May 25, 2020
Harman Kardon's first true wireless earbuds deliver excellent sound for $150

Harman Kardon’s first true wireless earbuds deliver excellent sound for $150

The Fly TWS are Harman Kardon’s first true wireless earbuds.

David Carnoy/CNET

Harman Kardon hasn’t made a new headphone in years but it used to make some really good ones. Now it’s returned to the headphone arena with three models under its new Fly sub-brand. They include a $200 (£230) full-size noise-canceling model (Fly ANC), standard wireless earbuds (Fly BT — $100 or £130) and the true wireless Fly TWS ($150, £180), which I’m testing in advance of its late May release. Thus far, the Fly TWS has impressed me with its sound quality. (There’s no word yet on Australian pricing, but £230 is about AU$450.)

The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that the both charging case and the buds themselves looked more high-end than I expected. The case’s top has a faux leather finish on the lid that’s also present on the outside of the buds. And both the case (2.1 ounces, 59.2 grams) and buds (0.25 ounce, 7.3 grams) have a little bit of heft to them. They’re not heavy but they feel solid.

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The buds themselves are on the bigger side and do stick out from your ears a bit, which I think is their one downside. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, which also cost $150, are definitely more discreet. Those sound very good, but these sound slightly better, with more detail and more energy in the bass with slightly better definition. The Harmans also also have a little bigger soundstage; they sound a bit more open.

Read more: Best true wireless earbuds of 2020

These use 5.6mm drivers and have up to six hours of battery life, plus you get an extra 14 hours from the case. The Galaxy Buds Plus can last up to 11 hours on single charge, so they’re easily superior in that department. Also, the Samsung case charges wired or wirelessly, whereas this one just has USB-C charging with a quick-charge feature that gives you an hour’s worth of juice from a 10-minute charge. They’re IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can take a sustained spray of water. I was able to run with them, but, like I said, they may be a touch big for some people’s ears. 

I should point out that Samsung owns Harman, and brands like JBL and AKG, which are under the Harman umbrella. So this is kind of like Apple competing against Beats, which it owns. That said, the TWS Fly do seem quite different from the Galaxy Buds Plus, although their features are pretty similar.  

These are noise-isolating — a tight seal is a must to get optimal sound quality — but unlike the step-up Fly ANC model, there’s no active noise-canceling. As with the Buds Plus you get an ambient mode that lets sound leak in from the world around you and if you activate the TalkThru mode, you can hear your voice inside the buds when making voice calls. I didn’t see a way to adjust the level of TalkThru, but that’s a nice feature and these do work well as a headset for making calls. For those who like to tweak their sound, there are some preset EQ settings in the app and you can also create your own custom EQ. 

Like the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, they do stick out from your ears a bit.

David Carnoy/CNET

These have one-button access to Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or your phone’s voice assistant. I thought the touch controls worked pretty well; they’re responsive. It’s easy to advance tracks by double tapping and the controls for each earbud are customizable. I had a little trouble with the swipe gesture, which you can use to raise and lower volume with the right ear bud. But this is an early unit so some of that functionality may improve with software upgrades.

I also compared these to the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. As far as the fit goes, I found the Sennheiser a little more comfortable to wear — they just nestle in my ears better. Sennheiser worked on reducing the size of the buds a little bit with its second-generation model and it paid off. The Momentum True Wireless 2 also have active noise canceling and support for the AAC and aptX codecs (for devices that support aptX, like Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones). The Sennheisers use Bluetooth 5.1 while these use Bluetooth 5.0.

The case charges via USB-C.

David Carnoy/CNET

Soundwise, I slightly preferred the Sennheiser. It’s a little warmer, with bass that goes deeper and is a little plumper. The Harman Fly offers slightly better clarity and sparkle, with slightly more forward sound at their default sound profile. How you feel about each of them will probably depend on what kind of music you listen to. But the point is you’re getting very high quality sound from this Harman at half the cost of the Sennheiser, which is a great set of true wireless earbuds and one of our Editors’ Choice picks in the category. 

As I said, these won’t be out till the end of May and I’m going to wait for any final software tweaks and to see what else hits the market before giving them a final rating. But I was pleasantly surprised by both their build and sound quality, and I think this new Harman is an indication that we’ll be seeing more true wireless earbuds in 2020 that deliver better performance at more affordable prices.

Read moreBest-sounding wireless earbuds of 2020

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