Harman Kardon Aura review
The Harman Kardon Aura may look like The Jetson's spaceship has collided with a ultra-modern kitchen blender but this quirky design housing is actually a wireless home speaker.
If you're seeking a showstopper in speaker design that is also small and compact enough to live anywhere in the home, then the HK Aura certainly ticks the box. But does its distinctive design enhance or hinder its ability to deliver quality audio? We've been living with the Aura for a number of weeks to find out.
An image of modernity
In a bustling market having a product that stands out is important. Speaker designs have gone through all sorts of visual forms over the years, with the HK Aura being one of the most interesting to look at. We say interesting in its most positive light - whereas some others might look at the Aura and think "what the heck is that?".
The Aura has a circular footprint with a diameter approximately 21.5cms, while the height measures around 28cms. That makes it the perfect size to sit on a desk, a shelf, the floor - or wherever you want to display this eye-magnet of a design. We've had the Aura's company to see us through a house move where its scale has made it easy to plug in throughout various rooms, depending on where there's been a spare bit of space in among the cardboard boxes.
The plastic dome top catches some illumination from a ring of light towards the centre of the structure that represents the volume level and it looks cool when the lights go down. Other lights and buttons are kept to a minimum: there's a touch-sensitive (and we mean very touch sensitive) volume slider, next to which are light-up source, power and Wi-Fi buttons.
These buttons don't give any feedback when pressed, however, which is a bit odd, because there's no distinct physical protrusion, audible or visual feedback. Well, that last one is a stretch because the source/connections are represented by different LED colours, but as these colours display central to each button your finger will cover it when pressing and holding. A quick read of the manual to make sure you're doing things right and things aren't too complicated to understand.
The HK Aura sells itself as a wireless home speaker - albeit one that needs to be plugged into a power socket - but is equally dependable on wired inputs. Around the back there's a 3.5mm jack and an optical input too, meaning it's suitable to used as an outlet from all kinds of sources, or even as a product to enhance TV sound should you want.
But the wireless connectivity is its main sell. Aura provides Wi-Fi connectivity via DLNA and AirPlay, while Bluetooth is operational via many devices and further enhanced by a Harman Kardon Remote app.
Pairing via Bluetooth is easy and worked like a dream from our HTC One smartphone, but it was a calamity via our MacBook Pro. Often we'd catch a Bluetooth connection before Wi-Fi would interrupt, iTunes would pop open and begin playback - even though we hadn't asked it to. Sometimes this would cut the Bluetooth playback dead, sometimes there would be a clash of iTunes output - apparently also playing via Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi - making for a mess of audio with two different tracks as our other player was also outputting sound.
Other times the volume would dip to near-silent only to then jump to full volume without pressing any buttons. This erratic volume behaviour would often continue with a pulsing up and down of the volume, or just sit maxed out to an uncontrollable loudness that would require the plug to be pulled or sound muted from paired device. Obviously we thought the product was broken. But, no, after receiving our second Aura device we've had exactly the same volume level issues - but only via this Mac. As the Aura is an Apple Store sold product we'd have thought it'd be airtight on this front.
It's frustrating because all our music is stored on the MacBook Pro and we don't use iTunes for everything. As no manual is included in the box we duly downloaded the online one which doesn't offer any way to switch Wi-Fi off - we pressed and held the Wi-Fi button to the side of the Aura and watched its flashing condition change, but never managed to get it to disengage. From the iTunes side digging through the menus didn't reveal anything else to help our musical mish-mash and volume level plight.
We've tested a lot of Bluetooth speakers and this hasn't been a problem for us before. If you're a Mac user you may want to think twice. Saying that, once things settle down the Aura tends to run at a fixed volume. Whether it's a Bluetooth issue with our Mac specifically or a wider software issue between communicating devices we can't verify.
And despite these connectivity irks we felt rather forgiving when listening to the Aura. Because it sounds so brilliant. Granted this isn't a budget speaker at £349, but every penny of that is invested in quality sound.
We shouldn't be surprised really: Harman Kardon is a renowned audio specialist. Perhaps it was more that this blender-esque design could deliver such a full sound and from its fairly small footprint. But it is the very design that assists the sound because it projects everything out in an immersive omni-directional way.
Tucked into the base are six 1.5in drivers tuned to cater for different mid-high frequencies, while a 4.5in subwoofer handles the bass. The bass is so warm without being overpowering; it's a bit like a gentle bassy cuddle. Very comforting.
Wherever you stand in relation to the Aura the mid- and high-frequency levels sound crisp and well separated. You'll catch those twinkling hi-hats without We've had the product on the floor and it sounded just as good as when mounted at eye level - and that something standard speakers wouldn't be able to tackle so well. Impressive.
In short: we can't fault the Harman Kardon Aura's sound output. It's loud without being overbearing, it sounds good at all volumes and the distinctive quality at all frequencies handles all kinds of genres with ease.
Space-age looks deliver a sound that's grounded in the here and now: the Harman Kardon Aura is an immensely capable wireless home speaker, whatever genre you throw at it.
In terms of audio quality this is a full-marks product. The only reason it doesn't achieve that accolade is simple: there are connectivity and volume issue foibles that, at least from our MacBook Pro and tested over two separate products to verify the issue, aren't good enough from a high-spec product such as this. Whether other users will replicate this volume issue we cannot verify, and do note it's only been a problem via Mac - when used with our HTC One smartphone we found the HK Aura to run perfectly over Bluetooth.
Every time the tunes started to roll at a consistent volume though we were swept up by the sheer quality of the Aura and do love the omni-directional output that delivers all-encompassing sound. There's no avoiding it: the HK Aura is an exceptional audio product in terms of output, albeit one that appears to have some software communication issues and that, unfortunately, is a black mark against its name that would make us think twice about buying one.