Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: Harman Kardon Onyx - the ultimate Boombox... er, "Boomegg"?

I have always been a big fan of Harman/JBL speakers. Despite being based on a several year old design I still think the latest go&play wireless version to be one of the best looking and sounding boomboxes around, with the only downside of a castrated sound when run from batteries. I was also very impressed by the JBL Radial, when I heard it for the first time, as well as the JBL On Stage 400-Series, which produced quite a big sound despite being rather small.
So far unfortunately none of the real portable and battery-driven speakers from Harman or JBL managed to convince me. The JBL Charge being larger while costing only slightly less than the Bose Soundlink Mini is not able to produce such a convincing sound as the Bose.

The Onyx seemed to me the perfect reincarnation of the original and iconic go&play design but considerably smaller with a built in battery and hopefully with a similarly mature sound. I like unusual designs for speakers, as I liked the trumpet or vuvuzela design of the Parrot Zikmu, as well as the simple cylindrical design of the Libratone Zipp.
The Onyx looks a bit like an egg at least from the side, but the design as a whole including the steel handle would make it quite attractive within a modern interior, which is why I directly ordered an Onyx as soon as it became available.

The Onyx came in a big but surprisingly light box. I really expected something much heavier, but during unboxing you'll notice that most of the space is just taken up by air, as the speaker is rather compact with only added bulk due to the angled steel handle, which unfortunately is not rotateable, so that you cannot flip it in-line with the speaker to really make it flat for transport. Apart from the handle the speaker just measures 16cm at its thickest spot. It is a real pity that Harman didn't think of such a detail, as a rotateable handle would make the speaker much more convenient for transport so that you could just toss it inside a rucksack or bag. As it is now, it needs a bigger bag to really fit in.

I wouldn't like to carry the Onyx around without any protection despite the convenient carrying-handle. Although the materials are overall really of high-quality, the aluminium passive radiator or even the leathered-back could be easily damaged or scratched without any protection during transport.
I don't understand the choice for a leathered back. Although it might appear pretty slick together with the shiny passive radiator, most of the time you won't even notice it, as the speaker would normally be aimed towards the listener and not with the back-side. This is not a 360° sound system and sound degrades considerably when listened off-axis.

The price for the Onyx is quite steep (499$ or 499€) and among the highest for this kind of portable speaker. Even the go&play costs 1/3 less and I am sure the price for the Onyx could have been lowered, if the some parts were made of simple plastic. Apart from the leathered back the ring around the main body is of a rubbered material and contains all touch-sensitive buttons, while the front consists of a rather cheapish cloth-cover, that can also be removed if necessary.
For my own taste the black cloth-cover degrades the looks of the otherwise high-grade speaker. When touched it becomes dirty pretty fast, and I am sure the cloth will be the first part to show signs of wear, if the speaker is really taken outside often and not only used at home without being moved around. At this price level I would have preferred a wired mesh similar to the go&play to tell the truth.

If the cover is removed the acoustic core of the Onyx is revealed consisting of 2 full-range drivers and 2 tweeters as well as another opposing passive radiator at the front that works together with the one at the back to minize vibrations of the whole speaker. Both reinforce the low frequencies (the backwards movement of the active drivers) that would otherwise be lost within the speaker. A ported design as an alternative would probably be less efficient with such a flat and compact body.
I was a bit surprised to see the actual paper-cone drivers, as they look pretty cheap, like some simple speakers bought from Radioshack.

I expected Harman Kardon to use some more sophisticated and high-quality drivers. It also catched my eye that the drivers were not mounted totally centered but rather offset slightly within their openings. Maybe this is nitpicking, but we are talking about a pricy design-object, where I would expect a bit of perfection.

At the bottom back there are some connection ports as well as a WPS-button for quick router-connection. The Onyx does not only support a simple Bluetooth connection (including a quick NFC connection, which is pretty useless for Apple-users until Apple finally decides to support NFC) , but can also act as an Airplay speaker as well as a DLNA renderer. The Onyx is not bound to the Apple universe, but can equally be used from Android-devices or simple Bluetooth players which don't support any Wifi connection. Harman Kardon claims that the included Bluetooth protocol also supports the much superior Apt-X codec (which again is not supported by iOS devices yet and couldn't be tested by me).
I switched a bit back and forth between Airplay and Bluetooth and didn't notice any big differences in audio, despite only using the worse-quality AAC-codec for Bluetooth, but maybe the tested music was not that revealing.

