Harman Kardon HS 300 Integrated Home Theater System
Every day, I wash with Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. A soap-
formulating virtuoso, the late doctor was also mad as a hatter—the Magic Soap packaging is festooned with peculiarly uplifting wisdom in voluminous fine print. Prominent is the phrase, "all one." The Harman Kardon HS 300 is an all-one kind of system, uniting a DVD-receiver with four satellite speakers, a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. I'm not trying to imply that Dr. Harman has any particular kinship with Dr. Bronner, apart from both boasting Doctor for a first name. This quaint lead, now completed, was the easiest three minutes of work I've ever done.
The Floating DVD-Receiver
The satellite speakers are modest, silver-gray plastic tubes with 3-inch paper-cone woofers (and therefore not much bass), as well as the sweet titanium-laminate tweeter that JBL uses in some of their other speakers. They rest on small, black plastic pedestals or optional stands and can also be wall mounted. The center is an exact match for the satellites, which is good. The only exception is the location of the pedestal. It's on the side of the speaker, so you can place it horizontally.
Although the satellites are nothing special to look at, the HS 300 is not devoid of visual interest. The DVD-receiver is something special. In lieu of the four modest rubber feet you'd expect, it rests on two transparent plastic strips, one in front and one in back. Thus, it seems to float above whatever surface it rests on.
What enables the receiver and DVD drive to exist in such a svelte unit is Class D digital amplifier technology. It dissipates less energy in the form of heat, so it's more efficient than the Class A/B amplifiers that drive most receivers. That enables it to be built into a smaller chassis, with (in this case) ventilation holes only at the sides. After several hours of operation, the unit ran warm but not hot. Power is rated at 35 watts per channel into 6 ohms. If this were specified in the standard manner with 8 ohms, the number of watts would be lower (see the measurements box). However, as with all packaged systems, the speakers are designed to work with the included amp, so this is rather academic.
The design might be almost too rigorously minimalist. Only two buttons grace the top front edge, power and eject, and the only control on the front panel is the volume knob—a black circle surrounded in blue backlighting. Because it's set flush with the front panel, you operate it with your thumb, which really is more fun than it sounds. This set of controls is sufficient to turn on the system, insert a disc, and set the volume. But you can't switch sources (to, say, AM/FM or an external audio input) or surround modes. For that, you need the remote.
Although its menu graphics are actually better looking to me than those in Harman Kardon's standalone receivers, the system has its ergonomic quirks. For instance, as I was setting volume levels with test tones, I found something I haven't seen before. The onscreen display responded to level changes, while the tones themselves did not. Only when I locked in the levels did they change audibly. This added a couple of minutes to the setup process, but it wasn't exactly a deal breaker.
Menu navigation required the programmable remote control's setup key to get in (natch), but the OSD key to get out (not so obvious). The remote's power button only turned the unit off—to turn it on, I used the source-select keys.
For the high-definition-conscious viewer, the DVD section upconverts to 1080i, 720p, or 480p. The control menu duplicates standard TV controls such as brightness, contrast, and so on. Connectivity-wise, the system has some notable limitations. There is an HDMI output to feed a video display but no HDMI ins. There are no 5.1-channel analog jacks, either—no inputs to accept an SACD or Blu-ray or HD DVD player, and no outputs to feed a bigger multichannel amp. Nonetheless, limiting as they may be, none of these omissions are unusual in this market segment.
Harman supplies cables for the speakers and sub. The speaker cable is fairly slender stuff (the manufacturer says it's 16-gauge). My 12-gauge reference cable is thicker, but I used the supplied cable because the system was designed to work with it.
Killer Bees, Psychos, and Scandals
Even within the organic framework of its design—with speakers specifically matched to the amp and vice versa—most movies required more than half of the receiver's volume setting, or gain, to keep dialogue at an adequate level. The exception was Apocalypto, for which half of the system's volume setting was plenty—although there was no English-language dialogue to serve as an intelligibility test. Mel Gibson will never win a humanitarian-of-the-year award, but he and his sound designers deserve credit for an especially eventful soundtrack, here experienced in DTS. In addition to the predictable war drums, various scenes regaled me with the roar of a crowd, a waterfall, a bee attack, and many other memorable moments. The system could have delivered the jungle ambience more vividly; then again, I was keeping the volume at half-mast to keep the effects from bombarding me too aggressively.
THR3E was more typical, running at two-thirds of potential maximum gain. The psycho killer that the film profiles was into explosions, and again, I needed ways to reduce the low-frequency effects' intensity. This time, I opened up the volume and knocked down the sub level a bit. This proved to be a durable set of choices, although deep voices were slightly starved in their bottom octaves. With a modestly priced system, there are always tradeoffs. In this case, it's a strong dependence on the sub, because the satellites have little bass of their own. Unfortunately, that tends to call a lot more unwanted attention to the crossover between sats and sub.
But what the system did well, it did extremely well, as I discovered when a delightful Philip Glass soundtrack ushered in Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett as the young teacher who falls into the web of a sinister Judi Dench. The latter's voice trickled out of the speakers like dulce de leche. I was surprised at the sheer beauty the system could conjure from Glass' orchestral score, which urges on the story line like a Greek chorus and finishes the credits with the tinkle and thunder of celesta playing in unison with tympani. True, the tympani sounded flabbier than it would in a higher-end system, but I was more than satisfied. My estimation of the system slowly rose as I learned to live within its limitations.
The DVD-Audio Acid Test
Digital amps being what they are, an evolving technology, there is an art to voicing a system based on them. Open up the top end too much, and the highs and mids take on a slightly blurry or glazed quality—what I think of as the Class D sound. But starve the top end, and the system becomes unsatisfyingly vague and reticent. Harman Kardon hit the bull's-eye, as the music tests (often more revealing than cinematic listening) revealed.
Because the HS 300 is DVD-Audio compatible, the toughest test I could throw at it was an orchestral recording in that moribund, high-resolution format. There's only one such disc in my collection, but it's a great one: Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, performed by The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra with Marin Alsop. The string sound was unexpectedly good. If I hadn't previously heard the disc through my reference system, I'd never have suspected that some depth was missing. In terms of comfort level and overall beauty, the system aced this tough test.
It did not do as well with the Byrds album Turn! Turn! Turn! My CD is a 1996 Sony Super Bit Mapping release—in other words, far better than a first-generation CD, though perhaps not as good as the most recent technology would allow. The chiming guitars were there, of course, but the gorgeous harmony vocals needed more texture and better separation. Given how good the DVD-Audio disc had sounded, this might be less a problem with the amp and more a limitation of the system's digital processing for 16-bit recordings. But I can only speculate.
Regardless, a Chesky jazz recording came across well. West of 5th—with pianist Hank Jones, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Jimmy Cobb—is a hybrid SACD title. Because the HS 300 doesn't play SACD, I listened to the CD layer and did so in an un-Chesky-approved manner, using the Dolby Pro Logic II music mode. This is my standard procedure for all two-channel recordings. One advantage of listening this way is that DPLII routes more information to the center than Chesky's multichannel mixes typically do. The disc's character was easy pickings for the receiver. It delivered a full, slightly opaque but pleasing sound.
The Harman Kardon HS 300 delivered good performance for what is, by "in a box" standards, a moderately high price. There are plenty of cheaper systems out there, and a few of them are also good. Still, they're outclassed by the sleek looks of this one's DVD-receiver. This may be the integrated home theater solution for you.
• Four identical satellites, a nearly identical center, and sub
• DVD/receiver with digital amp
• Energy efficient, self-sufficient