Harman Kardon CL over-ear headphones review

We first saw Harman Kardon's swanky-looking "industrial chic" over-ear CL headphones in the middle months of 2012. Classic by name, are these cans able to deliver as classic a listening experience?

Design

There's at least a little sniff of the B&W P5 headphones' design to be seen in the Harman Kardon CL over-ears, although the latter manufacturer's cans have an exposed metal headband - made of sandblasted steel, no less - that gives a more industrial look and feel.

READ: Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones review

Still, don't read the word "metal" and recoil in fear of discomfort, as the Harman Kardon CL has plenty of cushioning where it counts. A secondary leather-clad band is flexible enough to sit snugly to the top of the head, although there's no traditional adjustment available so small or large bonces may make for a bit of an awkward earcup position.

The earcups themselves are said to be modelled on Apple's iPod in terms of shape, although you might not read that in any of the official literature. We've been wearing the CL over-ears for weeks now, and have found there to be little give in the flat-surfaced earcup design. As much as they're comfortable to wear thanks to cushioning, it's the flat design which means extended wear isn't all that comfy. It's not painful by any means though, as the natural "pinch" of the 'phones is subtle rather than head-clamping - just enough pressure to match lobes with material.

If the cups were deeper then it would take something away from the CL's design. They're called "classics" for a reason: as much their looks as anything else. There are no bulky parts here, which suits the overall metallic, stripped-back, industrial appearance down to a tee.

Included in the box is also a branded carry pouch with the Harman Kardon name on it. Useful to store the headphones when on the move and - as the earcups can be twisted off, although they'll be left dangling by wires - it's possible to save on space too.

Sound

Despite the flat surface of the earcups, the CL over-ears do a grand job of delivering a full frequency range to the ears. Slipped over the noggin and the earcups quickly find a natural position with the headband a little forward which helps to lock the audio in.

The CLs have 40mm large enclosure drivers which are ported so the headphones are able to recycle information from the back of the driver for that extra power in the low-frequency department. There is certainly bass, but not enough to drown in - which is spot on for headphones on this type.

We popped on The xx's first album to get a taste of bass guitar meets synthetic sub-bass and the two were still audible with a decent amount of oomph. But not too much.

Noise isolation is reasonable to good, but not class-leading. A more distinctly cupped earcup or active noise-cancelling headphones might better suited to some.

One worry that we had about the Harman Kardon CL over-ears was whether the metal construction would impede the listening experience. While the earcup hinges aren't cushioned, we didn't find them to move at all during listening, so no resonant bumps or clinks to be heard through the back of these 'phones.

Audio separation is on point too, as there's a good sense of space between the layers of audio, with the main drive on the mid-levels. Listening to Colorblind by Counting Crows let the vocal remain the star of the show, in a rich-to-the-ears kind of way that didn't diminish the background piano or other arrangement.

In a quick side-by-side test against the Sennheiser HD25 mkII heapdhones, we found that the Sennheisers delivered more top-end sparkle and, in general, were the more enthralling listen out of the two - partly down to the added lick of bass and greater volume available. However, the CLs are the ones to buy for that less-processed, more natural sound, akin to, say, the B&W P3 headphones which, on account of their pound-for-pound price, is bang on where the Harman Kardon 'phones are aiming to be.

READ: Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones review

As a standalone listening experience Harman Kardon has made over-ears that are both immersive and decent quality, though they lack a dash of that "extra something" that would elevate the CLs to greater things.

Verdict

Harman Kardon is a well known brand, and the CL over-ear headphones are testament as to why. It's all about quality: right from the eye-grabbing aesthetics through to the ear-cushioned audio experience.

Industrial yet elegant, they may not be to everyone's tastes, but we like the raw look as much as the balanced audio.

However the not traditionally adjustable headband and flat earcups aren't especially comfortable for long periods of wear, and we feel that there ought to be a pinch more top end for a more complete listen. Still, we're impressed overall.