To tell the truth I haven't figured out if the USB-port is only for charging external devices, or if  it can playback music from any attached player as well, but I wouldn't use this feature anyhow because the ports are overall placed in a bit hard to reach place. Every time I wanted to attach the power-cord after having used the Onyx from battery, I always had to take accurate aim to actually fit in the cord. The space between the bottom part of the handle and the recessed ports is quite narrow. I would have welcomed a kind of additional charging cradle, where you could just place the speaker for simple charging. I am sure though, Harman would charge even more for such a feature...

The touch controls at the top of the speaker light all up as soon as the corresponding area is touched. The first time I tried to turn it on, I pressed every single area, including the WPS-button, but nothing happened. It seems you have to keep the area around the power-symbol touched for at least about 3 seconds, then the speaker comes to life! The symbols light up, but go off again after some seconds, the only lights that always remain lit are the power-symbol and the Wifi and Bluetooth symbol. It's strange that Harman didn't also keep the volume-symbols lit. There are 5 distinct volume-dots, that symbolize the current volume-level. If you turn the volume louder, one dot after the other will first brighten up, until it reaches full brightness, then the next dot starts to brighten.
Maybe Harman thought the touch-sensitive area as a whole would be enough and any user would just touch there and then swipe to the left or right in order to get the right volume. But it is not that easy, as you don't see where the minimum or maximum volume is before touching, you might touch the area in the middle and the speaker would scream up with a higher level than wanted. I still haven't found out, if you have to swipe to the right to turn it louder, or if it is enough to simply touch near the desired volume-area. You can also use the +/- areas (which are not lit either until you touch them), but you need to hold them pressed for about a second until the Onyx quickly jumps to a much lower or higher volume.
I found controlling volume through the touch-field being quite cumbersome. I didn't manage to tune volume fine enough like this. Either it was too loud or too soft, or it unexpectedly started to play near maximum volume so I rather preferred using the volume slider on my iPhone or even its volume buttons. The absolute volume level is mirrored on the player by the way (regardless if played through Wifi or Bluetooth) which is quite nice, as you don't need to deal around with 2 separate volume-levels, like you have to do on the Bose Soundlink for example. 2 separate volumes can lead to further sound-processing artefacts, for example if you turn your player to the minimum and turn the Soundlink to the maximum it will sound different, than if the speaker is set low while the player is maxed out. No such effects with the Onyx thank godness.

Establishing a wireless connection is not a big deal with the Onyx. Keep the Wifi-symbol touched for a certain time and the Onyx will setup an own Wifi-network which you can connect to from your mobile device or computer and setup the connection details to your router. By dialing in into the browser you'll get access to the Onyx' configuration site, where you can also start a firmware update or even dig deeper into the settings through the manual configuration tab. A quicker method might be just pressing the WPS-button, but i haven't even tried it like that.
The same goes for Bluetooth, keep the symbol touched and the Onyx will jump into pairing mode.
Both types of connection are confirmed by the same loud "bleep" which is a bit too loud for my taste. If connection is lost or canceled another annoying tone is played. Bluetooth range is quite impressive. The Onyx did repeatedly pair with my iPhone, standing in the opposite corner of our house. Due to the confirmation tones this could be quite distracting, especially if it automatically tried to pair at night when everyone was already sleeping.
I have not figured out if you could turn off Bluetooth or Wifi completely in case you would like to save some battery, as Wifi seems to be active whole the time. The light just turns red if no connection is established but it still seems to be active, because when I return home with the Onyx it automatically connects to my network as soon as it is close enough.
After a certain time the Onyx automatically jumps into standby-mode when no music is played. It is still shown as an available Airplay device, but the Powerlight is red, and the speaker probably running in some kind low-power mode.
If the speaker is streaming through Bluetooth currently while another stream is started through Wifi for example, the newer stream has priority and takes over the speaker.

So, how does it sound?
I hoped it would at least knock my socks off in the same way as the go&play did, when I heard it the first time many years ago. The Onyx sounds good, but it didn't impress me that much as many other speakers did in the meantime. It is more expensive than many other contenders but sounds only marginally better, in case of the go&play even worse.
But let me explain first. When I unboxed the Onyx after coming home from work it was already quite late until i finally managed to turn it on. I couldn't really crank it, but rather had to listen at lower levels thus remained pretty unimpressed.

