Review: Harman/Kardon Esquire Mini

When you need better sound, you can always rely on a portable speaker, but Harman/Kardon’s Esquire Mini doesn’t just provide a decent sound, it packs in a useful battery, too.

Features and performance

Harman/Kardon may have a heritage in high-end audio for home theatre and stereos, but last year, we saw the company start migrating its take on design and an understand of sound to devices that were a wee bit smaller than the large amplifiers and HiFi systems that many of us still keep in the living room at home.

Rather, HK joined the likes of Sony, Samsung, LG, and many others with Bluetooth audio, shrinking its technology to a form factor meant for the computer and the tablet and the smartphone, and anything else that you load music on and take with you, with the idea being that you’ll be streaming it to a speaker wirelessly.

The first example of this came in the form of the “Esquire”, a square of a speaker that packed in a deliciously warm sound with a slightly diminished bass, but a style that made the speaker look like none other.

It was nice, and we could see why people liked it, with a power brick built into the body to charge your phone and tablet if need be, providing a little extra pizzazz the speakers don’t normally come equipped with.

Harman/Kardon’s Esquire Mini is, however, exactly what the name suggests: a smaller take on the Esquire speaker, with the same sort of quality thrown in.

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For instance, there’s the style, with a metal frame, leather back, and more of that slot texted look, as well as support for Bluetooth and wired audio, depending on how you want to get your sound to the speaker.

This one can’t stand up by itself, unlike the full-sized Esquire, and so Harman/Kardon has built in a little stand that pushes out, allowing the speaker to stand at an angle when you want it to, or just lie flat, whichever you prefer.

You’ll also find a microphone in here, and when paired with a smartphone, the speaker can act as a voice conferencing device, which will no doubt be handy for some.

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Also still here is the power bank, which provides some extra life to your phone when you need it, just make sure you have the USB cable for your device ready, because that doesn’t come with the Esquire Mini.

Charging the speaker is the international standard of microUSB, with a small cable provided in the box, or you can just use the same one you get with every phone that isn’t made by Apple.

Finally, there’s a power meter on the left edge that glows white up to five dots depending on how much battery life is left in the speaker, and glows red when the Mini is charging up a device. Three buttons sit up top, providing power (hold it down to switch the speaker on and off), Bluetooth (for pairing), and phone (to answer a call), with a metal volume rocker on the other side of that top edge.

And that is, for the most part, the Esquire Mini speaker, providing a simple look and even some simple design.

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Turning it on shouldn’t be hard, and neither should pairing which merely requires you to press the Bluetooth button up top, watch for the blinking blue light above the “Harman/Kardon” logo on the front of the speaker, and get your phone to look for it. Granted, it’s not as easy as the Near-Field Communication friendly speakers, but an iPhone still won’t use this method of connection, so we can see why HK went this route.

From there, it’s on to the sound, and like with all of our tests this year, we’ll be using the GadgetGuy 2015 Sound Test, which you can use yourself to see what we look for when we test audio devices.

Starting with the Tycho’s “Awake”, it’s clear from the beginning that this speaker is going to be great for highs, good for mids, and a little missed out in relation to bass. In this track, which is a fairly quiet but still structured relaxing guitar and synth piece, the bass is there only when the beat pushes down, with the rest of the piece pulling ahead in the highs and mids, the guitar and synth clear.

It is detailed, however, and that’s good, while also being able to push up in the volume, so that’ll be useful if you need loudness in a pinch, especially as the Esquire Mini will also work as a fairly loud speakerphone.

Back to music, because that’s the part we’re testing now, and electronica has us dabbling in the harder stuff next, with Mooro’s “M66R6” and The Glitch Mob’s “Skullclub”, each of which allow us to hear the bass — yay, bass, we thought it would never come! — though this is likely due to this music being mixed and mastered with more strength in the bottom end.

But the heavy punch from Bastille’s “Bad Blood” is missing here, swinging our attention to the reality that bass is a more a subdued affair in the Esquire Mini, even if the rest of the sound is still clear, the vocals atop synthetic instruments, though barely a register of the underlying oomph Bastille normally brings to the track.

Over to rock and Nirvana’s main speaker test track “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is bright, detailed, and lively, but again lacks the bass strength you might be looking for in the bottom end. Some will be fine with this, and in a way, this reminds us of radio, albeit the most detailed radio we’ve ever heard. It’s not tinny or shallow, but the bass is just barely there.

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And that feeling stays like that through most of the rock tracks we tested. There was a little bass in “Locked Out of Heaven” (Bruno Mars) as well as “Do I Wanna Know?” (Arctic Monkeys), and even the classics felt this way, as Clapton’s “Layla” sounded good, but just lacked much of that bottom end.

