Review: Harman/Kardon SoundSticks II

by on September 16, 2005

Back in the old days, Apple used to include speakers with many of their computers. The problem with these, known as the Pro Speakers, was that they required a special jack, since the computer provided the power. Since there were only two satellites, Harman/Kardon offered a USB-based subwoofer for this setup, called the iSub. This could also be used in a multitude of other situations.

SoundSticks II
SoundSticks II Satellites

SoundSticks II
SoundSticks II Subwoofer

SoundSticks II
SoundSticks II Light

Eventually the SoundSticks appeared as a complete alternative to the Pro Speaker/iSub combo. These speakers used the USB port, and all the controls were handled by the computer. Because so many people wanted SoundSticks that worked with other devices, especially the ubiquitous iPod, Harman/Kardon released the SoundSticks II, a product that looks similar to its predecessor, but has a few minor changes.

With a price tag of around $170, the SoundSticks II are slighly more expensive than some other 2.1 (two satellites and a subwoofer) systems, like Harman Multimedia’s own JBL Creature II. For the extra cash, you get a beautiful product that offers slightyly better specs and more drivers than the Creatures. Each satellite plugs into the subwoofer, and a hardwired audio cable plugs into your audio source. There’s also an AC adapter to power the whole system. On the subwoofer, there is a blue LED to indicate power and a small knob on the back to adjust the volume of the subwoofer. According to Harman/Kardon, the SoundSticks lack bass and treble controls, as equalizer settings in programs offer more customizability. Another omission from the SoundSticks is a power switch—they are always on, unless you unplug them (but you can mute them if you don’t want audio coming through).

The satellites feature four drivers, that look a lot like the single drivers found in the Creatures. There are also adjustable metal bases under each satellite, that are wrapped in rubber to prevent skidding or other mishaps. The satellites aren’t labelled for right or left, but the right satellite has two touch-sensitive buttons for volume control.

The silver touch-sensitive “buttons” will be familiar to anyone who’s used a third-generation iPod or any of the other recent JBL products. One turns the volume up, while the other (not surprisingly) turns it down. Pressing both at the same time mutes the speakers. We found these to work quite well, despite many complaints about the older iPods. Muting the speakers is a good alternative to the idea of turning them off (which you can’t do).

These speakers sound good without any major adjustments, but the subwoofer control is a handy addition for those living in apartments or dorm rooms.

As stated earlier, we really find the omission of full-blown controls a tad annoying, although we got used to it after some time. The lack of a headphone jack is also a slight disappointment.

One thing we really liked about these speakers was their appearance—they look good. Unlike the G5-matching Altec Lansing FX6021 speakers, these look like they’d be more at home next to an iMac G3, Power Mac G4, or even the Cube. Despite this, the silver and clear color scheme still looks great near any Apple product.

In our tests, the SoundSticks held their own against the FX6021s, although they are close to half the price. They excelled in the treble department, and had surprisingly good bass, despite having a smaller driver. The FX6021s were able to be cranked up much louder, but the SoundSticks are more than adequate for room-filling sound. Compared to the Creature IIs, the SoundSticks offered similar sound, but it did tend to have a higher level of clarity, which is expected for the additional price.

If you’re looking for a speaker system that offers more punch than the Creature IIs, or just want something that will look great sitting on your desk, the SoundSticks II are an excellent upgrade, as long as you can get over the lack of controls.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

The SoundSticks II, although appearing to be more suited to be near older Apple products, still sound and look great with any audio source, and even sound better than similarly-priced products.

Pros: Awesome design, great sound quality, reasonably priced
Cons: Limited controls, no headphone jack
Rating: 8/10

The Facts

Product: SoundSticks II
Company: Harman/Kardon (part of Harman Multimedia)
Platform: Mac/Win
Price: $169.95

Speaker Facts

Input Impedance: >5K
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >80dB
Frequency Response: 44 – 20kHz
Input Sensitivity: 400 mv rms for rated power output
Power Consumption: 4 W idle, 65 W maximum

Satellite Drivers: Four Odyssey Plus transducer
Satellite Power Rating: 10 watts per satellite at 10% (THD+N)
Satellite Dimensions: 2 inches (diameter) x 10 inches (height)

Subwoofer Driver: One 6 inch down-firing
Subwoofer Power Rating: 20 watts at 10% (THD+N)

This post has been filed in Reviews, Speakers/Audio