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Thursday
Apr252013

Harman Kardon NC Headphones Review

When Harman Kardon introduced its first line of consumer headphones last year we marveled their high-end, unparalleled aesthetics and appreciated the fine audio quality that came with it all. In many ways Harman Kardon's CL Classic headphones were and still are a trowback of modern sophistication. They've done their job at pleasing our ears, our tasteful appetite for good design and even our wallet. So how does it get any better than this? I'll tell you how, Harman Kardon's $300 flagship NC headphones might possibly one up their smaller counterpart with premium features like active noise-canceling and gargantuan cups that envelop your ears like some hungry hippo. But how well do they fare when put up against a $200 pair of active noise-canceling headphones? Let's find out!

Harman Kardon's headphone lineup splits into three individual categories, each share an identical design and remarkably identical driver specifications as well. The $200 CL are the most compact of the three boasting an on-ear form-factor while the $250 BT and $300 NC both share a supposedly more comfortable over-ear form-factor. Now that difference between the two over-the-ear models is a distinction of two important features - the BT model having wireless Bluetooth capabilities while the NC headphones, the most expensive out of the three - are active noise-canceling headphones. But it's also worth noting that all three models include identical perks like an in-line 3-button remote control with a built-in microphone as well as a secondary interchangeable metal headband which is designed to fit larger heads.

In fact, we haven't noticed any differences in build quality, essential features nor even sound quality between Harman Kardon's $200 CL headphones and the company's most prestigious $300 NC cans. Both are essentially identical, only to be told apart based on their different form-factors. For the most part, our CL review coindides with the NC apart from the obvious tell-tale differences which we will cover and point out.

It's not every day we stumble upon headphones that take excellence into a whole different level. Bowers & Wilkins' P3 headphones are a good example of that, and even bare a similar resemblance the CL headphones; but even so, the CL are triumphantly unique with their impeccable industrial design. These are ridiculously good looking and one of the more sophisticated amongst the headphones we've had the opportunity to test to date. Harman Kardon are just so good at designing beautifully striking audio hardware that even we think the CL headphones are worthy of being displayed at an art gallery. 

The NC are the wired on-ear version of Harman Kardon's BT, which are the $250 over-ear model that boast wireless Bluetooth connectivity and a built-in mic for headset use. The two share a similar design and also feature the same exact drivers and specifications in terms of sonic performance. Both models are exclusively sold at Apple stores so it's no secrete that Harman Kardon designed these specifically to go along with Apple's product line.

We like seeing companies come out with headphones that aren't your run-of-the-mill pair. But it looks like Harman Kardon tried too hard to impress and follow up on their great design work. Like the CL and BT, the NC are meticulously over-engineered, complicated and not the sort of headphones you'd be wearing out in public. Because you'll look ridiculous wearing them. They're beautiful to look at don't get me wrong, but once you put them on, those large oval housings are like a pair of ear muffs. Unlike other headphones with rubber, smooth-touch finishes and fabric lining, the NC feel a lot more like touching a mechanical metal object. You begin to wonder if this is going to be comfortable to wear.

Outside of the frustration-free packaging, the NC headphones come with a black faux leather carrying case. One that's soft, but can still do a nice job in protecting your investment while on the go. And because the headphones have the ability to lay flat inside the case, there's less of a chance of breaking them on accident. The second thing that you will find is an extra, large user-changeable metal headband designed to be exchanged with the small pre-installed one for better personal fitting. More on that later though.

There's also a really nice USB charging cable with a matching aluminum plug construction that is unique to Harman Kardon's audio lineup. Harman Kardon hasn't included a simple USB wall adapter for charging, so you'll just have to manage on your own or use your laptop/desktop computer to charge up.

Since these have an active noise-canceling feature which of course requires power, there's a built-in rechargeable battery inside so you won't have to keep swapping batteries yourself and that's really great. Charging the NC is done using the audio port thanks to a special USB cable to save space. While it's a neat little feature, it isn't very practical should you need a replacement charging cable if something were to happen to the one included. The NC will still be usable if you lose battery power, fortunately the battery life is fantastic. It can last for up to 40 hours, though I haven't been keeping track but I definitely believe the claim after having used the NC for a full month with little time being spent on recharging the headset.

If you plan on staying at home, in the office or away on vacation, then you're really going to enjoy using the NC. This is where the fun begins. The unique headband is an homage to AKG in the sense of using a dual-designed headband which doesn't require you to adjust the length that best suits your head like most ordinary headphones yourself, but it rather simply auto-adjusts when putting them on. It's designed to have an inner band that like a rubber-band, stretches to perfectly fit you and remain static at all times once you've let go. If the outer metal bow-like headband is too small and comes in contact with the inner moving band, then you can simply swap it for the larger one included by detaching both of the ear cups. It works, and it works well to the point where it should be implemented in a variety of headphones.

The CL were a pretty comfortable pair of on-ear headphones, but surprisingly the NC aren't any more comfortable than the CL. Combined with their oversized ear cups and not so gentle clamping force, the NC are so big that instead of having to worry about pressure being put on top of your ears, the cups press up against parts of your checks including your head which can become uncomfortable after a while. The shape of the cushions is so large that it presses up against parts of my jaw which isn't very pleasing especially when you're chewing gum. The ear cups have a dual-axis tilt and pivot which contour to fit your ears naturally without being contained. For most, the CL will be a very comfortable pair to wear for more than an hour of continues listening but the same can't be said about the NC which is a surprising turn. The large, amply cushioned leather memory foam pads backed will cover your ears entirely providing an outstanding seal that helps reduce background noise with minimal sound leakage.

The odd long oblong shape of the NC's ear cushions don't follow the natural shape of the ear causing them to cover more than just your ears, hence the slight discomfort. When looking at the oval shape of the UE6000 in comparison, you'll notice that they are designed to precisely fit over one's ears and that makes them more comfortable to wear.

