within the range I've come to expect with Bluetooth headsets. To pair them, simply hold down the "BT" button on the bottom of the left ear housing. These headphones support the apt-X encoding transmission standard, which allegedly improves audio quality on supported devices. I have yet to experience a scenario in which I have actually noticed a difference in apt-X versus the standard Bluetooth high bitrate transmission mode supported by Android. Battery life has been stellar, as well.

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The controls on the headphones worked, though the small size and position of the buttons didn't exactly win me over. I definitely prefer controls on the outside of the earphone housing, and I like them to be large and textured. While I'm sure one would get used to the buttons on the HK BTs, they're not optimal. The HK BTs can also be operated sans-Bluetooth with an included 3.5mm stereo adapter, though the charging / analog jack on the headphones is a miniature headphone jack, so you have to use the included cord (or a similar one) if you want to use them unpowered. Charging is also accomplished through this port via an included USB adapter.

The headphones themselves seem very solidly constructed. Most of the hardware, apart from the backings of the earphone housings, is aluminum. I feel very confident in their durability.

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The HK BTs use a band / sub-band arrangement that makes for quite an interesting fit on your head. The upper aluminum band can be swapped out for a second, larger band included with the headphones, which is pretty easy to swap out (the band is off in the second picture from the left above). The bands do not have rails by which to increase their effective size. This is because there is a second, inner band covered in leather that flexes based on the amount of stretch in the top band. The result is basically that the HK BTs sit very tightly upon your head, regardless of the size of your noggin. The upside here is that unless you have a head bigger than mine, you're unlikely to have any problem getting them to fit. They also include a super nifty carrying case, which you'll probably need, as the only folding portion of this arrangement are the earphones, which rotate to flatten out. They're flat enough when compacted to fit in a messenger bag or backpack, though they're by no means small.

The advantage to this tight fit coupled with the Bluetooth functionality is that the HK BTs are exceptional in active use case scenarios. I'm pretty sure you could run vigorously with these things on without annoyance.

Finally, I've read some reviews classifying the HK BT as on-ear, rather than over-ear headphones, and I don't think this is exactly true. My ears aren't exactly small, and these headphones easily envelop them completely, forming an acoustic seal. Your results may vary.

Sound

The sound is excellent, though there are some characteristics to take into account here. First off, because the BT's sit so tightly on top of your ears, there is an isolation effect that tends to amplify echo / reverb in a way that isn't particularly natural. This is a pretty common phenomena on closed-back over-ear headphones, and the result may be something you enjoy, or find unsettling.

Most people will interpret this effect as "tighter bass," though the reality is more that less low frequency sound is escaping, and thus more reverberation is occurring. I personally find this effect uncomfortable on tracks that aren't really meant to emphasize bass, but those who typically ramp up their EQ settings to emphasize bass (eg, electronica / pop settings) will probably enjoy it. There is decidedly more boom than I expected.

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Soundstage separation (aka stereo delineation) is not as good as I had hoped, and sometimes I have difficulty discerning left and right channel placement. Once again, this is an effect that is amplified by the tight fit of the BTs. That is not to say, though, that they are lacking for detail. Fidelity is extremely strong in easy-going tracks, though on particularly bass-heavy tunes, I feel as though the mids get a bit drowned out by the lower end of the frequency spectrum, making choruses feel "muted" at times.

Still, the HK BT's are a decidedly enjoyable listening experience, and I've been liking their high level of noise isolation coupled with the wireless functionality. Because there is no active noise-cancellation, you don't miss out on nuance, and they aren't so deafening as to be dangerous when walking around in public.

My point of audio comparison have been my Grado SR80i headphones, an open-back on-ear setup. This isn't totally fair in terms of fidelity, as the Grados do not have to cope with the issues of wireless audio transmission, aren't as well-built, and sit quite loosely on my head. However, they cost half as much.

Compared to the SR80i, the HK BTs have inferior fidelity, inferior soundstage, and are far less balanced. That said, this isn't necessarily a bad thing as far as most consumers are concerned. The excellent isolation and booming bass of the HK BTs is more likely to appeal to an audience that enjoys popular music, and is looking for an on-ear / over-ear headphone that is portable and provides good natural noise-cancelling properties.

Conclusion

The Harman / Kardon BTs are an exceptional Bluetooth headphone, with excellent audio, great battery life, portability, and absolutely dashing looks (if they're your kind of thing). While there are a few concerns of note (tightness of fit, annoying controls), these headphones absolutely fill the role they were meant to. I'd have a hard time recommending them at the MSRP of $250, but they can easily be had for $200 at most retailers (eg, Amazon), a mark I think that fits better given their performance, portability, and construction materials. For mobile use (walking, exercising, travel, etc.), the HK BTs are a stellar choice.

While these aren't necessarily the best audio you can get for $200, their non-aural advantages are probably what most prospective buyers are after, and the sound they do provide is far from disappointing. If you're looking for offbeat Beats alternative that's great for an active lifestyle, the Harman / Kardon BTs are a well-made, enjoyable product.

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David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • htowngtr

    I bought these for $125 at Best Buy when they were on clearance. They are "ok" but nothing special. The metal frame makes it transmit any kind of noise or brushing of the headset and it can only be paired to one device at a time (in other words you have to "re-pair" it with your phone if you pair it with your tablet after that).

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      The band does make a lot of noise when touched, but really, how often is that going to happen with a wireless over-ear headphone? I can't exactly call that a significant concern.

      As for the pairing, you're doing something wrong, then, or are using a previous generation model. I have this review unit paired with a Galaxy S4, Note II, and a Nexus 7. They all connect to it fine as long as the previously connected device is disconnected - you don't need to repair.

