We expected Harman Kardon's HK 3480 stereo receiver to sound wonderful playing music--and it did--but its home-theater prowess was a pleasant surprise. While it can't really deliver the true surround effects of rear-channel speakers, the company's proprietary signal processor does an excellent job of synthesizing credible surround effects from DVDs, using just a pair of stereo speakers. Moreover, this little receiver retails for $449. Yes, that's a good deal more than many entry-level multichannel A/V receivers, such as or , but it's also less than many of its higher-end stereo brethren, namely and . It lacks the multiroom capability of the latter two units, and it doesn't sound as sweet as the $899 Rotel, but overall, this HK is our high-value pick of the stereo-receiver litter. Harman's distinctive, blue-halo volume control along with the two-tone pewter-grey-and-gloss-black faceplate give the HK 3480 an attractive, modern look. The receiver is roughly the size of a multichannel receiver, measuring 17.4 inches wide, 6.6 inches high, and 15 inches deep. This 2.0-channel bad boy weighs 23 pounds--more than most 5.1-channel models.
The fresh styling wasn't carried over to the rather drab-looking, grey-plastic remote. It is perfectly functional, however, and it can be programmed to work with your DVD player and TV. Receiver setup is blessedly menu-free and straightforward compared to multichannel models--just hook up your sources and the two speaker cables and you're done. VMAx, Harman's proprietary virtual-surround processing, works its magic with CDs, DVDs, LPs, tapes--any stereo format (see Performance for more). It might cinch the deal for some buyers who want the simplicity of stereo hookup and use but are concerned they'll miss the sense of envelopment that surround sound provides.
The Harman Kardon HK 3480 front panel's rotary bass, treble, and balance controls are a lot easier to use than the menu-accessible sort found on most multichannel receivers. A pair of high-current amplifiers delivers 120 watts per channel for 8-ohm speakers and 150 watts for 4-ohm-rated speakers.
Connectivity options on the HK 3480's back panel run to a total of six stereo inputs (three with composite video connections), including provisions for a turntable, as well as two stereo outputs. A set of stereo audio and video inputs is present on the front panel for use with games or cameras. The HK 3480 also features stereo subwoofer outputs along with pre-out and main-in connectors that offer an upgrade path or the use of a higher-power separate power amplifier. A/B speaker connections are provided with hefty banana-plug-compatible binding posts. To put us in the proper mood for our stereo-receiver auditions, we rocked out the Harman Kardon HK 3480 with a stack of great music from the '70s and '80s: Led Zeppelin, the Cars, David Bowie, and Elvis Costello. The HK 3480's bass was tight, its treble clean as a whistle, and those 120 watts per channel played nice and loud.
Next we explored the HK 3480's virtuosity and refinement with Sergei Prokofiev's ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. The violins' string tone was absolutely beautiful, and the receiver's portrayal of soundstage depth was truly breathtaking.
Up to this point, we were using our large, reference Dynaudio Contour speakers, but we wanted to check out the HK 3480's talents with a pair of small satellite speakers and a subwoofer. We used our sats and the sub and finished up our auditions with some home-theater sessions. The Kill Bill Volume 1 DVD's violent scenes packed a wallop, and when we engaged the HK 3480's VMAx processor, the NHT speakers projected sound forward to provide a satisfying simulation of surround sound. The effect is most successful for listeners sitting near or at the center of our couch--once you're sitting off to the left or right side, the sound "sticks" to the closest speaker. That said, we felt the VMAx feature will be a big plus for those HK 3480 buyers who watch DVDs. We weren't as happy with the VMAx effect on music, which sounded a little too diffuse.
We don't usually refer to the quality of receivers' headphone outputs, but the HK 3480 sounded particularly good with our headphones. The sound wasn't stuck inside our head, even in plain stereo, and when we engaged the VMAx processing, it was even better.