Review: Harman Kardon Soundsticks II
Developer: Harman Multimedia
Requirements: Mac with USB, Mac OS 9.0.4 or Mac OS X (for USB audio); any Mac or iPod (for use with minijack).
An In-Depth and Critical Review
There has been a lot of discussion lately about USB audio and the promise of “audiophile”-caliber sound reproduction. A veritable plethora of new loudspeaker systems have appeared, most of them sporting seriously funky aesthetics. Depending on your taste, some may appear high tech and “mod” whereas others may simply seem more like a villain from an old episode of Dr. Who. (Anybody remember The Daleks?) I’d love to know what drugs the guys designing these speakers are on. Maybe they could include some with the speakers so we can all better appreciate what in tarnation they were thinking.
As ATPM’s self proclaimed audiophile—both by hobby and profession—I have taken it upon myself to provide a critical evaluation of one of the most sought after computer speaker systems on the market: the Harman Kardon Soundsticks.
The Harman Kardon Soundsticks II system is comprised of two satellite loudspeakers and a subwoofer. The subwoofer boasts a 6" aluminum driver and a 20 watt on board amplifier. The “sticks” feature four 1" aluminum drivers, and each stick is driven with 10 watts of power. The system claims to reproduce 44-20 kHz although there is no indication of how flat this response is (i.e. +/- 3 dB). The subwoofer weighs in at just under 5 lbs, and each stick is about 1.5 lbs. The entire system seems to be fabricated out of transparent plastic. The “see through” look is decidedly cool, I must confess. If you like staring at the curvaceous backside of a 6" woofer (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?) then clearly this is the system for you. The loudspeakers provide both a USB input and a 1/8" stereo minijack input for use with older analog audio computers, or for interfacing with a hi-fi, iPod, etc.
I used the Soundsticks on a PowerBook G4 (15") via the USB port. I ran them through a variety of source material including video games (Hey a reviewer’s gotta do what a reviewer’s gotta do.) MP3s, CDs, and DVD movies. After some initial tweaking of placement, I was able to produce very pleasing results from the Soundsticks on my PowerBook and was quite satisfied with the improvement over the internal speakers, which clearly leave a lot to be desired. The speakers throw a nice stereo image, provide ample detail, and the subwoofer fills in the lower frequencies nicely.
Admittedly, however, the internal speakers on the PowerBook didn’t provide for a particularly challenging face-off. The constraints placed in internal speaker design are too daunting. For one thing, the drivers are exceedingly small. Consequently the sound beams, and there is no coherence to the soundstage. There is also a total lack of deep bass because of the small drivers’ inability to reproduce lower frequencies and the lack of a powered subwoofer. The sound is fairly tinny, thin, brittle, and harsh. But it is surprising that Apple was able to obtain results as good as they did given the difficulty of designing internal speakers in a laptop.
Initially I considered doing a comparative review with other third-party loudspeaker systems. But after auditioning several others, I concluded that they more or less all sounded about the same. The Soundsticks had their own sound to be sure, but none of these systems was head and shoulders above the others. I needed a real point of reference against which to compare the Soundsticks.
The Real System
So I decided to bring them to my store, Symphony Sound, and do some comparative listening against real world hi-fi products, rather than other computer speakers. For all of my listening sessions, the Soundsticks were plugged in to an iPod streaming pure CD-quality material. There was no MP3 compression used at any time. The iPod was plugged into the minijack input of the Soundsticks, and when used with the stereo (see below) system I plugged the iPod into the preamplifier using a breakout minijack-to-stereo-RCA cable available at most any store, including Radio Shack.
[I should mention, however, that my breakout cable was not from Radio Shack. It is a cable I made myself, in house, from reclaimed Byzantine gold leaf, clad with Yak butter, and surrounded by an Italian silk weave (courtesy of Giorgio Armani, bless his soul). Each cable was then terminated with solid 24 karat solid gold connectors. The cables are a proprietary design, and if I can ever perfect them (the Yak butter keeps melting when my stereo system heats up) I will sell them to discerning audiophiles such as myself.]
At first I struggled to find a system that would provide similar performance parameters to the Soundsticks. Most of the amplifiers in my store boast enormous output power such as the 1200 watt McIntosh monoblocks ($15,000 per pair, no affiliation to the brainchild of Steve Jobs). But then it dawned on me that I had a pair of Manley Laboratories Neo-Classic 300B vacuum tube monoblocks in the shop. These are rated at 11 watts per channel. Perfect!
The Manley 300B monoblocks retail for $7,200/pair, and they are hand wired point-to-point in California. They make use of the legendary 300B vacuum tube, which was first invented by Western Electric to power their own movie theater amplifiers, which in turn drove very large horn loudspeakers. After a brief “sabbatical” the Western Electric 300B is now back in production and sells for $360 ea. or $810 for a matched pair. Each Manley monoblock uses two tubes, so my store pair are equipped with a matched quad ($1,656).