Hip-hop and R&B does something similar to what we experienced in electronica, with more pronounced bass, but only marginally (we said “similar”), with the Gorillaz track “Feel Good Inc” showing us a glimpse of bass and clarity across the vocals and instruments, and a little more noticeable bass on Galactic’s “Find My Home”.

Bassier hip-hop with The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotise” is punchier, thanks to the push and attack of the low sounds, clear on the mids of the rhymes, separation obvious.

That result is surprising for this speaker, and it performs very well in hip-hop, which lends itself well to R&B. In fact, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is full, bright, loud, and with good detail as the minor percussion rings true on a speaker of this size. There’s even some of that pushed bass, which again is fairly subtle, but still noticeable, more so than we’ve heard on other tracks.

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Other R&B tracks worked just as well, though the bottom end was still relatively subtle, picked up on D’Angelo’s “Feel Like Making Love” and Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around”, while the older soul tracks were more subtle, with Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) bright and the bassy bottom end of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” there, but again pulled back.

Pop recreates this feeling, more pronounced bass due to engineering making itself clear and present on the Harman/Kardon Esquire Mini, with both Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Katy Perry’s “Roar” clear and clean, though still not as deep as we’ve seen on other speakers.

But that bass is just not that visible. It’s there, but only barely, and you seem to need to hear it on tracks where the engineer has spent time massaging it into place, which obviously isn’t all music.

Even from the countdown of Solomon Burke’s “None Of Us Are Free”, we could tell the blues track would be lacking in complexity, though the vocals are at least quite clear and detailed. You can hear some semblance of bass here, but it’s not the best it could be, and it’s mostly missing in the test tracks from Jonny Lang (“Bump in the Road”) and Mumford & Sons (“I Will Wait”).

That’s not to say the music isn’t clear, as it most certainly it, with a bright sharp sound that appeals to the highs we’re used to with obvious clarity, but it just lacks bass. It’s there, but only barely, and the feeling we get from this speaker is that it performs, just not to the sort of balance you might expect.

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Simply put, it’s a subdued level of bass, and that continues with jazz, a soft set of instruments and little notice of the double bass in Dave Brubeck’s “Maria”, more attention to the piano and vocals than the bass or drums in Louis Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek”, and only a skerrick of the double bass you’d expect in the Miles Davis classic, “All Blues”.

Again, totally clear and totally easy to listen to, especially from such a small speaker that stands at attention all by itself, with a simple little kickstand and all, just a decidedly subdued sound from the bass. It’s subtle. There, but subtle.

Aside for the bass, one downside to the package is the look, and this one is hit and miss.

We actually like how it looks, with the slotted textured finish a little different from most of the softly dotted speakers we see, made complete by the metal frame, leather back, and nifty little push out kickstand.

What we don’t like, however, is how easy it is to get dust and other fibres in the body, denting the clean styling.

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You can’t always see it, but when we kept the Esquire Mini in our backpack, it picked up on the odd fuzzy bit of fibre, which we’ve tried to remove and had no luck.

With no water resistance, we can’t just run it under the tap, which is what we’d do with the Ultimate Ears speakers, and since then, the speaker has even picked up a stray dog hair or two, thanks to the shedding skills of a Jack Russell-Chihuahua combo.

It’s not even just loose fibre that’s a problem, as the plastic — which is painted either black or brown depending on the version you pick — will over time wear down to a less than fantastic grey. It’s minor, but we found after carrying it with us for weeks that the look was changing.

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If you can keep the Harman/Kardon Esquire Mini clean and away from anything it can rub up against, you’ll be solid, but we’d keep it away from any loose cotton, wool, fur, or materials of any kind that can be dislodged and picked up, because the slotted exterior of the speaker has no problem taking this in and not letting go.

At least the back's leather look stays looking that way.

At least the back’s leather look stays looking that way.

Conclusion

At a cost of just a hair under $230, Harman/Kardon’s Esquire Mini is an unusual little box, and that’s what it is: a little box.

It’s a thinner and smaller box than the first Esquire speaker we played with last year, the full-size Esquire, which was good but didn’t quite match the high price tag HK gave it.

The Mini, however, gets closer, and while its bass output needs a little work, the sound is bright and clear, something not all Bluetooth speakers can say, especially ones with a power bank inside.

As such, this won’t be for everyone, but if you need better sound out of your phone or laptop than what you currently have and want a power bank inside of it, too, the Harman/Kardon Esquire Mini is totally worth considering, just make sure your music isn’t totally reliant on bass, otherwise you just won’t hear much.

 

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