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What a stylish looking beast is the AVR 355. A subtle mix of piano-black and a brushed magnesium finish. While some manufacturers festoon their receivers with buttons and logos, the Harman Kardon (H/K) is a tad more minimalist — though as we'll see shortly, this is actually a disadvantage when it comes to source selection. Like its products from the past few years, the volume "ring" remains and is lit by a soft white-blue light.
The remote is a huge step up from previous models, and also comes in a piano black finish. It features large, friendly buttons and most functions are easy to access — except one, the "AVR" button, used to access the AVR's menu is tiny and awkwardly stuck at the bottom of the wand. The remote is also a learning model, and while not as easy to program as units from the likes of Marantz, it still took the new codes OK.
It's not only the cosmetics that have received a make-over on this product, but the features list is the company's most comprehensive ever. Being a 2008/2009 model, the AVR 355 features Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, and Faroudja DCDi Cinema video processing up to 1080p. But where the H/K stands out is in its connectivity — via a series of optional accessories. Of course, there's the obligatory Bridge II iPod dock (AU$229), but where this unit stands out above all the rest is the addition of an A-BUS connector. This enables users to connect to a wall-mountable controller, via ordinary Ethernet cable, which will power a pair of speakers. Harman Kardon offers two different, entry-level wall mounts with IR receivers for the amp, the basic AB1 for AU$199, and the AB2 with source and playback controls for AU$299.
One of our greatest problems with the AVR 355 is one of its biggest selling points, it comes with a range of simulated surround presets that it will use instead of the format it's given — usually stereo, it's supposed to allow Dolby and DTS signals through. According to Harman Kardon, the AVR was programmed to use Logic 7 Movie mode for optimal playback of movies, Logic 7 Music mode for music; and Logic 7 Game mode for consoles. The truth is, the receiver defaults to Logic 7 Movie for everything — including FM radio, to our incredulity. It's very hard to change this without accessing the AVR menu, and there's no "Source Direct" mode to keep the original signal intact. While the manual mentions a Stereo-Direct mode early on, but this isn't the case. Later it says you need to set Tone Control to "Off" to achieve this effect.
Like most modern receivers, the AVR 355 comes with an auto-calibration routine using a single supplied microphone. If you'd rather attempt calibration yourself then the process is also straightforward — just be sure to have a tape measure and a decibel meter handy.
This is an audio-visual receiver in the true sense of the word, in that there are no audio-only inputs. We found this surprising given H/K's heritage as a hi-fi manufacturer. However, the number of supplied inputs are fairly standard for the price: for video there are three HDMI inputs, four component inputs, and four S-Video connectors. On the audio side there are three digital co-ax inputs, three optical, six stereo analog inputs plus a 7.1 input. The local distributor's site makes mention of a USB port on this device — unfortunately, there isn't one. Assigning inputs also requires you to input them individually via the OSD, as AV1 doesn't always equate with the TV input, for example.
In use, we had a love/hate relationship with this receiver. Sound was great, when the device decided it was going to "play nice", and the remote makes it easy to swap between inputs. But there are several niggly things about it that we didn't like. We're a bit old school at CNET towers, we like to be able to access most of the functionality from the receiver itself — especially if we can't find the remote! Frankly, we don't like the Source Selection method on the front of the receiver — it just smacks of bad design. While on the remote you can select a source with one button press, on the receiver you need to press four different buttons (Source, Up, Down and then OK) to change. And not only that, if the receiver is muted, you can't see which input it's cycling to because the second line is taken up by a large "Muted" display. To fix this you need to twirl the volume knob a bit to get the sound back and then try again.
Front panel niggles aside, we found the receiver was both a curse and a blessing to set-up. While we had some problems with the first receiver we tested and an older version of the firmware, the replacement ran through the auto-calibration routine without a problem. The microphone-assisted routine may have detected all of our speakers as "large", however, but still tapered off the bottom end response — particularly on the rear speakers. While it did cater for the relative brightness of our test room, we still felt the receiver's non-EQ'd sound offered a bit more presence and detail.
Of course, then we came upon our bugbear, the defaulting to Logic 7 for everything. Each mode — Movie, Music, Stereo and Game — gives you a number of options to choose from, and for example for Movie it's Logic 7 Movie, DTS NEO:6 cinema and Dolby PLII Movie — but there is no Source Default option. In use, we found that the default Logic 7 wasn't great at distinguishing between dialogue and background effects, and sometimes dialogue swapped between the rear channels and the centre, making for a disorientating experience.
We also had problems with the receiver not detecting a 5.1 source properly, and defaulting to Logic 7 anyway. While watching the Iron Man Blu-ray, we had to turn the PlayStation 3 off for it to detect the PCM-converted Dolby TrueHD feed it was receiving. However, when it did, the effect was immersive and exhilarating. We had the room rocking with missiles and excellent surround steering effects during the fighter sequence.
Switching to DVD, and the "ordinary" Dolby Digital EX stream of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings was a little less impressive, but still immersive. Dialogue was clear and precisely placed, and the screams of the Ring Wraiths was piercing but not "painful".
The AVR didn't like ourunit in combination with a television. Despite receiving a 1080i signal via HDMI, the receiver incorrectly identified the Sony as a 576p display and refused to allow us to send HD signals to it, whatever we tried. As a result, the downscaled signal looked awful, with strobing interlaced lines occurring over movement. By contrast, DVDs didn't have any of the same problems, and the receiver was able to upscale from a 576i source via the PS3 up to 1080i without any difficulties. We also found that the receiver lacked some flexibility in troubleshooting this issue by refusing to take a component video input and a HDMI audio input at the same time. The moral of the story is: if you have Foxtel this may not be the receiver for you.
In addition to watching TV and a few blockbusters, we also tested the receiver with music. We alternated between the analog and the digital coaxial output of a Yamaha CD-S700 CD player, and also gave the Bridge II dock a workout. Music sounded good fed directly via coaxial input, though the Yamaha CD-S700 analog signal sound was a bit richer. We also liked the results of leaving the EzSet EQ off as it was a bit warmer, though maybe a little too bloomy on Nick Cave's Red Right Hand. The Yamaha had better stereo focus and a richer, more expressive mid-range, not as trebly. Music fed by the Bridge II iPod dock was also good, though the on-screen menus were a little slow to respond.
We mentioned before that the radio is also subjected to the Logic 7 curse, but had good results when it was set to stereo. The radio features a fairly rudimentary, yet pretty, on-screen display, but if you're worried about the effect it could have on your plasma screen you can set up a screen saver for periods as little as five minutes.
We like this receiver, it sounds great, and has top-notch cosmetics — but it's not without its problems. Namely, Harman Kardon's too intent on pushing its own Logic 7 technology down your throat. And the unit's inability to downscale without issues also means it loses a few marks. But feature-wise, it's excellent, and if you're looking for something that will enable easy multi-room set-up, this is definitely one to consider.