Friday, August 9, 2013

"I can't hear you" or "Why I love the Harman|Kardon NC headphones" | Review

About 8 years ago, I had a pair of the Bose QuietComfort 2 Headphones.  This was a long time ago (proof here in a review from CNET).  At the time, I didn't think you could get much better with headphones.  Also, at the time, $300 was a lot of money to me.  After having them for about 6 months, I finally parted with them for some sweet, sweet cash to keep my bachelor life afloat.

Fast-Forward, and today I pretty much use my go-to Sony MDR-V6 Headphones.  You know the ones - great big over-the-ear cans that pretty much sound amazing, especially considering the price (which fluctuates based on what seems like the season).  I've had these for the past 3 years and absolutely love them.   (See a review from our brothers over at Electric Mustache here).

Except, they're not noise-cancelling...

I work in a 9-5 office.  It's quiet, so the Sony's do me well...but sometimes you have that co-worker who just won't stop talking...and you want some peace and quiet.  I've been evaluating the Harman|Kardon NC headphones as of late.  NC.  Noise Cancelling.  That's it.  Simple nomenclature to be sure, and to the point.  These will cancel the crap out of that ambient noise around you.

Engine noise from the plane?  Gone
Annoying co-worker talking about his weekend exploits?  Gone
Summer-time locusts keeping your outdoor quiet down?  Well drown them out with the new Harman|Kardon NC headphones.

I mentioned the Bose QC2's above cause these are in the same price range ($299 MSRP), carry a similar clout (Harman|Kardon are known for their speaker sound) and, well they are both noise-cancelling.  And do they work?  I will tell you, with pride, they work as good or better than the Bose.  Again, I'm comparing a current headphone versus a 10-year old QC2, and also using my memory instead of an actual side-by-side-comparison.  But for the past week, gone are the annoying conversations from co-workers, GONE is the engine noise, and crying babies on the plane to your next destination.  With a quick slide of the switch, you're enveloped in anti-sound, that shuts out ambient noise, ear echo (that sound you get when you plug your ears and can hear your voice, and sounds reverberating in your head) and you can only hear your audio source.  Plug it into an iPhone, iPod, iPad, laptop, any old thing, and this will pump clear sound into your eardrums that cover the spectrum of sound.
One would come to expect, given the Harman|Kardon name, and the price-tag, that you'd get some good sound out of the unit.  Your expectations will be met.  Are these as good as my go-to Sony's?  Yes.  Are they two and a half time as good (the price difference)?  No, not really.  But what you're paying for is features.  Noise cancelling is non-existent on the Sony's.  They also are built with a higher quality in mind.  An user-swappable aluminum carved head band, with flexible band to conform to your head shape, available in a "medium" and "large" size, depending on your cranial diameter.  I found, switching between the two, that the medium fit more comfortably for me...but they give you the option, and that's more than most other makers can say.  There is no wireless built-in, like the bluetooth powered Harman|Kardon BT headphones ($179) but those don't have NC either...So it's a trade-off.  Instead, you get NC, a removable mini-stereo plug with in-line Apple controls.  Built-in battery which lasts up to 40 hours will keep you rocking, without ambient sound, for a long time...

But what happens if that battery dies?  If it was 10 years ago, and I was still rockin' my Bose QC2's - I'd lose all functionality.  There was no passive mode that would still pump music, and just shut off the NC feature.  Well, I'm happy to report, that with the HK|NC, they have a passive mode, that when you shut off the NC feature (of if the internal battery dies) you'll still get pristine, clear music that fills your ears.

It's not all smooth sailing though - there are exactly four complaints I have with these headphones.  The first is the price tag.  For a third of the price, there are alternatives out there that sounds just as good, or at least close to it.  Secondly, they are a bit heavy.  Compared to the Sony's after extended usage, they tend to hurt your head.  Thirdly, they're not as loud, and you're limited to the volume or your device you're using at the time.  I'm not saying they're not loud enough, just that they don't get as loud as the Sony's, (however, they also don't distort, and you wouldn't pump 100% volume through the others as well, short of them sounding like crap!).  Lastly, they use a proprietary charging cord, that plugs into your USB port, but uses the mini-stereo jack that doubles as your port for actual audio.  The problem with this setup, is that they can be lost easily, and you're not just going to be able to find an extra Micro-USB you can charge them with.  However, the NC's come with a really nice (albeit big) faux-leather case to store the 'phones and your cables.  The set also includes a splitter,

All told, you're main compeition is the current Bose QC 15's, or if you're into trends, and fashion, perhaps the Beats by Dre.  Though, I can't really recommend the Beats (always sound muddy, and not great on the mids and highs in my honest opinion), for the price, I would recommend something of this caliber.  Quality engineering, excellent sound reproduction, and great noise-cancelling make for an excellent set.  Also, these NC's come with a nice (if not large) case to transport them in, with a handy would give the Harman Kardon NC's an "Excellent" and "Would Buy" rating.

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