Harman Kardon Citation 500 Wireless Speaker Review
“Hey Google- let’s get our groove on”
What is the Harman Kardon Citation 500?The Harman Kardon Citation 500 is the largest single chassis speaker in the extensive Citation range. Harman Kardon can’t be accused of half measures in their efforts here. For almost every occasion, there is a product on offer, including a rather splendid looking pair of powered towers. As with a number of these ranges, the real meat and veg of the range is going to be at the more terrestrial end of the market. As such, Steve ‘the Soundbar whisperer’ Withers has had a look at the Citation Soundbar while I have been tasked with the Citation 500.
As the time spent testing the Citation has also represented my first extended foray into using a voice controlled product, there will be, somewhat independently of thoughts on the Harman Kardon, some reflections on the process as approached from the position of slightly (but not overtly) reactionary person who listens to music. It’s not all whinging - I promise.
Of course, there’s no shortage of competition for the Citations. Is this swish offering with the robo-lady inside, the best way of splashing your cash or are there better options out there? It’s time to stop asking it to open the pod bay doors, or where Sarah Connor is, and play some music and make some judgements.
Specification and DesignThe Citation 500 is one of no less than eight members of the range (although this includes a surround and sub which are not strictly speaking, autonomous models in their own right). As noted, it is the largest of the single chassis speakers and of the sort of size and heft that would see it being called upon to fill a lounge. To do this, the driver compliment is fairly conventional. There is a pair of 25mm tweeters supported by a pair of 131mm woofers. There is no recourse to a mono ‘sub’ or passive radiator arrangement which might notionally put the Citation 500 at a disadvantage on paper to some rivals but does auger well for response times.
The first slightly eyebrow raising statistic that the spec sheet throws up is that the power quoted for the speaker is no less than 200 watts, quoted as RMS rather than anything more nefarious and, while it is almost certainly a class D amp rather than an AB one (with the minor implementations for current delivery that entails), it still means that the Citation 500 is a very grunty piece of kit indeed.
This speaker arrangement is tied to an unusually focused set of inputs. The Citation range is barely less Google focused than one of Google’s own speakers and whether you’re going to get on with it will come down heavily as to whether you’re on board with Google’s offering or not. The Citation 500 supports Chromecast to 24/96 natively, (and will play higher sample rates, it will downsample them).
This is something that can be selected via phones or tablets or configured to be controlled via Google Assistant. This is flexible enough, it seems you can ask almost any streaming service you like to become the default playback medium for the software. I used Deezer throughout and have found the results to be perfectly satisfactory within the limitations of voice control - more of which in a bit.
The catch for me is that outside of the world of Google, the Citation 500 is a bit on the sparse side. Given the overlap between Chromecast and AirPlay (and the fact that Google has enough clout that Apple is unlikely to ditch it) I can understand it not being included. The only additional connection set that the Harman has though is AAC Bluetooth. There isn’t any form of additional analogue or digital connection to hand at all. This is something of a bold decision. I don’t know how many people use the auxiliary inputs on these devices but I see enough pictures of something like the Rega Planar One Plus attached to a Sonos or Bluesound to assume there is a market for it. While it is technically possible to use the Bluetooth connection for such a thing, as I don’t know of any AAC Bluetooth equipped turntables, you’d be reduced to SBC instead.
It also means that there is no means of using the Citation 500 as a TV speaker. Harman can, of course, point to the existence of the soundbar but this is an altogether bigger and costlier device than the Citation 500. It’s worth noting that many of the similar designs we’ve looked at from companies like Bluesound and Yamaha have included this functionality. You can just as legitimately argue that Harman isn’t asking you to pay for things you aren’t using and it’s cheaper than the Bluesound Pulse 2i, so there are pros and cons to this approach.
One area where Harman Kardon has Bluesound not so much beaten as routed is the aesthetic of the Citation 500. Whoever is responsible for it, be they committee or individual, should go and put their feet up with the beverage of their choice because it’s almost perfectly judged. The use of fabrics is very en vogue at the moment and Harman has covered the Citations in one from Danish company Kvadrat. Where they’ve been clever though is that they’ve decided to skip the use of one that is going to look absolutely amazing in the middle of 5000 square feet of minimalist modern chic but nowhere else and instead gone for black and light grey. No, they don’t look as exciting but there won’t be many spaces in which they don’t work at all.
Nor is this the only nice touch. The full colour display on the top looks excellent and gives some at-a-glance feedback. The slight taper on the chassis reduces the visible bulk of the unit considerably and it is immaculately put together. It’s areas like this where the sheer scope of Harman’s activities show their worth because the Citation 500 feels as much furniture as it does audio equipment and it’s a lovely thing to have at your disposal. If this came down to aesthetics alone, the Citation range is my favourite of all of these speaker ranges I’ve tested so far.
