Harman Kardon is no new kid on the block when it comes to home audio, and they’ve been turning out speakers and receivers for longer than I have been alive. While they’re not the most expensive home audio equipment on the market, all that experience doesn’t come for cheap. To make their audio equipment accessible to a wider audience, they established a factory refurbishing arm designed to bring quality at an affordable price. We got our hands on their wireless Aura home speaker system to see if the quality claim holds true.
What does factory refurbished mean?
That “refurbished” tag carries a lot of mystery with it which many people equate to “used” or “broken”. Why else would something in great shape cost so much less than the same item new? It may surprise you to learn, but buying factory refurbished products often means more quality control than the same item new. There is a huge difference between something that is simply refurbished and something factory refurbished, mainly in the product expertise and the original parts/packaging use.
For Harman, the refurbishing process starts with collecting all the products for thorough testing, and the whole refurb process takes place in their facility in Southern California. Once the testing is complete and defects are identified, the reparable items have parts swapped with original Harman parts and tested to ensure proper functionality. For those that cannot be repaired, their life comes to an end and they are scrapped.
According to Harman Kardon the majority of the returns they process have no performance or functional defects, as the most commonly serviced parts are the cosmetic components. Of course, when you buy something you plan on putting in your home on display you want it looking great, so these cosmetic repairs primarily consist of panel replacement and surface alterations.
Audio Report Card
Not all refurbished products are equal. There are variations of imperfection tolerance, which separate products into grades (A-stock through D-stock). Most factory refurbished products don’t end up as far down as D-stock, and Harman only allows A and B-stock, with the main difference being the cosmetic appearance.
In order for products to be classified as A-stock- in addition to being functionally perfect- have a zero tolerance for blemishes. Basically, these are pristine and essentially brand new units.
The bulk of the B-stock are returned in like new condition or found to have no defects, but still need to pass the testing and QA check. Basically, these need to be functionally operational and perform at the same level as brand new speakers. The main difference is that some of these may have minor blemishes in the cosmetics, although the one I received was perfect.
Now onto the speaker itself. All this talk is well and good on paper, but is the product really like new?
Appearance and Design
Right off the bat, the Aura has some serious aesthetic appeal working for it. Not only did it come out of the box looking brand new, it looked like HK put some thought into the design. The clear sub enclosure reminds me of a jellyfish, especially when the lights are low and the center LED ring casts a light on the edges of the bass port. In the center of the enclosure, just below the LED ring is where the magic lives. A turbine design hides the downward-facing 4.5” subwoofer, which like the mid-high range drivers cloaked under black cloth, is easily missed on first glance.
For connections, the Aura is packing an AUX 3.5mm jack, optical, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Apple AirPlay, and DLNA compatibility as well as a USB port. While the audio connections are wireless, the speaker isn’t and needs to be plugged in to operate. To change sources you can tap the illuminated touch button on the side, which is color coded by input. It would be nice to see the power button also backlit by an LED similar to the source and Wi-Fi indicators, but that’s a small gripe.
To control the volume you can either use your connected device or the touch slider around the upper rim of the black base, which has corresponding LED visual display. The HK Remote app can be used to control the volume, play music from your phone, and create playlists from your library. I found the app of little use since I stream most of my music and the interface wasn’t super intuitive, however you do need to use the app to control the bass level on the speaker, which has no physical counterpart.
Looks? Check. But beauty is more than polycarbonate and cloth deep, how does it sound? Considering the small size of the subwoofer, the 30W it thumps out hits way above its weight class in the bass department. For the mid to high range frequencies, the Aura has 6 1.5”, 15W transducers surrounding the base, producing 360° of immersive sound in a small form factor wherever it is.
Though the whole speaker/sub combination is just a hair under 11” tall, the “room-filling sound” claim Harman makes isn’t just for a dorm room. In my 20’x20’ living room the sound was powerful and consistent from all angles, so kudos to Harman for living up to their word here.
Of course just being loud doesn’t make a speaker good, so I tested out a few genres to put the enhanced equalization/specialization to work. Over the last couple of weeks that I had the speaker I pushed it to the max in every frequency within the 50Hz-20kHz range.
The bass output is clean and deep with hip hop and EDM, and the mids didn’t get distorted when I cranked up the volume. I only got a slight amount of buzz from the sub bottoming out at very high volumes, but otherwise it put out a very solid performance.
Switching genres to rock music, the individual electric and bass guitar notes stand out clearly instead of getting smashed into a muddy mess like on some audio sets. The richest experience by far though was with jazz and brass band jams. The midrange and treble coming from the omni-directional drivers played well with the bass line, floating above it and making the higher frequencies the star of the show.
The sound clarity did justice to the subtle wavering of the horns. I was able to hear the transition between on and off notes, and other little nuances you pick up from a live performance which often get on lower quality equipment. Vocals came through rich and silky, with openness to them.
All in all the system held up very well throughout several genres of music, and showed a strong dynamic range that kept music quality up into the higher volumes with a consistent tonal balance. The only quirk that came out in testing is when two phones were connected to the speaker via Bluetooth, audio playing would pause when the other received an incoming text message or notification. A few times play would stop randomly from one device and start on the other without an apparent cause.
The overall quality of the Harman Kardon refurbishing job is stellar, and considering the difference in cost between a new unit and a factory refurb unit, I wouldn’t hesitate to go with the latter.