11/24/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Harman/Kardon Esquire Mini Review

Exuberant but not refined, most portable Bluetooth speakers look like they're designed for jocks, juveniles or jokers, with gentlemen left in the lurch. However, the aptly named Esquire Mini by Harman/Kardon fills that gap. If you ride polo ponies, look great in a tux, prepped at Andover and summer in Oyster Bay, then this is the speaker for you.
Of course, you don't need to be quite as elite as all that: at $150 at the time of this writing, the unit is premium priced but not over the moon.
Part of what you're paying for is design, materials and build quality. With a precision cut ceramic-coated metal front grille in black, brown, white or (coming soon) tan, a matching leather back and leather hand strap (sorry, vegans), plus accents in brushed aluminum and a bit of chrome, this slim, rectangular speaker drips with elegance. It's so sophisticated, in fact, that it's somewhat unisex: with its rounded corners and edges, the white one I tested looks just like a lady's clutch, yet it's still masculine enough for a gentleman.
I also tested a black unit; it reads as a tad more male but would still do well in distaff hands too. In any color, this is one of the classiest looking small speakers around. In matters of appearance, the attention to detail is exquisite: for instance, the chrome kickstand on the back of the unit has an almost imperceptible rubber foot to prevent the speaker from sliding around while in use. That foot is black on the black unit and white on the white. The slant of the kickstand echoes the angle of the openings on the front grille. And the handstrap is held together by a metal button that has a slash embossed in it, again echoing the grille's diagonal openings.
The control buttons and indicators are likewise elegant, and are simple to use. There's no NFC, but pairing was easy, and reconnecting was automatic.
Of course, in choosing a speaker, looks aren't everything. Timbre matters too, obviously. When it comes to sound, the Esquire Mini is a bit more challenged. Indeed, the performance question is a complicated, because my review unit sounded good until it suddenly didn't.
First, the good part. Throughout most of my testing, the Esquire Mini delivered crisp highs and mids, and even at maximum volume there was little or no distortion. Bass was fair, but with the low end of the frequency response at 180 HZ according to the specs, the Esquire Mini doesn't even attempt to reproduce some of the lows that other speakers do and instead omits the lowest frequencies from musical instruments and even human voice (in contrast, slightly larger portables can go down to 60 HZ or so). That left some tracks feeling a bit thinner than on other speakers. The soundstage felt full so long as you were within about ten feet of the unit, while at fifteen feet or more it was apparent that the music was coming from a discrete place. So, the Esquire Mini would be good for personal listening and small groups, not loud, wild parties that demand room-filling sound.
So far, a reasonable speaker, albeit with significant bass compromises related to its svelte form factor. But one day my test unit suddenly and inexplicably developed a terrible distortion that made whatever I played sound like the speaker was wrapped in static-y, vibrating tissue paper. This was true with various songs and from both of my sources, a Galaxy S4 streaming Spotify via strong WiFi and an iPod Touch 5th Gen playing downloaded MP3s. It wasn't a problem with bass response, since the problem was very apparent with, say "Motherboard" by Daft Punk, which is not especially bass heavy.
I tried backing off from full volume to around 50%, but got no relief. The battery was 3/5 full, so it wasn't not a low battery issue, and the problem persisted even when I plugged the speaker into a USB power source. It wasn't a Bluetooth problem either, since the distortion was the same using an aux audio cable. And it wasn't a problem with my sources, because when I connected them to other speakers via BT or the aux cable, I got clean sound.
I tried the unit multiple times over several days, but the problem persisted. Finally, I set it aside. Soon afterwards, the company sent me a second unit to review - the black one mentioned above - and it showed no problems whatsoever. Indeed, to make matters even more confusing, when I returned to the white unit a week later, I found that it was now problem-free as well. Wtf?
The Esquire Mini also functions as a speakerphone. The sound was crisp on both ends and there was little or no problem with echo. Another plus is the USB power out, which lets you use the speaker to charge your cell phone.
A word about accessories: the Esquire Mini includes a tangle-resistant USB cable but no charger; you'll have to supply your own (such as this one) or use a USB port on your computer. At a fairly average 8 hour battery rating (and less if you crank the volume), you'll want to be sure to bring a charger or your laptop when on the go. Also, there's no case included. To keep the attractive finish from getting scuffed or scratched, you'll want to keep the unit protected when traveling with it. (This 4" x 6" velvet bag, not tested, should fit reasonably well.) For a product at this price point that is indeed marketed as a travel speaker - one publicity photo shows a businessman in a private jet (!) listening to the Esquire Mini - a case or a velvet carry bag plus a USB charger would be welcome additions.
So where does this leave us? Frankly, I'm a bit uncertain. Perhaps my experience represents a freak defect. For those who can afford $150 for a portable, personal speaker and can sacrifice a bit of bass in return for killer looks, I wish I could recommend the Esquire Mini wholeheartedly. But the distortion was real, so I'll leave it to you to decide whether to purchase this great looking speaker or not.
Compare and contrast: If you're looking for an elegant, light-weight, very small speaker and decide that the Esquire Mini isn't for you, the only other choice I know of with premium materials and build quality is the Soundmatters foxL DASH7. It's got good bass for a small speaker and in months of use has never had a glitch. On the down side, it costs $50 more than the Esquire Mini, is a little less chic looking, and is slightly awkward to use (the buttons can be a little hard to press and the pairing process is a bit opaque).
Full disclosure: the manufacturers provided review product.
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