The trend toward inflated power ratings on today's A/V receivers is getting a little out of hand. Some manufacturers bestow 100-watt-per-channel ratings on their lowest-end models, while our ears tell us most can't deliver on action-packed DVDs. So don't worry about the Harman Kardon AVR 140; HK opted out of the overly optimistic numbers game years ago, and this receiver's modest 40-watt-per-channel rating is just a more honest estimate of its true output. To prove the point, we pitted the AVR 140 against a receiver rated at 85 watts per channel, and the Harman played just as loud. Aside from its ample power and its compatibility with Harman Kardon's new Bridge iPod dock, its features aren't anything to write home about. That said, the AVR 140's natural sound quality and handsome good looks make it a solid choice for a $500 receiver. The Harman Kardon AVR 140 is the least expensive A/V receiver in Harman Kardon's 2006 stable, but it shares the styling of the more expensive models. Its distinctive gloss-black and matte-silver exterior and its backlit, blue-haloed volume control are particularly attractive. The large display provides legible readouts of source selection and surround-processing modes, taking the guesswork out of operation. Harman even includes thoughtful touches such as matching snap-on covers to conceal the front panel's A/V inputs. The receiver is of average size: 17.3 inches wide, 6.5 inches high, and 15 inches deep. It's worth noting that at 24.4 pounds, this 40-watt-per-channel receiver weighs as much as the average 100-watt model. For the most part, we liked the AVR 140's large, partially backlit remote, but its long, tapered shape crowds oft-used DVD and iPod control buttons into awkward positions at the small end.
Unlike the more expensive models in the line, the Harman Kardon AVR 140 doesn't offer automatic setup and calibration. But thanks to the receiver's well-designed menu system, the manual setup chores didn't require much consultation of the user manual. You have to input the sizes of your speakers and the listeners' distance from them; you then balance the volume level of the speakers and the subwoofer. The whole operation took about five minutes. The Harman Kardon AVR 140 has six 40-watt channels and the full range of surround-processing options: Dolby Digital, EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6, and DTS 96/24, plus Harman's Logic 7 system. You can set the AVR 140's adjustable-crossover function to a different frequency for each group of speakers, allowing satellites of various sizes to integrate seamlessly with your subwoofer. That level of bass-management flexibility is rare, even in high-priced receivers and surround processors, but the audible benefits can be significant.
Harman Kardon's Bridge iPod dock displays your iPod's menus on your TV and the AVR 140's front panel, but it won't transmit video content. We found it fairly easy to access playlists via the AVR 140's remote control, but we couldn't zip through long lists the way we would with the iPod's scrollwheel--we had to advance one song at a time via the Preset button on the remote. The Bridge can charge your iPod's battery whether the AVR 140 is turned on or off.
On the back panel, you'll find three A/V inputs, two of which offer component-video switching. A fourth set of A/V inputs on the front panel completes the suite. Unfortunately, the Harman Kardon AVR 140 doesn't convert S-Video or composite sources to component video, and it won't display the receiver's menu via the component-video output. This is the first $500 receiver we've seen in a while that lacks those features, which means you'll need a matching input on your TV for each one going into the receiver. Those who want cutting-edge HDMI connections, meanwhile, will have to look elsewhere. The AVR 140 has a total of six digital audio inputs (three coaxial and three optical, including one of each on the front panel) and two digital outputs (one coaxial and one optical). The 7.1-channel analog inputs are intended for SACD/DVD-A players. There are two stereo analog inputs as well. The AVR 140 lacks provisions for B stereo speakers or multiroom facilities. The Lost TV-series DVD stopped us in our tracks. In the series-opening scene where Jack wakes up, we heard the sounds of flies buzzing around, chirping birds off in the distance, the gentle rush of the leaves in the wind, and then--wham!--the score's huge, pounding drums assaulted us as Jack rushed toward the beach, and the ghastly sounds of whirling jet turbines filled our home theater. The incredible sound mix immediately pulls you into the action--at least it does when you play it through a receiver as good as the Harman Kardon AVR 140.
Moving into the musical realm, CD sound on the receiver was just as impressive. From the edgy energy of the White Stripes to sultry jazz and majestic classical overtures, the Harman Kardon AVR 140 proved an equally adept performer. Harman Kardon's proprietary Logic 7 surround processing sounded more natural than Dolby Pro Logic II on CDs.
We saved the best for last and cranked up Derek and the Dominos' Layla SACD. The sound of Eric Clapton's guitar and vocals had an analog-sounding naturalness, while Jim Gordon's drums and percussion revealed many subtle details without ever becoming harsh or grating. We could play the SACD at high volume without audible strain, as the Harman Kardon AVR 140's 40 watts per channel sounded more powerful than that modest rating would suggest.
A comparison with Denon's similarly priced receiver ($550) put the Harman Kardon AVR 140's charms in perspective. While the Denon was no slouch, the AVR 140 sounded richer and projected a wider and deeper soundstage. The Denon, by the way, claims 85 watts per channel but didn't seem to play any louder than the Harman Kardon. Of course, the Denon has component-video conversion and A/B speaker switching, which points out our big problem with the HK: it sounds sweet, but its feature set is just a bit too stripped down, even at its "bargain" $500 price point.