The early days of consumer electronics belittled “small” — after all,vacuum tubes and circuitry required plenty of space to do its thing. The miniaturization of components was looked askance at by some — there was this belief that the quality was being shrunk along with the device. And as time went on, “small” didn’t become so much an indication of quality as of convenience and price-saving.
That’s all in the past, at least as far as this Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System goes. It maybe a compact (i.e. “small) system, but there’s power to spare. As in 65 watts of mellow stereo, courtesy of a pair of speakers featuring flat panel bass drivers and proprietary MMD tweeters (low and high-frequency transducers get a leg up here). Do you have to worry about the speaker tech in order to enjoy what comes out? No. Even better, what you’re hearing is in the audiophile zone.
So what do you get for your $999 retail? A lot, at least if you’re looking for a compact audio system that can grace a desk, small office or even a den or bedroom — and where having quality audio is more important than tons of features that all seem to revolve around “digital.”
Not that the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System is behind the times. No way — it’s right up there. Guess we’d better introduce the parts then.
I’m removing two speakers first from the cloth bags Harman wraps them in. Each is a glossy black and pretty hefty for a “bookshelf” speaker. On the back are two tabs for attaching the speaker wires. And on the front is the grill you pop on, which leaves a little space between the two. The grill is cloth but the speaker is plastic, btw. I’m a fan of wood enclosures myself, but being prejudiced won’t let me discern the quality of the sound. So moving on…
I pull the amplifier out — don’t care what Harman calls it, it’s an amplifier to plug into an AC outlet and that’s that. Nice big volume knob and the “build” feels real solid. I can see a pair of speaker output leads on the back. It’s good that the amp feels solid, since the CD player — weighed down with all the inputs/outputs — is designed to sit on it.
And note, I said CD player — not DVD. Forget about video, the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System will have none of it. Everything you need to know you’ll see on the LCD panel on the front. It’s all about listening anyway.
So I put the CD in position on the amp and connect the proprietary control cable between the two. The front finds controls for playing CDs (one at a time, front loading slot mechanism), for the internal FM radio and for the audio coming from an iPod, iPhone or iPod touch (courtesy of the included “Bridge” iPod dock). There’s also a line input jack, along with a headphone jack and a USB socket for audio inputting on the front as well. The power switch on the left side of the CD player’s front turns on the amplifier at the same time.
Now here’s what you’ll find on the CD player’s back: a FM antenna socket, along with a digital antenna terminal plus a USB socket for audio files. For audio inputs, you get an optical and coaxial choice and two optical and two coaxial audio inputs (to use with TV or auxiliary devices). Want more? Add a phono input for a record player,and the socket that takes the connector from the iPod dock. Inserts for the dock are included so that the iOS inserted will stay in place.
Want to hear something cool? You can output the audio working its way through the system so as to record it — like taking the audio from vinyl playing off a record player. And other types as well — just don’t break any copyright laws, a’right?
Let me get the remote out of the way — because you’ll be using it for the most part as it’s easier than punching buttons. The remote is long and lean and has an incredibly comfortable “grip” to it. Wish I could say the same for the buttons — they’re a bit too small for my taste. But they have a solid “thud” to pressing them, and there’s enough of them to handle everything that the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System can do, so that’s good (the bottom slides off for the battery compartment and works a lot better than a pop-off lid, btw). Between that and the minimalist LCD panel text you’ll be mostly listening, not punching buttons anyway.
Okay, about that menu — forget about long and involved settings. Besides the expected kind of stuff for setting the clock and alarm and FM radio setting features, there’s maintenance choices to be made for the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System. But the system setting most used will have you adjusting the level of treble, bass and balance and that’s about it. Since there’s no video enabled on the system, a whole slew of settings can be dropped.
Now when the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System had been demonstrated to me in their company listening room, I was elated but still a bit skeptical . After all most homes don’t have sound proofing installed to improve the audio of their home theater systems. In my case, I had set the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System up in front of my home theater system, with the speakers arranged on a small stands I brought in for the occasion.
How do those speakers sound? Harman had demo’d using Frank Sinatra and jazz records — no hard knocking rock and roll. So I decided to start with that , and after listening to a few CDs from my collection (Eagles, Springsteen, Doors), I couldn’t find anything to complain about. The richness of the speakers — though small – is astounding, at least to this “not stinkin’ plastic enclosures” guy. I won’t argue that tweaking the sound a bit won’t improve on the performance, but the basic settings won’t hurt anyone listening, no how. But do tweak the settings for your own taste, OK?
When I played some classical titles (mostly Dvořák and Mahler), I thought I’d be tasking the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System beyond its performance limits. Wrong. The separation of the sound stage is evident, and the instruments don’t get muddied, even when you crank the volume up nearly all the way (surprisingly loud too). I also put in a CD of The Cars – Greatest Hits because of the way stereo is always used to great effect in their songs. I wasn’t surprised to hear that, but I WAS surprised to hear percussion nuances that had escaped me before (example: Why Can’t I Have You?). The same happened when playing the Greatest Hits of the Eurythmics — here the bass was incredibly deep, while the vocals rose above without any distortion whatsoever at high volumes (example: Here Comes the Rain Again).
Switching over to prerecorded content via a USB flash drive (at hi-rez) sounded good too. Really good. Even the FM radio is now worth listening to. If you’re one of those folks who still listens to radio, that is.
Bottom line: The audio that the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System puts out is better than you’d expect from a compact music system. Heck, it can serve as your main audio system with no problem whatsoever (unless you’re a real Heavy Metal fan needing 100+ watts or more). And when you use it in the dark — watching the soft blue glow of the volume knob and highlights on the Harman Kardon MAS 102 Music System’s LCD panel will be all the “video” you’ll want.
- Custom 5-inch bass-reflex speakers and 1-inch dome tweeters
- Sleep timer setting
- Compact footprint
- iPod dock connector plug can be pulled out too easily
- Menu can take a second or two to “catch up” with the audio coming from the source selected
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.