When they first came out, most people agreed the Harman Kardon SoundSticks looked like jellyfish or a UFO, and pretty much unlike any computer speakers anyone had seen before. They have since become a classic in the design field, earning a place in the Museum of Modern Art(Opens in a new window) and spawning a number of successors. Harman Kardon is marking the 20th anniversary of the original system with the new SoundSticks 4. The SoundSticks 4 are Bluetooth speakers, and 2.1-channel Bluetooth speakers at that. For those yearning for real stereo separation and bass depth, the system offers style and powerful sound for PCs, mobile devices, and general home audio. Even if they're light on accessories and extra features for $299.95, the Harman Kardon SoundSticks 4 earn our Editors' Choice for yet again getting the main things—audio and design—right.
What’s amazing about the SoundSticks is how little they have changed visually over the years. There are tweaks, of course, but the rounded, transparent design remains intact. And yet, what’s old is new—something about the design feels more classic, and classier, than ever. The satellites are beautiful, with subtle prismatic glass-like ripples along the back panel that are visible from the front. They sit upon white stands, angled upward just slightly to meet your ears.
The system features two 20W satellite speakers with four 1.4-inch full-range drivers each, and a down-firing subwoofer that looks like a spaceship. You’ll need some room for everything, but the 10.6-by-3.3-by-3.3-inch (HWD) satellites have a slim profile, and the dome-shaped subwoofer is relatively compact at 10.9 by 9.1 by 9.1 inches considering it comes in at 100W with a 5.25-inch driver. Still, the overall footprint (including cabling connecting the speakers to the sub) takes up more surface area than what is generally allotted to speakers in the all-on-one Bluetooth bricks these days. The system combines for 140W total and a frequency range of 40Hz to 20kHz.
Internally, a white LED glows eerily when the sub is powered up. Unlike many of today’s speaker systems, there’s no color-changing light show here; the subwoofer simply glows white, and it looks lovely doing so. When you adjust the volume, the LED briefly fades down or up with the volume levels before returning to its steady glow.
The sub sits on rubber feet to keep it stable, and has touch-sensitive plus/minus volume controls on its “front” end (the part of the sphere with the Harman Kardon logo). Around back, there’s a power button, a Bluetooth pairing button, a 3.5mm input (though there’s no cable included, an odd omission for the price), RCA connections for the left and right speakers' hardwired cables, a mini USB service port, and a connection for the included power adapter.
One note about the sub: It really vibrates, and while the feet keep it stable, be prepared to rattle tabletops and shelves in whatever room the system is blasting. It can definitely rearrange some housewares for you, so place it with care.
What’s missing? A 3.5mm cable for wired listening, for one. Some users might also wish there was an app with EQ for adjusting the sound signature or the subwoofer volume relative to the satellites—all valid gripes. And, from a design perspective, while I appreciate keeping the look of the satellites as clean and spare as possible, having all of the controls on the subwoofer means you’ll either need to place it in a convenient, easy-to-reach place, or groan every time you want to adjust the volume or power down.
The system is compatible with Bluetooth 4.2, and pairing is a quick and simple process. We experienced no connection issues with an iPhone 8.
The SoundSticks 4 sound fantastic. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the speakers deliver a solid balance of high-frequency clarity and palpable, deep sub-bass. At top volumes, the speakers don’t distort thanks to some well implemented DSP (digital signal processing) that manages to protect the drivers without thinning out the lows too much. This is a clean, powerful, bass-forward sound signature.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the SoundSticks 4’s general sound signature. The drums here sound powerful and big—the subwoofer really gives them some extra dimension. Callahan’s baritone vocals also get plenty of low-mid richness, but they occupy a completely different space from the deep-sounding drums. It's something that should be obvious, but we often hear these drums and vocals almost competing for the bass boosting on other speakers, and it can sound muddled. Here, it sounds big, full, natural, and crisp. The acoustic strums are bright and detailed.
The stereo separation these speakers allow (thanks to the long hardwired cables with built-in velcro straps for cable management) is a pure joy to hear, and the antidote to the recent rash of mono wireless speakers. Music is recorded and mixed in stereo most of the time, and it’s refreshing to experience it that way.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives both high-mid punchiness for its attack and added bass boosting that makes its sustain sound thunderous. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat go deeper than the sub does, so we don’t quite get a full sense of their power, though they still sound bass-heavy. The drum loop sounds more powerful than the sub-bass hits, which isn't always the case when played through a seriously capable subwoofer. You’re still getting the vast majority of bass content, though, and there’s a wonderful balance of bass depth and detail in the highs. If there’s a smidge of the deepest depths left out, it’s in the name of a full, balanced, clean sound. The vocals on this track are delivered with excellent clarity—there’s perhaps a bit more sibilance than we typically hear, but it’s to help with definition and it doesn’t detract from the listening experience.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound magnificent through the SoundSticks 4. The lows aren’t exaggerated—they are elevated slightly when in the mix, and the sub provides a room-filling, lifelike sound when the lows truly do reach down deep. But for the most part, the bass frequencies play a supporting, anchoring role for the bright, crisp, higher-register brass, strings, and vocals on this track, and the delivery through the SoundSticks 4 is detailed and clear. Purists may lament that the sound signature is somewhat sculpted, but most listeners will love the results the sculpting delivers.
The Harman Kardon SoundSticks 4 continue the tradition of previous models, combining first-class design with powerful, excellent audio performance. With no app and few included accessories, the price might feel a little high, but the audio performance makes up for it. In this price range, we’re also fans of the $399 Klipsch R-41PM and the $399 Audioengine HD3. But the $300 SoundSticks 4 earn our Editors' Choice for looking as good as ever and providing true stereo separation and sub-bass accompaniment in a time when both are in short supply. If these are all beyond your budget, check out the $40 Creative Pebble Plus—a bargain 2.1 system that can’t compete with any of the aforementioned options, but delivers solid value for the price.
The Harman Kardon SoundSticks 4 are a 20th anniversary, Bluetooth-compatible update to the classic 2.1-channel speakers, and they remain just as compelling as ever.
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