Review: Harman Kardon AE In-Ear Headphones

Harman Kardon first made its name as an audio powerhouse over half a century ago. The company started out making sleek and (for the time) technologically advanced radios and home hi-fi equipment, then later branched out into car stereos and digital audio components. But Harman Kardon is perhaps best known to the current generation of consumers for those fancy, see-through desktop speaker systems you’ve seen plugged into iMacs at the Apple Store. The iconic, clear plastic iSub 2000 and Sound Sticks speakers, tailor-made for Apple’s computers, have won the company industrial design awards, more importantly, a deep level of brand recognition among Apple fans.

Which all leaves me wondering why it’s taken so long for Harman Kardon to branch out into iPhone-friendly headphones. But here they are — new for the fall of 2012 is an entire line of sleek, compact earphones and headphones primed for use with smartphones and tablets.

Harman Kardon’s new headphones have aluminum-alloy bodies that match the look and texture of Apple’s hardware.

There are two over-the-ear headphone models (one get-gadget, one Bluetooth), and two compact in-ear models, the $100 noise-isolating NIs and the $150 “acoustically enhanced” AEs. The company sent me a pair of the nicer AE in-ears to test.

Not surprising: the Apple-inspired design philosophy is on full display here. The AEs have aluminum-alloy bodies that match the look and texture of Apple’s hardware. The small details get just as much attention, from the attractive mic/remote assembly to the luxe carrying case, which has soft little nooks to cradle your buds.

What is surprising: The sound isn’t spectacular. Harman Kardon is pitching these in-ears as offering true low-frequency reproduction, but I found them to be quite muddy in the low end. Also, they have a fairly dark sound profile overall. Certainly bass-heavy, but also murky and dreary. I listened to some reverently recorded acoustic music from Sean Hayes, and some of my favorite rock albums of late (Dungen, Lower Dens, Kelley Stoltz) and the AEs erased too many of the small details in the high end. EQing the iOS music player to show more high-end just made the AEs sound more hollow.

What did sound good? Moody, gothy stuff like My Bloody Valentine, Ty Segall and Joy Division. Music that was born from the dark fog sounds pretty good in a dark fog, it turns out.

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