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Harman/Kardon SoundSticks 3 Piece USB Speaker System

By: Kirk Hiner


Developer: Harman Multimedia
Minimum Requirements: Mac OS 9, Apple computer with USB interface
Retail Price: $199.99
Availability: Now through the Apple Store


I've been living in my current apartment for a little over a year now. It's a single-storey, two bedroom place in the heart of a complex where every apartment looks exactly the same. If the numbers were to fall off the doors, I could probably spend half the evening watching someone else's TV before I realized I was in the wrong living room.

Despite being here for over a year, I still get people visiting me for the first time, so I end up giving them the obligatory tour. "Here's my living room, and yes the Flash Gordon pinball machine does work. Here's the kitchen, notice the Fork of Death hanging by the fridge. Here's the bedroom, and no, I have no idea how many hi-bouncing balls I have in those jars. And finally, here's SoundSticks room."

The SoundSticks room used to be called my computer room. After all, with that G4 and the 17" Apple Studio Monitor sitting prominently on the desk, what else could be worth mentioning? But no more. Now the computer plays second fiddle to, of all things, a subwoofer.

Okay, so it's a subwoofer and a pair of satellite speakers, but it's that iSub that makes people want to sleep in the SoundSticks room when spending the night. Whereas my previous Yamaha subwoofer was hidden under my computer desk, I had to bring the iSub into the open so everyone could share in its spledor. With the way the small blue light in the back reflects off its transparent curves, walking into my computer room at night is now not entirely unlike touring the National Aquarium in Baltimore, only darker...and less crowded...and without all the fish.

The iSub was originally designed by Harman Multimedia to supplement the iMac speakers. Thing is, it looked so cool and sounded so good that iMac owners weren't the only ones clammoring for one. Anyone with a USB Mac could hook it up, after all, but what to do about satellite speakers? What else would look right with iSub, aside from perhaps a special effects sequence from The Abyss? And even iMac owners who had satellite speakers built into their computer still wanted something better.

Thus, SoundSticks, a package that contains the iSub and two satellite speakers that look as if they've they should actually be used to communicate with the alien mother ship. Of course, judging from its design, maybe the iSub is the alien mother ship. That eerie blue light must serve some purpose...

Okay, so they look great. Certainly we would expect nothing less from a company so happily embraced by Apple. But how do they sound? More importantly, how do they sound with games? Well, first, here are some specs for those who care:

  • 20-watt powered subwoofer
  • 10-watt per-channel powered satellites
  • Digital USB interface that fully supports streaming digital audio
  • Plug and play
  • Universal power adapter for international operation
  • Bass response down to 44 Hz
  • High frequencies beyond 20 kHz

What does that mean? It means, first off, that to start using your SoundSticks you need only find a USB port. Plug them in, and you're ready to go (provided you have Mac OS 9 or later, that is; the driver is built into the system). Second, it means that you're getting some pretty sweet sound. Actually, "pretty" is too wimpy there. I'm thinking that perhaps gorgeously, or even stunningly would be more appropriate. I've gone through many speaker systems in my day, and never before have I heard bass as clean as that which resonates from the iSub. That clarity carries over to the SoundSticks as well, so it doesn't matter if you're more interesting in hearing Lara Croft's "Ah hah!" upon finding a secret item or the explosion of her grenade launcher, you'll be pleased either way. The SoundSticks do a great job handling music, ambient noises, speech and sound effects in nearly every game I played.


I tested the SoundSticks on over ten games, everything from Bubble Trouble to Scrabble to the beta of 4x4 Evolution, and only one game didn't work; Baldur's Gate. Throughout the game, the music and effects would hiss and pop with frequency. When I ran the game through my old Yamaha non-USB speakers, no problem. This isn't necessarily the fault of Harmon Multimedia, but gamers should note that issues can arise between games and USB speakers just as they can with any USB device.

Compounding this problem is the lack of a volume control on the speakers. When playing games, being able to adjust the sound without having to get back to the game settings or, worse yet, exit to the system to access the sound control panel is imperative. With the SoundSticks, you're out of luck...unless you have a multimedia keyboard or other device to control the system volume while you're in other applications, but I won't get into all of that right now. Instead, I'll get into the lack of a headphone jack. I don't care how great games, DVDs, CDs and MP3s sound through any speaker system (and they do sound great), sometimes you just want to use headphones. To do that with the SoundSticks, you still have to go back through your computer's audio jack.

Of course, when you've got speakers this attractive, it would almost be sacrilege to stain them with knobs and jacks. It would be like putting a floppy drive in an iMac. You just can't do that. Sacrificing functionality for design is sometimes acceptible, and on rare occasion prefered. This is one of those rare occasions. The SoundSticks won't become the perfect gaming speakers, but they'll look great trying.


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