Manley Neo-Classic 300B Monoblocks
Next I needed to find a pair of loudspeakers with a similar design philosophy to the Soundsticks. After much head scratching, I settled upon the Genesis 1.1s. Why, you ask? The Soundsticks feature a “line source array” of four tweeters per side. The Genesis 1.1s take this one (maybe more than one) step farther—their “sticks” are more like panels. Each panel sports twenty 1" tweeters. Unlike the Soundsticks, which use a single 1" driver for both high and midrange reproduction, the Genesis 1.1s use the 1" tweeters for higher frequencies and then use a “ribbon” driver for the midrange. But the design is still strikingly similar. A line source essentially results in a division of labor: instead of a single driver reproducing all the sound, the load is shared by several drivers. This results in lower distortion, the capacity to play louder, and a more enveloping “soundstage.” They also sound the same whether you are seated or standing, and the sound level is fairly consistent regardless of how far or near you are to the speakers, which is great for parties where some people are 20 ft. from the speakers and others are only 3 ft. away.
Another key similarity between the Genesis 1.1s and the Soundsticks is the separation of the subwoofer from the “sticks”—in the case of the Genesis, the bass frequencies are produced by a separate box. Two boxes, actually: one for the left, and one for the right as opposed to a shared box for the Soundsticks. But the principle at work is the same. The Genesis subwoofers uses twelve 12" woofers per tower. The drivers are made out of aluminum, just like the woofer in the Soundsticks subwoofer.
So the Genesis system consists of four boxes, instead of three for the Soundsticks. Each box is 7.5 ft. tall. The “panels” (sticks) are 42" wide. The entire system weighs in at over 1.25 tons and chimes in at $135,000.
With the speakers and amplifiers out of the way, I just needed to find a suitable preamplifier which I could plug the iPod into for listening through the Manley/Genesis rig. I chose the Audionet Pre G2 because it is imparts very little sonic character of its own and also because it has a gigantic volume knob machined out of solid aluminum. This German beast is built like a Mercedes G500. It’s big, it’s bold, and baby it’s beautiful. It’s also priced like a Mercedes—relatively speaking—at $12,900.
Audionet Pre G2
Now some readers may argue that this review is not fair (whatever that means) because of the slight disparity in price between the two systems compared. But, lest we forget, that simply because something costs more does not mean it is necessarily better. (Unless you are buying something from my store. Then the more expensive product is most definitely better. Duh.)
I called my buddies over at ComEd and asked them to come by and run another 300 amps of electrical service to my box. They gave me this big song and dance about how I’m already using too much power. So I said fine, if you’re going to give me “attitude” I’ll just roll my own. I went out and bought a diesel-powered generator and was on my way.
Initially it was difficult to form any hard and fast conclusions about the sound of the two systems. They sounded so different. It will never cease to amaze me how different two given systems can sound one from another. I could clearly sense that the heart and soul of two unique designers went into the engineering of the Soundsticks and the Genesis 1.1 systems. The Soundsticks are voiced to be more nimble, and fluttery. They have an almost aloof quality. The Genesis system is anything but. You paid $135,000 for these speakers and you will never forget it.
Each of these systems had its own unique character and it would be hard to declare one the outright winner. Much as Stereophile and The Absolute Sound find it difficult to come away from an audio review with anything but praise, I was hard pressed to fault the Soundsticks. They had a sound of their own that was admirable. Besides which, it is clear that each system was designed with different goals in mind. Can we judge one system on the basis of another’s design goals? I think not. Both systems deliver upon the promises they make, and in this day and age who could ask for more?
Rather than offering our readers useful information such as a recommendation, or a concise conclusion as to which product I myself would buy, I feel it is more appropriate for me to ramble on for a few pages about the intricacies of my emotional response to the extensive listening sessions on which I embarked over the course of the comparative analysis. Thus in the long established tradition of long-winded and completely meaningless audio reviews, I will consult my notes from the listening sessions just as the reviewers in the aforementioned, esteemed, publications do. At the end of the following pages you should have absolutely no idea which system to buy, and it should be completely unclear as to how each system sounded. I expect, and demand, numerous irate letters to the editor exclaiming with great frustration how utterly useless this review was. Those of you who threaten to cancel your subscription will earn extra points.
Play by Play
My listening sessions consisted of a number of different recordings with which I am quite familiar. I will not go through each one, but stick to those I wrote the most about in my notes. You should be advised that my methodology for reviewing is quite simple. First I listen to one system for about a month. Then I unplug it, and listen to the other one for a month. Then I consult my notes and write the review. I don’t believe in A/B’ing. I believe you have to grow into each system for a sufficiently long time as to actually forget how the other system sounded altogether. Only then will you be absorbed to the point where you really appreciate the heart and soul of the system you’re listening to.
