Harman Kardon, a successful and sought-after name in the audio industry to say the least. The company is better known for having AKG and JBL under its audio belt as well as for its magnitude of outstanding household and desktop speakers, most notably the SoundSticks speakers which are one of the most iconic set of computer speakers ever to be made at a reasonable price. Harman Kardon has recently released it's first ever line of headphones under the Harman/Kardon name. We're going to take a deep look into the company's new CL Classic on-ear headphones, a $200 pair of Apple-inspired attractiveness. Be sure to catch our inclusive review after the cut!
It's not every day we stumble upon headphones that take excellence into a whole different level. Bowers & Wilkins' P5 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.
It's no wonder why these are called the Classic. The name is written all over these headphones.
The CL 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. The CL 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 CL feels 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 CL 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.
If you plan on staying at home, in the office or away on vacation, then you're really going to enjoy using the CL. 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.
The CL may come off as aggressive when looked at from the outside, however, on the inside they're one of the few on-ear headphones that offer an extremely comfortable fit with a gentle clamping force on top of your ears followed by a dual-axis tilt and pivot ear cups 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. The large, amply cushioned leather memory foam pads backed by a mesh fabric filter will cover your ears entirely providing a pretty good seal to reduce background noise with minimal sound leakage.
What's more is that Harman Kardon borrowed the rather brilliant idea from Bowers & Wilkins, and equipped the CL 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.
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 CL 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.
At first glance, the CL 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 oval 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 covered the soft, 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 sandblasted, 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 CL, 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 CL sound awesome! End of story.
You'd expect the CL to sound as good as they are presented, and right you are. The CL 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 CL'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 CL do not distort, but then again you won't find yourself turning up the volume too far. The CL are a lot more powerful than the equally priced Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones which have smaller 30mm drivers, and all around better sounding and more comfortable to wear. Comparing the CL against the P5, the CL easily outperform the $300 P5 headphones with a more pronounced and detailed soundstage, with better performing highs and mid tones.
Harman Kardon always delivers an outstanding product at a reasonable price. The CL Classic are a well balanced blend of good industrial design, terrific audio quality, supercharged build quality and comfort. If you're looking for a unique high-end pair of on-ear headphones, we wouldn't think twice to recommend these to you. At $200, Harman Kardon's CL are hard to beat and offer an impressive package that delivers on all fronts. We were so pleased with the CL's performance that we're awarding them with our Editors' Choice award.