Budget Bars: Soundbars from Vizio, Samsung, LG, and Harman Kardon Page 5

Harman Kardon Soundbar 30

Price: $799

The Harman Soundbar 30 takes us out of the gin joints and into the speakeasies and clubs. It’s a bruiser, by far the widest bar here. Oddly, despite its comparatively high price, there’s no HDMI switching. Instead, you get one optical and one coaxial digital input, along with an RCA analog stereo input.

The money here seems to be in the drivers: There are seven 1-inch dome tweeters, each with its own 10-watt amp, and six 2-inch midranges powered by four 40-watt amps. The HK subwoofer has an 8-inch woofer driven by 100 watts.

The small, flat, credit-card-size remote, which has all the buttons you’d need, is more what I had in mind when I thought “remote control for soundbars.” There’s no display on the bar — the only one in this group without one. Instead, it has three multicolored LEDs that you read like a rainbow Morse code.

Performance

I had high hopes for the Soundbar 30. After all, it was the only bar here from an actual speaker company, and it had more drivers than many complete 5.1 systems. In basic Stereo mode, the 30 sounds okay, at least when compared with the rest of this group. There’s a bit too much treble, though, which adds a slight harshness to the high end of its frequency range. As a result, the cymbals and snare drum on Tom Waits’s “Please Call Me, Baby” sounded a bit too forward.

The Harman Kardon soundbar fared better with Billie Holiday’s “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart,” sounding the best of the bunch by far on that track. The balance was decent, and the brass was the least harsh of the group.

With the Faces, cymbals sounded somewhat aggressive, with the bar exhibiting some sibilance. The sub’s bass wasn’t well defined, though it filled in the low end capably enough.

Unimpressed with the Soundbar 30 in vanilla-stereo mode, I started experimenting with its surround modes. With 13 drivers and 11 amplifiers, cool things should be possible There are three settings: Stereo, Virtual, and Harman Wave. Stereo uses the outer drivers in a traditional 2.1 setup. Virtual adds in the two driver pairs in the bar’s center to “simulate the reflected sounds that would be created by rear-channel speakers.” I didn’t hear a major improvement with it. However, the Harman Wave mode impressed me quite a bit. Using all the drivers and, presumably, a lot of processing, Harman Wave made the Soundbar 30 come alive. The soundstage increased dramatically. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I heard sounds behind me, but it was a reasonably convincing faux side-channel effect.

This is easily the best mode to listen to with the 30: room filling with a huge sound field, in a sort of electrostatic-speakers way. The sound quality in this mode largely made up for the bar’s still noticeable extra treble.

The 30 wasn’t particularly loud in any of its modes, though. At maximum volume, I found its output to be acceptable but certainly not raucous. (To be fair, I have a pretty big room.)

With John Carter, the Soundbar 30 fared the best of the bunch, performing slightly better than the Vizio (though both bars have their strengths and weaknesses). It sounded the most open, and the most like a real set of speakers. The treble harshness was still apparent, but the voluminous soundstage gave movie soundtracks a wider scope than the other soundbars (the Vizio sort of excluded).

One other oddity: The Harman Kardon Soundbar 30 cuts off the first second or two of each new CD track when a player is plugged into its optical or coaxial digital inputs (but not the analog input). So if you’re listening to a disc, you will lose the first second of each song. If you plan on listening to a lot of music with the Soundbar 30, this issue will end up being pretty annoying.

Bottom Line

The Soundbar 30 delivers decent sound quality, and its Harman Wave surround mode creates a faux multispeaker effect that is quite cool. However, it is way too expensive for a soundbar that lacks HDMI switching. The sound was good overall, but it would need to be really good in my mind to justify the $800 price. For that same money, you could easily get a receiver with HDMI switching and a pair of decent bookshelf speakers (or even a small 5.1 sub/sat system) that would likely sound better, offer more features, and be easier to upgrade. A different product category, perhaps, but I feel that that’s the Soundbar 30’s competition given its $799 price.

Soundbar
(7) 1-in tweeters, (6) 2-in mid/woofers; 7 x 10 watts/6 x 40 watts; 3.94 x 45.69 x 3.125 in; 8.4 lb

Subwoofer
8-in woofer; power, 100 watts; 13.91 x 10.5 x 10.5 in; 19.2 lb

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