For direct comparison I put the minuscule Bose Soundlink Mini (which is by far my favorite ultraportable speaker now) besides and switched back and forth between both with matched levels only to find out that the Mini put out a more serious and mature sound than the Onyx. At lower levels (I would say comfortable room-volume for background listening) the Onyx sounds hardly any better than a good kitchen radio with a bit of a honky sound. The sound remains quite mid-focused without any mentionable bass and even treble remains a bit recessed. We are talking about levels within a frame of 15-20% on the Onyx' volume scale, which corresponds to about 30-40% of Bose's Soundlink Mini volume. Of course the Onyx can play much louder than the Soundlink Mini (I would say it reaches about twice the loudness), which is not the question here. If you want some low background music the Onyx just cannot impress. It only starts to really live up to its expectations if you turn it above 30-40%, but it performs best and sounds perfect at about 50-60%, which is pretty loud already and considerably louder and more powerful than the Bose Soundlink Mini at its maximum volume for example. That's still quite impressive for Bose considering the drivers of the Soundlink Mini are just about the size of the Onyx' tweeters.

In the following video I tried to compare both the Onyx and the Soundlink Mini with matched volumes as close as possible. The Onyx was playing at 35%, while the Soundlink was about 70%. Overall the Onyx has a more defined sound, but the Soundlink Mini keeps up pretty well. At lower levels the Soundlink mini manages to produce a more powerful sound, while the Onyx has the edge at higher levels and can also play much louder.

I am not sure if the weaker performance at lower volume is because of the higher inertia of the passive radiators, which don't become fully effective until higher levels are reached, or if Harman just didn't tune the DSP well, as I didn't notice such a strong volume dependent sound degradation with the go&play for example. Harman or JBL are known for their DSP processing and dynamic bass adjustment, but in case of the Onyx something seems to have went wrong.

When directly compared to the Harman Kardon go&play, the go&play produces a deeper and fuller sound. The Onyx might sound a bit more natural, but the go&play is much more enjoyable, bass is tuned lower, i would assume about 10Hz lower. The technical sheet is claiming 55Hz as the low frequency limit for the Onyx and this seems to be more or less the reality. Although you can still hear a bit of "vibration" below 50Hz, it hardly has any amplitude any more. The lowest usable bass-frequency seems to be around 50Hz, while I would estimate the go&play of being able to play down to 40Hz. The Audyssey South of market Audiodock even had usable 35Hz at lower volumes, despite being not really much larger in volume than the Onyx. Interestingly the Audyssey had neither passive radiators nor a bassreflex port and therefore impressed me even more performancewise than the go&play, which was the reason why I finally sold my go&play some years ago. Unfortunately my Audyssey died after one year and I couldn't get an exchange from the store, so I returned it completely, although it impressed me a lot as a speaker.

I tried to compare the Onyx to some other speakers I don't currently own and took it to a store with me, where I was able to listen to it side by side with a Bose Sounddock Portable (I already sold mine some time ago otherwise I would have been able to compare it at home as well), a Libratone Zipp (also sold) and a Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200.

The Onyx sounded more powerful than the Sounddock Portable at higher levels, but as expected the sound was less impressive than the Bose at lower levels. I would say that both played more or less on the same level, with the Onyx having a bit more punchy bass, but the Bose sounding clearer in treble. Not a bad result for Bose, as the Sounddock Portable acoustic design is already several years old, but still holds up pretty well.

The Libratone Zipp lost completely. When the Onyx was at its best at about 50% volume, the Zipp already distorted on heavier bass sounds, nowhere able to reach the levels of the Onyx. The Onyx had a much more punchy sound, the Zipp sounding hollow and tinny. The Zipp had clearer treble due to the ribbon-tweeters, but overall sound was artificial and thin, especially regarding mids.

The Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 is in another speaker-category, it is larger, not meant as a portable speaker, but costs about the same as the Onyx, that's why I wanted to compare both anyway. At normal levels both sounded pretty similar, it was only at higher levels, that the Minx Air 200 started to have an advantage with a more powerful bass, but I was not able to really listen to both at high levels for long not to be kicked out of the store.

Overall there were no big surprises even compared to many other speakers. The Onyx definitely sounds good, but it doesn't have the "wow"-factor, many other speakers manage to create.
It cannot compete by any means with my Philips DS9800W Soundsphere speakers which I currently use as my main listening solution as the Onyx sounds rather like a mono kitchen-radio when directly compared. It was only at high levels and bass-heavy music that the Onyx produced some distortion. It was not severe, but noticeable. Also bass is not that strong anymore at higher levels than 70%, so that the speaker plays loud, but without the bass power you would expect.
I also noticed slight vibrations of the enclosure with particular piano-notes, nothing too serious, but pure piano music at louder volumes could sound bad on the Onyx. First I thought the front cover was to blame, but it seems the drivers are causing the vibration.

