Keech Design

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Design Classics No. 5
Posted by: David Keech on 22nd Jul 2008 in Design Classics

Harman Kardon SoundSticks
When this super slick three-piece speaker system first appeared in July 2000, no one had seen anything quite like it before. Eight years later they still look the business, and with some second generation tweaks still manage to look like a piece of radical design. They sound good too...

So what's it all about? A jellyfish and two marital aids, really. Beautifully engineered, crisply detailed and very sculptural indeed. They really are a celebration of the accidental beauty of electronic components. You can gaze through their transparent exosleletons at the humming internal organs and know that this is sound at the point of its transformation from electrical impulse to audible good vibes.

From the point of view of design philosophy, being able to see the workings of a product is a powerful hook. We are naturally fascinated by what goes on inside things, whether it's celebrity houses or the workings of a clock. There are plenty of well known examples in the design world where internal exposure is employed to full effect; Ferrari engines (e.g. F430) and Dyson vacuum cleaners being pinnacles of the art, not to mention the iMac G3s and beyond.

Talking of Macs, the Soundsticks at their market launch looked like Apple products - perfect partners for the Macs of the time, yet sported the Harman/Kardon logo. As far as I know this was the result of a close partnership, with Apple supplying the product design and and Harman Kardon taking care of the engineering and manufacturing. In effect, design and brand symbiosis, where one company's product is created specifically to compliment that of another. Business Wire at the time reported:

...a USB subwoofer designed exclusively for Apple's new family of iMac(R) computers...Bearing the legendary Harman Kardon brand name, the iSub USB subwoofer features a translucent design created by Apple's world-class design team..."Harman Kardon's iSub subwoofer for the new iMacs offers a stunning and unprecedented level of bass response never before heard from personal computers," said James Druckrey, president of Harman Multimedia.

Harman Kardon is a New York based company founded in 1953 and a pivotal force in hi-fi and audio history. Landmark products include the Festival D1000 (hi-fi receiver), and in 1958 the world's first stereo receiver, the Festival TA230. The website contains an interesting historical timeline with a great voiceover from Dr. Sidney Harman.

A couple of observations:

1. The Subwoofer looks so great that you put on your desk to show off, rather than under the desk where it's supposed to be.

2. The Sticks are a bit too directional for my liking.

3. The touch-sensitive volume control (version 2) is fiddly - good old knob-turning is far more intuitive.

4. The method of speaker angle adjustment by twisting on the ring base is a real design/ manufacturing triumph.

So design classic or just tarty audio indulgence? Let us know what you think in the comments section below. Incidentally, when filling in the comment boxes, you don't need to bother with company/ position etc.


Posted by Rob Mills on 1st Apr 2009 11:03 PM
Hi Dave,

Had a pair for 24 hours. I agree, too directional sounding, and the connecting cables are very heavy and difficult to hide. The reason I didn't keep them was that there is no ON/OFF switch.

Like the blog section btw.


Posted by Keech on 2nd Apr 2009 01:11 AM
Thanks Rob - good point about the on/off switch too.