updated 12:41 am EDT, Sun August 12, 2012
Beats Solo or Harman Kardon headphones, which is best?
Music is one of the more popular forms of entertainment, and in recent times there has been a renewed emphasis on audio quality. A number of recording artists have been vocal in criticizing the compression of modern music with the advent of the iPod age in particular. Worse, the default headphones sold with many devices hardly makes matters any better and greater numbers of listeners are looking to get the best sound that they can afford. Beats by Dr Dre have become the dominant headphone brand on the market, while Harman Kardon have only just entered the lucrative headphone space. So which is the better choice?
A number of factors come into play when trying to get the best audio sound when on the go. Mobile devices are not generally considered to have the best digital to audio converters (DAC), and often the music is compressed into either 256kbps or 128kbps formats. Despite this, the choice of headphones still goes a long way to improving the overall listening experience. Typically, to get a better audio sound, either the MP4/AAC 256kbps format or the 320kbps MP3 format is preferred as it is very close to CD-quality. Audiophiles prefer to encode in one of the lossless formats like FLAC or ALAC. The reason for this is simple - as an audio file is compressed, the dynamic range of the track is lost meaning a loss of overall fidelity.
Most listeners, however, cannot tell the difference between a high quality compressed track, against an uncompressed CD track, particularly if they are listening to a more contemporary music style - classical music with its more subtle variations between loud and soft notes suffers the most from compression. However, most listeners can tell the difference between a good pair of cans, and the typical el cheap earbuds that ship with smartphones and MP3 or MP4 players. Whatever your preference of audio format or musical preferences, choosing the right set of headphones will always make the listening experience a lot better.
Beats Audio have captured a 60 percent share of the headphone market with its range of Dr Dre-branded headsets. Their blend of style and audio quality have gained widespread appeal. Newer to the headphone scene, however, is Harmon Kardon. It is somewhat surprising as it is a brand that is synonymous with high quality audio. Interestingly too, Harmon Kardon have targeted their current lineup squarely at iPhone and iPod users by selling them only through Apple, either online, or at Apple stores. Both pair of headphones come in at the same price, at $200 a pop.
Design and build quality
The Beats by Dr Dre Solo headphones are a very nicely styled and offer a traditional, yet contemporary appearance. They are made from a 'super-durable, flexible material' according to Beats that certainly feels well-made in the hand. The fit and finish is top-notch and they fold up neatly into a more compact shape allowing for easy portability. They also come with a detachable cable that also includes a in-line remote for taking calls and controlling music playback - the company makes versions compatible with both the iPhone and Android devices, with a particular emphasis on HTC given that company's part-ownership of Beats. The model we have used for testing is also skinned with a Gelaskin, to help give it a more individual appearance, but which also highlights the popularity of the range.
The Harman Kardon CL (Classic) headphones have taken a different stylistic approach, opting for a rectangular look that certainly stands out as being different. It features sandblasted steel frames and matte housings providing for very solid construction while giving a premium appearance befitting Harman Kardon's reputation. The cans also detach from the main steel frame, which come in two sizes - the standard smaller size is pre-fitted, while easy to follow instructions are offered for users who need to fit the larger of the two bands. Like the Beats Solo headphones, the Harman Kardon CLs come with a detachable cable with in-line remote, but which is only compatible with iPhones. Although not as compact when stowed, they still fit comfortably into bags.
The Beats Solo headphones use a traditional circular cup that sits on the ears and provides a good seal offering decent passive noise canceling. The leather ear pads are comfortable and the cans swivel to allow for a better fit. The plastic headband, while flexible, is still deliberately firm in order to provide a better seal. However, for listeners with larger heads, they could start to prove uncomfortable after longer periods of time. For medium to small heads, they should prove quite acceptable from a comfort perspective. The adjustability is limited to being able to extend the headphones downwards. Overall, they are a comfortable pair of headphones and are slightly lighter than the Harman Kardon CLs.
Even though the Harman Kardon CLs are somewhat heavier, the option to fit a larger headband overcomes the limited flexibility of the Beats Solo design. The leather band that sits across the users head to support its weight is also very soft and comfortable, helping to distribute the weight evenly. The earpads are covered in leather and provide a luxurious feel - that said, in warmer weather, it could create for steam as they may not breathe as easily as the Beats Solo approach. The slow-rentention foam ear pads provide a complete seal and block out external sound very effectively, while helping to keep your musical tastes private from those nearby on commutes.
To compare the two pairs of headphones, we listened to them back to back on an HTC One XL with Beats Audio activated and an iPhone 4S. Both devices had their EQ set flat.
The Beats Solo headphones are certainly much better than just about any set of default headphones included with most smartphones. However, their sound quality does not match the price that you pay for them, their looks, or the marketing spiel. Tellingly, it is difficult to find the specifications of the drivers which are listed only as being 40mm. Frequency range, sound pressure and impedance figures are difficult to find. They are tuned for bass heavy tunes, with prominent mids, but the treble is noticeably rolled off. This can be positively influenced by setting up a favored EQ, suggesting that the overall frequency response is there, but they are certainly not balanced out of the box.
The Harman Kardon listening experience is a much more satisfying experience out of the box. The CLs produce a balanced sound, while retaining decent bass punch thanks to its integral bass tube construction. Clarity is excellent with treble notes being bright and clear, without sound unnatural or harsh. The mid range is similarly strong, yet even when listening to rock music we had no desire to tweak any of the frequency ranges. Overall, the sound stage and image is much larger and fuller than the Beats Solo headphones, which sound rather dull and uninspiring by comparison. They produce a rich, enveloping sound that is easy on the ears, but powerful and crystal clear at the same time.
The Beats Solo headphones are decent pair of headphones, but we expected a better balanced sound out of the box. Making good sounding pair headphones can be a challenge and is often a compromise. If a good bass response is desired, this can sometimes come at the expense of treble response - this is certainly true of the Beats Solo headphones. This may suit some listeners, but we would be surprised if most listeners didn't have to tweak the sound through the use of EQ to get a preferred setting - even then, the tone is not as classy as the Harman Kardon CL. They are quite comfortable and very well made, but they do look better than they sound.
At the price point, the Harmon Kardon CLs are easily the class leader. They offer a better sound out of the box, which will not require EQ tweaking for the vast majority of listeners. They are also a much more satisfying listening experience than the similarly priced Bowers & Wilkins P3s - in fact, they are more of a match for the Bowers & Wilkins P5s, which are priced at a hundred dollars more. The Bowers & Wilkins P5s edge them for comfort, but the sound quality is a close run thing. It seems first up, Harmon Kardon has decided to 'over deliver' on the mix of build quality and performance in order to get an immediate foothold in the market. While made for the iPhone, we still strongly recommend them for users of any mobile device if you can forgo the lack of in-line remote and mic support.
By Sanjiv Sathiah