      If you're talking about A2DP multicasting (more than one device connected simultaneously), that's a pretty rare feature and is supported by very few Bluetooth devices.

    • Mastermind26

      I blew my chance at buying them for $125. I thought it was "too much", seeing as it is BB that had them "for sale".

      Well that, and a small little detail, like not having the $$$$ at the time.

      • nick

        they're $119 right now on BB! i ordered a pair :)

        • Mastermind26

          Ah man! Thanks!

  • William Pomeroy

    Kinda.... boxy. I lobe my Jabra Revo Wireless headphone. Has touch controls, NFC for tap to connect via Bluetooth and they are $50 more than these. But they're circular, not rectangular. And noise cancellation with a mic is built in. :D

    • andddlay

      It appears that the Revo Wireless-N headphones do not have noise cancellation, just does a rather good job at blocking outside noise. PCmag didn't say they have it, nor did amazon. And on this review (http://geardiary.com/2013/03/14/jabra-revo-wireless-headphones-review/) the reviewer specifically says it is not noise cancellation. If you want to experience noise cancellation, check out the QC15

      • William Pomeroy

        Thanks for the clarification. They may not have it, but for me at least it's the same effect. People have to tap me on the shoulder because I can't hear anything at all. Even people calling my name.

        • andddlay

          Haha I love when that happens. I always get nervouson wwearingheadphones that do that when no one else is home.

  • Haunter

    I'm curious about how the sound compares to a pair of mid-range hardwired 32Ohm cans. I've got a decent pair of V-Modas and wouldn't mind picking up a pair of wireless headphones for certain occasions, though I've read BT doesn't quite stack up just yet.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      With Bluetooth headphones, you're generally paying for the Bluetooth / DAC, wireless hardware, and the battery, which is why most of them are still so costly. The issue is much less the quality of Bluetooth audio transmission, and much more the actual drivers and coils and such. A $200 set of Bluetooth headphones will sound nowhere near as good as the best $200 wired cans, because the Bluetooth headphones will have sacrificed on the actual audio components.

      BT audio transmission gets a bad rap for the kind of performance it provided 2 years ago, but most modern BT headphones and smartphones support native transmission of MP3 / AAC, which eliminates most of the transmission problems the early versions of the SBC codec had. apt-X allows even better technical performance (eg, for lossless formats), but I doubt your ears will be able to hear the difference.

      The only real native loss of quality you'll notice because of Bluetooth is the fact that the headphone is using an internal DAC (digital to analog converter) to actually play back sound, and that's a problem that is far more important. The DAC in there may be better than the one in your smartphone (or it may not, depending on the headphone), but the tiny area it has to occupy / amount of power it can consume innately limits the kind of performance it will provide.

      Tl;dr Bluetooth has natural drawbacks but it's far from the crap it was 2 years ago.

      • Haunter

        Awesome, thank you very much for your response!

        Last question. I currently line my media through a Fii-O e07k DAC/Amp before lining out to my headphones. Seeing as how that wouldn't be used when coupled a newer pair of BT headphones, since it would defeat the purpose, do you think the built in DAC would measure up to the sound quality I'm used to getting from my portable? The external amp really made a world of difference compared to the amps built in to devices once I started getting my feet wet in the audiophile world and this could be a potential drawback.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

          I highly doubt the DAC in a set of any Bluetooth headphones under a few hundred dollars is going to stack up to a dedicated portable DAC, but you'd have to test and compare to be really sure.

  • Shen

    Hi David,

    Nice review, for future headphone reviews could you add a bit about general comfort under extended use? The tightness you speak of would probably cause my ears to go red within an hour or less.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      It's something you definitely need to get used to. They are very snug but after a while, especially moving around and not having to adjust them every 5 minutes, you kind of start loving it.

  • dobbsy

    Any idea how the sound and fit compare to the Parrot Zik? Obviously the controls on the Zik are vastly superior and one would seriously have to prefer the fit or sound to switch.

    I love my Zik's but they're slightly too *loose*. Pain when walking fast or bending.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      No idea, unfortunately. I've asked for Ziks to review on multiple occasions, but have yet to receive a pair to play with, sadly.

  • Juan Treminio

    I used and returned this within a day. My ears are largish and these headphones, while they sounded beautifully, were extremely painful after an hour.

  • crackinthewall

    I hope you review the latest Meelectronics BT headphones. Your review of the AF32 introduced me to Meelectronics and I've been buying their earphones since then. Great price:sound ratio. Their AF62 seems to be their "premium" offer but it doesn't have apt-X, the AF52 is their midrange offer while AF71 is their in-ear earphones. I was supposed to buy a pair of AF32 but decided against it when I heard they were releasing new models.

  • scud

    Nice review, David. I am searching for a decent bluetooth headphones for my samsung s3, There are a few of headphones support aptx in consideration. Beats wireless, harman kardon, klipsch, voxoa, etc. they all support both aac (apple) and aptx codec. It seemed voxoa is one of the best choice, they have lowest price and nfc makes pairing very easy. But I doubt whether aptx will deliver better sound quality. Can you tell the difference between connecting with or without aptx enabled devices?

  • Steve

    Just bought the HK BT headphones on ShopHQ for a "sale" price of $98.00. Seemed like a great deal after I compared websites and reviews. Thanks for the thorough review.

    • sirzune

      I just bought them from Shop HQ as well. $99. Do you like or love them?

  • Pavan Kumar

    hey,i got this headphones recently is it compatible with all kinds of device r only with apple ....if its compatible ...hw do i pair thm? i'm using Samsung note 10.1(2014 edition )...but this r nt getting paired ......?