Here an additional outdoor video showing off the Onyx, volume was between 50-80%, where the Onyx sounds best:

My hope was that there were some further adjustments available from the Harman Kardon remote app. I downloaded and installed the app for iOS only to notice that it crashed every time I wanted to start it. Later I discovered that the app indeed worked but only through a Bluetooth connection while Wifi remained turned off. At least now I could try the features, but noticed that there are hardly any additional parameters available for tweaking. The app acts rather like an additional music player.

At the main page all available players appear, in my case only the Onyx. But sometimes the Onyx din't appear at all, I had to restart the app or the speaker so that I finally had it selectable in the app. The app has its own device control panel where you can see the remaining battery as well as the current streaming mode. There is also a stereo-widening option, which doesn't do much harm to the sound, but doesn't broaden it up really much either. It was turned on from the beginning and I kept it turned on, because it sounded quite acceptable without any annoying artefacts (like Liveaudio from the Jambox for example), but don't expect any miracles. The Onyx still sounds rather like a mono sound source, except if putting the nose against the cover.

Although there is another EQ-like symbol at the bottom right of the app, the corresponding panel is empty in case of the Onyx with the exception of a single volume-slider. Maybe there will be further updates which will allow additional EQ-tweaking, but as there are several other Harman devices listed, I would rather assume that those devices might have some further EQ-options which are simply not available for the Onyx. But at least you can even turn off the speaker remotely form the app, if really needed.
My wish would be some simple "loudness" switch, which would compensate for the sound-loss at lower volumes. So far only Bose, B&O or Audyssey really seem to care to optimize sound for low volume output.

Battery life was around the promised 5 hours. I tried to listen at levels near 50% where the Onyx sounded best streaming through Bluetooth and managed slightly above 4 hours until the speaker turned off on its own. I also tried mixed streaming through Wifi and Bluetooth at lower levels (about 20-30%) and it played for 5 and a half hours. So the streaming-unit seems indeed to be the limiting factor here as Harman promises 8 hours with wired connection. A pity as 4-5 hours of portable use are certainly not enough for a day at the beach or a fireside-party in the evening where louder levels might be necessary.
Not sure what happens after some years of usage when the battery starts to lose its capacity even more. It doesn't seem to be replaceable at all. This is quite a drawback with a product costing that much. Maybe the Onyx can be sent in for a replacement at a service-center.

Upcoming I am going to compare the Onyx to the brand new and quite similarly designed Libratone Loop which also costs the same. Unfortunately delivery of the Libratone Loop was delayed, as I am going to send the Onyx back, I won't be able to compare both anymore.

To conclude I would claim that the Onyx is definitely a nice sounding speaker that has its spacy looks but it doesn't give any surprises regarding sound. It can play pretty loud but has its limits, as sound starts to deteriorate above 75%. It also sounds quite sub-par at low levels, so you always feel forced to turn it louder.
I wouldn't recommend the Onyx as a portable Boombox but at the same time there are also much better stationary speakers, like the Philips Soundsphere which meanwhile can be had for about 320$. If not the hardware issues which I also experienced with my model, this would indeed be one of the best sounding Airplay speakers I would recommend to anyone.
As a portable Boombox I would definitely choose the Klipsch KMC-3 over the Onyx. It is larger for sure and doesn't look like a UFO, but it puts out a much more impressive sound and it is cheaper too. The missing internal battery of the Klipsch can be easily fixed with an external Powerbank. Not sure about the new and smaller KMC-1, as I haven't heard it yet, but I doubt the smaller Klipsch can compete with the Onyx regarding high volume output. Even the old Sounddock Portable might be a better solution as it produces similar sound as the Onyx, but is smaller and has better battery life.
I was a bit disappointed with the overall quality of the Onyx. It seems to cheat top-quality but at closer look makes a rather cheap impression. There's a catch with the price which is overpriced by 30-50% in my opinion. The Onyx does by no means produce sound worth 500$ and the leathered back as well as the shiny passive radiator don't compensate for this.

+ spacy and elegant design
+ compact
+ precious materials (especially at the back)
+ all possible wireless streaming modes available (incl. NFC and Apt-x)
+ good sound with punchy bass at medium levels
+ can play pretty loud
+ impressive Bluetooth range
+ app support
+ mirrored volume on speaker and streaming device in all wireless modes (incl. Bluetooth)

- too expensive
- cheap front cover
- handle cannot be rotated for an even flatter design
- sound unimpressive at lower volumes
- starts to sound harsh and distorted at high volumes
- unimpressive battery life (4-5 hours)
- battery not replaceable
- iOS app crashes when connected through Wifi
- no further sound customization through the app 
- loud confirmation tones when connecting through Wifi or Bluetooth