One of my reference recordings is the London Symphony Orchestra performance of Dvorak’s Symphony From The New World (#9) under Istvan Kertész, now available on the Penguin Classics label. This recording provides a deep soundstage and good dynamic range with wonderful percussion such as kettle drums and timpani. There are also sweeping crescendos and powerful brass performances. I can tell a lot from this piece of music. I have heard it live numerous times and am quite familiar with this particular recording. For this reason I always play it first.
The Genesis subwoofers are flat to 16 Hz. so this did result in a somewhat more tangible presence of the bass frequencies including percussion and double basses. When the orchestra was playing full tilt boogie, I felt like my rib cage was about to collapse from the sheer pressure of the bass. It was riveting, but admittedly quite painful.
On the Soundsticks, for some reason, there just wasn’t the same “oomph”—I don’t know if it is something inherent in the design of the subwoofer. Perhaps it is the 1230 lb. discrepancy between the sub of the Soundsticks and the two Genesis bass towers—or the discrepancy in the number of woofers (1 vs. 24)—it’s hard to say. I’m not an engineer, merely a music enthusiast. Besides which, specifications don’t mean anything as the audio magazines have demonstrated time and again. And aside from this one pitfall, the Soundsticks did a bang up job on the Dvorak. If you can live without that last drop of deep bass, I am quite sure the Soundsticks will satisfy.
Next up was a recording of Mahler’s 1st. Some classical aficionados will turn their noses up at this ensemble, but the Florida Philharmonic’s recording under James Judd does offer one unique and indisputable advantage over every other to date: it was recorded by Peter McGrath. McGrath used a really gnarly (and expensive) Schoeps stereo microphone shaped like the human head, along with a couple other mics for ambient fill. This was then fed into the $30K Nagra D recorder. McGrath is a brilliant engineer this recording makes that quite clear. The sense of ambience is profound and the dynamics of this Mahler recording are simply breathtaking. And truth be told, the performance is darn good. Give these Floridians a chance and you may be pleasantly surprised.
The first few minutes of the final movement of Mahler’s “Titan” symphony can bring many a stereo system to its knees. The dynamic range of this movement will induce distortion, and in extreme cases “clipping,” of many systems. The music is also unusually complex and features the entire orchestra going at it pretty hard, with a lot of brass, and percussion “hits” which will throw you back in your seat.
The Genesis system can produce 120 decibels at 1 meter, which is near the threshold of pain (130 dB)—it goes without saying that prolonged exposure to this sound level will result in hearing loss. That having been said, the Genesis system had no difficulty filling my listening room with a lifelike orchestral sound. The orchestral “hits” were so powerful that when the movement finally ended I was drenched in sweat and actually had to take a cold shower before listening to the same passage through the Soundsticks. Also my downstairs neighbor called several times to complain about what sounded like an earthquake. But of course I couldn’t hear the phone ring with all that sound and fury. After I got out of the shower I saw a blinking light on my answering machine and promptly assured her it was just good ol’ Gustav up to his old tricks.
The Soundsticks cannot generate 120 dB. They also cannot pack the same “sonic wallop” as the Genesis system. OK, so the Soundsticks didn’t make me sweat—but they made me weep. The Genesis speakers have a macho presentation that makes you want to go outrun a state trooper on the highway at 150 m.p.h. in your ’Vette—all while smoking a cigar and playing George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”
The Soundsticks have a more delicate way about them. After listening to the “Blumine” movement (which the folks at Harmonia Mundi graciously provided on this recording) I felt like writing a romantic sonnet and springing it upon some beautiful young lass. Amazing the disparate response one can have to the same piece of music when played through two different systems, don’t you think?
Jazz and Vocals
Next I threw on some jazz. One of my favorite jazz discs is Sarah Vaughan’s Crazy and Mixed Up. On a good system, it sounds like Sarah is right there in the room, singing to you and you alone—and that’s exactly how it sounded on the Genesis system. Sarah was there, and I could hear her smokey voice, her breathing, and every last nuance of her vocal intonation. Joe Pass’s guitar was so present I could taste it. The rhythm section was tight and in balance, with the drummer and bass player clearly behind Ms. Vaughan, where they belonged.
The Soundsticks presented the music differently. Sure there wasn’t as much detail, or bass, or dynamic range, or high frequency extension, or naturalness to the timber of the instruments, or Sarah’s voice. But these are audiophile hang-ups. Sometimes you just have to forget about that stuff and listen.
I once read in an audio review, “these speakers bring the music to you, and those speakers bring you to the music.” I think that’s an apt description for what I heard. I can’t think of any other way to explain it. Both systems stirred my soul, but in different ways.