The Citation 500 feels as much furniture as it does audio equipment and it’s a lovely thing to have at your disposal
How was the Citation 500 tested?As a fairly self contained device, the Citation 500 has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner and sat on a small table. It has accessed a music library held on a Melco N1A NAS drive and been used with Deezer and Qobuz Sublime +. Control has been via my voice, an iPad Pro and an Essential PH-1 which has also been used to test the Bluetooth. It’s additionally spent some time in the kitchen. Material used has included FLAC, ALAC and material from Qobuz and Deezer.
Sound QualityLet’s leave aside the business of voice control for a moment and talk about how the Citation 500 sounds when you use the positively Neolithic process of using the Bubble UPnP app to cast a NAS drive library to it. The reason for discussing it is that it sounds outstanding.
As we’ve already noted, the Citation 500 is a fairly large chassis and it has no shortage of power on tap. Even allowing for these two elements, I’m still prepared to bet that you’ll find your first listen to it to be an impressive experience. In effect, three factors combine with the Citation 500 to great effect. First, as you might expect, it has no shortage of headroom. Those 200 watts appear to be an entirely genuine figure and it means that not only does it go loud, it does so with an effortlessness that is impressive for something this size. This is then combined with a spaciousness that allows that grunt to open and fill spaces rather than simply bellow at you from the corner. It would be a stretch to say that the Citation 500 gives a true stereo image - it is, after all, a single box… but… it does create an image.
And then, there’s the bass. You’ll recall that the Citation 500 does without any form of sub or radiator. This is because Harman Kardon has managed to cajole two five-inch drivers into imbuing the Citation 500 with the sort of punch that is felt as much as heard. No frequency response figure is given for the Citation 500 but it’s well below 50Hz and that’s not some sort of freak blip but the lowest extent of a full and very even wave. It’s so potent that you do actually need to be at least slightly careful where you place it because doing so on a lightly constructed cabinet will give you a sort of ‘Farmfoods transmission line’ effect which is best avoided.
This means that listening to the Harman Kardon is almost always a pleasure. The eponymously titled album from Black Pumas is delivered with warmth, tonal richness and enough of the innate swagger of the album intact to be an enjoyable experience. There is undoubtedly a fair amount of processing going on with the way it sounds but it never feels overtly intrusive. Compared to say, a stripped back separates system of Yamaha AD10, Tangent Ampster BTII and Monitor Audio Monitor 50, it’s not got the speed and immediacy but it’s not a one sided contest.
It’s forgiving too. Harman Kardon has clearly taken the view that most Citation speakers are likely to spend a goodly amount of their time accessing compressed content and this means that the big, full and fundamentally forgiving presentation is well adjusted to ensuring this still sounds good. The flipside to this is that if you do really want to get the best out of Hi-Res files, the Bluesound is the better bet - not least because it has the MQA decoding to make best use of them. Once again though, this is Harman meeting the demands of the majority of the market, not the fringe of it.
And Google Assistant? First up, the implementation of this in the Harman is very good. The little series of white lights on the front gives you an immediate heads up of what it’s doing. I like the responsiveness of it and I like that it’s the first piece of audio equipment I’ve ever tested that knows the recipe for Yorkshire puddings. The range is good, it can handle hearing you when you’re not directly pointed at it and still make sense of the commands. It doesn’t sound like a terrifying automaton (although I’d be lying if I said that if a Douglas Rain voice was available I wouldn’t use it). I have even used it to check weather and traffic because it was the most convenient option and not because it was on test.
I do think it has implications for listening to music though. With a streaming service connected up, voice control predominates to wanting to be all about playlists and tracks. It doesn’t really like being asked to look for albums and, as you might expect, it’s better at understanding you want to listen to Born Slippy by Underworld than it is Djanfa by Amadou & Mariam. It does feel like the process is more about reasurringly playing you the music you know back to you in a constant stream than it is finding new things. These are ultimately not factors in Harman Kardon’s control though and the Citation 500 makes use of Google Assistant in a very cohesive way.
This means that listening to the Harman Kardon is almost always a pleasure
- Excellent sound quality
- Lovely industrial design
- Very well made
- Very limited additional functionality
- Standard limitations of voice control
- Might be a little large for some
Harman Kardon Citation 500 Wireless Speaker ReviewLet’s not beat around the bush on this one. The Harman Kardon Citation 500 looks smart, is well made and - most importantly - it sounds outstanding. For £170 less than the Bluesound Pulse 2i it sounds better and looks nicer with it. This on its own is quite sufficient to earn the Citation 500 our Recommendation.
This is not to say there aren’t some frustrations. If the Harman had any additional connectivity, it would be better still and for many aspects of flexibility, the Bluesound makes it look annoyingly limited. If you’re looking for a voice control speaker, this is not really going to matter but it’s a little infuriating that such a talented piece of engineering couldn’t have been allowed to do a little more.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £579.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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