What's more is that Harman Kardon borrowed the rather brilliant idea from Bowers & Wilkins, and equipped the NC with removable, magnetic ear pads that can detach for replacement instead of revealing the audio cable connection like in the P5 and P3 headphones. The audio cable itself is detachable, however it cannot be easily replaced with another one like it sadly. I would have loved to see Harman Kardon include a spare for such a price.

When it comes to in-line button remotes most headphones get it wrong and few struggle to get every aspect right. Fortunately, the iOS-friendly in-line 3-button remote on the NC is simply outstanding. Fantastically Slim, light and built like a more substantial Apple headset remote. Each button can easily be distinguished apart from one another and pressed easily to control music playback, volume as well as perform various iPhone calling tasks. The built-in mic does its job equally well.

And then there was active noise-canceling. Unfortunately, we haven't noticed any difference when flipping on that NC switch at the bottom. We have experienced the same type of result with the UE 6000. And both actually produced the same amount of background noise isolation with or without being powered on. And this leads me to believe that once again this active noise-canceling hype is merely a gimmick which is really meant to amp the audio in order to turboboost the low-end and enrich the audio which both headphones achieve fairly well. Unless I'm wrong and can't distinguish between the amount of noise being canceled out by this pricy technology, this whole active noise-canceling moniker is a bunch of mambo jumbo.

At first glance, the NC headphones have an unorthodox boxy shaped ear cups and a metal, frame construction that oozes of elegance and lets everyone else know you've paid a pretty penny for them. While the rectangular ear cup enclosures are made from black plastic rather than aluminum, they're made so well to complement the matte metal construction with a fine grainy finish that it's difficult to tell whether or not they are in fact only made out of plastic. The build quality on these is marvelous.  

A supercharged level of attention to detail and build quality.

Headphones of this caliber are far in few between. There are a lot of moving parts, and each one feels solid in its place. The plastic ear cups are accentuated by a thin metal frame that surrounds the enclosures and allows them to pivot ever so slightly. The leather, and there's plenty of it, is actually real leather that covers the soft, plush memory foam ear cushions as well as the inner headband which is stitched very nicely in a retro kind of way. The metal is headband lightweight and has a great looking sand-blasted, satin finish to it that goes hand in hand with the matte black housings.

The two metal piston-like hinges are a clever mechanism design to not only detach for headband adjustment, but can also rotate around to flatten the housings to take up less space in order to easily fit inside your bag when traveling. 

The amount of attention to detail extends to every last bit of the headphones. Even the gold plated audio plugs have solid, rectangular metal enclosures which aren't just done so to perfectly match the theme of the NC, but also to insure that they can fit into the tightest spots. These are one of my most favorite plugs to use. As for the cable, it's very durable and tangle-resistant. My only complaint would be that Harman Kardon used an inconvenient 2.5mm audio plug that hooks up to the left side of the headphones. I'd rather see a normal 3.5mm on both ends.

Harman Kardon's NC sound awesome! But they also sound like $200 cans

You'd expect the NC to sound as good as they are presented, and right you are. The NC have a warm, well balanced sound signature that's detailed, rich, clean and clear across the board. Typical Harman Kardon sound. Bass is deeply bold and can pulsate a satisfying thudding low-end when listening to bass heavy tracks like The Motto by Drake without sounding overpowering, and laid back when listening to more acoustically focused tracks. If you love listening to thumpy tracks, the NC's vibes leave nothing to be desired. Mids are detailed and can be heard clearly with a little forwardness to them while the highs are bright and have outstanding, alpine-clear clarity that brings vocals to life with balanced treble.

At high volumes, the NC do not distort, but then again you won't find yourself turning up the volume too far. Comparing the NC against a less expensive rival with the same active noise-cancellation features such such as the UE 6000, the NC only marginally best the UE6000 when it comes to the clarity of the highs, however the low-end and even midrange on the UE 6000 sounds slightly better than that if the NC. For $100 less, the UE6000 offer a superb package in every category over the $300 NC. But if the high-end styling tickles your fancy, you'll be paying more for just that without necessarily gaining a more premium audio experience. 

The bass response isn't as pronounced on the NC as it is on the UE6000. I will always appreciate a good balance, but that extra bold low-end on the UE6000 is rewarding. Because when listening to Daft Punk's Get Lucky, you need all the bass in the world to empower that disco beat as it was intended to be played.

The NC are a well balanced blend of good industrial design, terrific audio quality, supercharged build quality. But they're just not as good as the less expensive Gadgetmac Award-winning CL headphones. The NC are great, fantastic even. But you shouldn't buy them. Instead, direct your flow of money at Harman Kardon's CL or even the BT if you want the same experience only without a cable to tie you down. You'll save a considerable amount of money, all without sacrificing sound quality and the unique design and premium build quality that played a crucial part in your decision making from the very beginning. The NC's active noise-canceling played a big part in creating their steep price point, but we haven't found that to be worthwhile sadly. Not to mention they're big, unnecessarily bulky.

It's a shame to find out that even the internal driver specs are identical across the all three headphones and the performance is virtually identical, it's a bit ridiculous. This is why we're here to tell the uninformed consumer that by purchasing Harman Kardon's $200 CL, you're essentially getting the same sound quality performance and quality of design of the NC - albeit at an on-ear form-factor which is reasonably more comfortable. If you're looking for a unique high-end pair of on-ear headphones, we wouldn't think twice to recommend the CL over than NC. At $200, Harman Kardon's CL are hard to beat and offer an impressive package that delivers on all fronts. In fact, both the UE 6000 and CL are similar compelling alternatives with completely different styles that we can recommend.

Harmankardon.com

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