Harman Kardon AVR 7300 AV Receiver Page 2

The digital audio input complement includes three coaxial and three optical jacks. These can be freely assigned to any input. Coaxial and optical outputs are also provided for recording purposes.

Additional I/O jacks include an audio-only CD input and a Tape in/out loop. There's a 7.1-channel analog direct input for use with SACD or DVD-Audio players, as well as a full set of preamp outputs for use with one or more outboard amplifiers. There are two IR inputs and one IR output, plus an external amp trigger. A bidirectional RS-232 connector allows the unit to be integrated into multiroom control systems equipped with keypads, touchscreens, and the like., and a pair of A-BUS Ready jacks provide yet another option for multiroom distribution. In fact, the AVR 7300 has a full suite of second-zone features, including assignable rear-channel amplifiers and a dedicated Zone II remote.

The front-panel input suite has optical and coaxial digital inputs and outputs as well as the usual analog AV input with S-video. The analog AV inputs may also be switched to operate as outputs.

Vinyl aficionados should note that the AVR 7300 lacks a phono input. Progress marches on . . .(Insert foley of vinyl fans gritting teeth–TJN).

User Interface
Most people will agree that the AVR 7300 is an attractive-looking component with a distinctive industrial design. The blue illuminated volume ring is an especially cool touch. But while I appreciate fine aesthetics as much as the next guy, appearance should never trump usability, and that's exactly what has happened here in at least two respects.

First, the front-panel control buttons consist of a row of rectangular rocker switches. These contribute to the unit's minimalist look, but at a cost: the switches all look the same and their tiny labels are all but invisible under most lighting conditions. I eventually learned the location of the more commonly used buttons, but for the first few weeks, I often found it necessary to turn on the lights and crouch down at just the right angle just to see which button is which. My kids—who use our theater as much as if not more than I do—constantly ask when I'm going to "get rid of that confusing new thing and put the old one back in." Life's tough when daddy reviews AV products for a living.

Then there's the remote. It looks great—until you try to use it. The buttons are tiny, crowded, and labeled with minuscule black text on a shiny silver background. There's a lighting function; too bad you need to turn on the lights to find the button! The circular 4-way cursor navigation control is quite sensitive, which makes navigating the onscreen menus that much harder. I quickly gave up on the HK remote and dumped the basic IR commands into my trusty Marantz RC2000 Mk.II universal learning remote. This turned out to be a match made in heaven.

Harman touts the remote's EZSet feature, which in theory can be used to automate the task of setting the channel output levels with a single button-push. However, in practice I found this function produced wildly inaccurate results, misadjusting some channels by 10dB or more. Fortunately, its easy to adjust the levels manually using a circulating or fixed test tone. And if you don't own a RadioShack sound-level meter, the remote can function as one, which is a welcome touch.

The front-panel display is excellent. It uses large, two-line, blue-fluorescent dot-matrix characters to show the current input and surround mode, which is exactly what a receiver should display. The graphic speaker/channel indicators are also more useful than most, showing speaker size and how many channels in the input signal.

Setting up a receiver with so many programmable functions is a formidable task, and the AVR 7300 has no automated step-by-step function to simplify the process. With as many as 29 parameters to set for each AV input, you need all the help you can get! You're sometimes left in the dark—literally. Several of the AV inputs have the Faroudja function turned off by default. As a result, if you're using a 480i source and a unified component-video connection to the display, you get sound but no picture. Frustration and a trip to the manual ensue.

The manual is well written, which is a good thing, 'cause you're going to want to read it cover to cover. The Appendix includes several useful tables and worksheets that detail the various defaults and settings.

A few other items bear mentioning. The onscreen menu display—which Harman calls the Full-OSD—is straightforward to use and navigate. You can even adjust how long it takes for the menu to time out and disappear. There's also a Semi-OSD, which flashes the source, volume, and surround mode on the video display every time you change inputs or adjust volume. Fortunately, this very distracting feature can be turned off.

Audio Performance
Once I'd gotten everything dialed in, the Harman Kardon AVR 7300 was one terrific-sounding receiver. The highs were smoothly extended but not harsh, and the bass was among the best I've experienced from an AV receiver. Dynamics were exceptional. There's not enough space to cover the HK's manifold surround modes in detail here, so I'll hit some highlights to try to give you a sense of how the AVR 7300 sounded.

As much as I enjoy multichannel film sound on DVD, we still listen to a lot of music in our household, in genres ranging from classical to bluegrass to jazz to pop and everything in between. And for me, at least, 2-channel CDs are still the best way to evaluate an audio component's sound. Because I use full-range front speakers, I was able to bypass the HK's DSP and bass management and run direct in stereo mode.