Another great album for testing out vocals is The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album. I cannot say that I am a huge Tony Bennett fan. I like his work and admire his phrasings. But I am not an obsessive fan. I am, however, pretty obsessive about Bill Evans. Put the two of these guys together and you have something really special. Bill Evans rarely played with vocal accompaniment and to the best of my knowledge, aside from this highly successful venture, he never did so on record. This is one of those albums you wish would have been followed up by a sequel, but then again perhaps it was a magical session that could never have been repeated.
Both systems reproduced Bill Evan’s piano lines with impressive fidelity. The lower registers of the piano were more richly presented by the Genesis system thanks to the fuller bass response of those speakers. Vocally, Tony Bennett’s breathing and subtle cues were evident on both systems. The occasional moments when he burst out with impressive power did cause some problems on the Soundsticks, which seemed to falter under demands of his proximity to the microphone. And his voice lacked a certain “chestiness” on the Soundsticks that was there in spades on the Genesis system. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. On the Genesis system I could hear Tony Bennett’s voice bouncing off the walls of the recording studio. The Soundsticks didn’t offer this sort of analytical, “under the microscope” view of the music. This is one of those “if a band jams but the tape machine is off, does it make a sound?” type of propositions. Clearly I am in no position to answer such profound questions.
Few albums are as effective in separating the men from the boys as Steely Dan’s Aja. There are so many good cuts on this album it’s hard to know where to begin. But certainly the title track, Aja, has some of the most demanding percussion work around. Amazingly it is rumored that Steve Gadd came in and sight read the part. Then again, we’re talking about Steve Gadd. If ever there were a finer studio session drummer, it’d be news to me.
The Genesis system had a nice palpability to it. Instruments were presented in space with “air” around them. I could point to each of the musicians with pinpoint accuracy. The percussion work on all the tracks, and particularly Aja, was crisp, pristine, impeccable, and beyond reproach on the Genesis system. There was such a holographic imagefield on these speakers I felt like I was part of the band. I actually got worried at one point—in the middle of the song I jumped up from the couch for fear that I had too much to drink and was stumbling around the stage of a live concert, about to be thrown out by some big fat sweaty security guard. Ah, but it was all just a vision! The Genesis speakers induced delusional behavior. Now that’s getting your money’s worth!
The Soundsticks were intoxicating in a different way altogether. It’s hard to express in words really. These speakers just have soul. There’s no other way to say it, really. But as I look back in my notes I keep seeing the same word over and over: soul. They’ve got soul. And you just can’t put a price on that. I mean you can try, but what is your soul worth? If you can’t sell your own soul, can you sell the soul of a loudspeaker system that, in turn, stirs your soul? I thought not.
While it is tempting to waste more Internet bandwidth with further inconclusiveness, all good things must come to an end. If you would like a full list of recordings used for evaluative purposes during this review, feel free to e-mail me. The list may prove useful for those who wish to conduct this same test on an independent basis (just beware that if your floor is suspended, the Genesis 1.1 speakers may actually break through to the room below, so check with a structural engineer first)
Try as I might, I just can’t endorse one of these systems over the other. Each has its own distinct character and being as all things are subjective, I am sure that some folks will prefer one, while others will prefer the other. And attempting to bridge that gap will prove futile. Which did I prefer?
I suppose part of me is tempted by the grandiose Genesis system ($156,756 with specified electronics, but who’s counting anyway) with its huge sweeping dynamics, deep powerful bass, high-frequency extension that makes my dog stand at attention, and ear-bleeding sound levels that can puncture all but the most resilient of eardrums. The speakers are electrifying, no two ways about it.
But they do require a rather large room, four or five strong helpers to set up, and a sufficiently well braced floor. And let’s face it, they scream “compensation” like a McLaren F1.
That having been said, part of me also admires the simplicity and “plug and play” nature of the Soundsticks. They are lighter on their feet, both sonically and, well, literally. They have a nice clean, articulate, crisp, agile sound and an honest and true midrange and high frequency band. They don’t offer the thunderous bass of the Genesis system, but they leave you about $156,557 richer. And I mean, if you want to get petty, I suppose that does count for something.
So where does that leave us? Both systems are very good. Since my job as an audio reviewer is to make sure that, no matter what, I do not leave you with any firm conclusions or useful advice, I’ll simply say that you owe it to yourself to hear both of these speaker systems before you draw any conclusions. Don’t be dismissive of either. They are both very fine, well engineered systems. For our annual NUTTIES (Never Underestimate The Tendency of Investing in Esoteric Stereo) awards, we will no doubt bestow upon the Genesis system a rating of AAAAA+++++ and the Soundsticks a slightly lesser rating of AAAA++++. We feel the ratings speak for themselves. But remember, ratings themselves are meaningless.
Happy April Fool’s Day.