Among my favorite recordings, both musically and technically, is John Eliot Gardiner's stunning CD of Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine (Archiv 429 565-2). Recorded in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice (where the piece had its premiere in 1610), this thrilling performance captures Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir, the London Oratory Choir, His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, and the English Baroque Soloists, with the various ensembles and choirs arranged in much the same lofts and locations that Monteverdi used.

On a truly fine playback system, the amazing acoustics of St. Mark's come through loud and clear—you can hear exactly where the different groups of instruments and voices are located in space. I've heard this recording hundreds of times over the years, and when accurately reproduced, it's still capable of raising hairs on the back of my neck. The AVR 7300 passed the Vespers test with flying colors, conveying all the subtleties that make this recording unique.

Turning to a very different genre, Steely Dan's Two Against Nature (CD, Giant 24719-2) is a delicious studio confection replete with Donald Fagin's distinctive vocals and keyboards, large horn sections, and superb rhythm grooves. The electric bass on "Gaslighting Abby" provides a great test for bass response and smooth crossover performance. It rocked via the HK. Again, when the equipment is right, cymbals and percussion on many of this CD's tracks seem to extend well beyond the physical locations of the speakers; that's exactly what happened with the AVR 7300. I've heard better, but not from a receiver, and certainly not without spending a lot more money.

As for multichannel film soundtracks, the AVR 7300 delivered everything I could have wanted and all that I might have expected. Spatial effects, dialog, and musical scores were all presented cleanly and in their proper proportions. Low frequencies were especially well handled, coming through big, tight, and punchy.

The opening chapter in the Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon is a great test scene. While the swelling, percussive musical score plays in the background, the camera pans across an army of red-clad Chinese guards standing in orderly ranks in the huge open-air courtyard of the Forbidden City. As the guards run through drills with their spears, they shout in unison. Heard via the HK, the soundtrack does a superb job of convincing you that the action is indeed taking place in a large, open-air space, not on some soundstage in Marin County or London. Other, subtler effects are equally well conveyed, including Chinese dialog, the rustling of cloth, even the soft clicking of the beads woven into the Princesses' hair.

I've become very fond of the Dolby Pro Logic II Movie mode, which I use when watching regular TV fare sourced from our Sony satellite receiver-recorder. I find this mode works great even with the most basic 2-channel programming, locking the dialog to the center speaker. It's a definite improvement over plain old Pro Logic, which tends to introduce steering errors and other sonic anomalies.

Another useful mode is Harman's proprietary Logic 7, which I often use to add ambience to stereo music recordings. It doesn't work for everything—solo piano, for example, sounds terrible with this or any other surround mode engaged. But if your tastes run more toward studio-produced pop or jazz recordings, you'll likely find Logic 7 one of the best, most natural-sounding music surround modes on the market.

Conclusion
By now it should be obvious that I really like the Harman Kardon AVR 7300. It is exceptionally flexible, with all the inputs and power necessary to handle a well-equipped, upscale home theater. The configurable Faroudja video processor is a fantastic addition, improving video performance while making your system easier to set up and operate.

I would not, however, recommend this component to a beginner, unless someone more experienced will be setting it up. There are simply too many parameters and functions that must be correctly adjusted to get the most out of this piece—a daunting task even for an expert.

The main drawbacks are the AVR 7300's fussy remote, undifferentiated front-panel control buttons, and internal cooling fan. However, the remote can be replaced with a better one (such as the Harmony H676, reviewed by Scott Wilkinson in the February 2005 issue), and the front-panel buttons and fan certainly won't matter if you'll be stashing the AVR 7300 away inside a custom cabinet. (In fact, in such a situation the fan will be an advantage.)

There are options at and below this price point, including the excellent Sherwood Newcastle R-965 ($2000) I reviewed in the December 2004 issue. However, while the Sherwood does have unified component-video output, it lacks the configurable Faroudja processor found on the HK. The R-965 also lacks the ability to store individual speaker configurations for each input. Other, lesser models might or might not have a unified output, much less a built-in Faroudja processor.

I'm sure HK dealers would rather I didn't mention this, but you can buy the AVR 7300 online from any number of vendors—including at least one reputable Amazon.com affiliate—for just $1399. That's a cool $1000 off list! Considering all the Harman Kardon AVR 7300 has to offer, that price looks maahvelous. Highly recommended.

Highs and Lows

Highs
•Terrific sound: Smooth, extended highs, solid bass, and exceptional dynamics in both 2-channel and multichannel
•First-rate video performance, with Faroudja DCDi 480i to 480p video processing, separate video controls for each input, and unified component video output
•Excellent front panel display and well-written manual

Lows
•Not the most intuitive setup; you'll need that manual often
•Hard to read control labels
•Frustrating remote, with tiny, crowded buttons and too-sensitive navigation control
•Fan noise

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