Harman Kardon AVR 1610 review:

Well-priced but underachieving AV receiver

The rest of the features are less important for mainstream buyers. The AVR 1610 is "only" a 5.1-channel receiver, but most buyers won't need the extra functionality that a 7-channel receiver makes possible: surround back channels, powered second-zone audio, and Dolby Pro Logic IIz "height" channels. There's no analog video upconversion, but again, that's less of a concern now that most modern devices use HDMI. Still, if you're a features "maximalist" -- you want as many features as you can get -- the Harman Kardon AVR 1610 isn't a good choice.

For a more detailed feature comparison, check out our giant AV receiver spreadsheet, which compares the AVR 1610 with other 2013 models as we review them.

Setup: Easy, but...
The AVR 1610 features Harman's newly revised EzSet/EQ III automatic speaker calibration system. The included measurement microphone is a little unusual, using a 6.3mm plug, instead of the standard 3.5mm plug we see on almost all other receivers. The microphone plugs into the AVR 1610's headphone jack; start the auto setup and onscreen prompts advise the user to hold the microphone, instead of the usual recommendation to put it on a tripod, and the next prompt questions whether to include or not include the subwoofer in the auto setup routine. We wondered why anyone would want to exclude the sub, but after the EzSet/EQ III had completed its duties we reconsidered the subless setup option.

Harman Kardon AVR 1610
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The EzSet/EQ III program sends unusually long sweep tones to each speaker and the sub, each one lasting a few seconds, longer than the usual series of quick, short bursts, but the entire setup process took just a few minutes. After the process was complete we checked the results. It correctly set all five of the Aperion 4T speakers' sizes to "Small," and set the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover choices to 80Hz for all of the speakers. So far, so good, and the speaker-to-microphone measurement distances were accurately set.

Sound quality: A step behind
Sound-quality evaluations of AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.

What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.

Harman Kardon AVR 1610
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Sarah Tew/CNET

Once we started our listening sessions with the "Jurassic Park" Blu-ray it was immediately obvious that the subwoofer volume was much too loud. The dinosaurs' footfalls weren't just a little "hot": our Hsu Research VTF-3 MK4 subwoofer was severely distorting, and we'd never heard it do that before. Turning the volume way down on the sub itself and rerunning the EzSet/EQ III didn't solve the problem, the sub was still too loud. So we turned the subwoofer volume down in the AVR-1610's manual speaker setup menu, and that did the trick.

We experienced the same overly loud sub problem with the last Harman receiver we tested, the AVR 2600. We also noticed the AVR 1610's center and surround-channel speakers' volume were a little too low, so we manually raised their volume to match the front left and right Aperion 4T tower speakers' volume level. So we can't recommend using EzSet/EQ III; stick with manual speaker setup. (We don't blame the EzSet/EQ III's problematic setup on the single mic position method, though, as we've experienced inaccuracies with multiposition auto speaker setup systems like Audyssey.)

Once the sub and speaker levels were set we returned to "Jurassic Park," and felt the AVR-1610 did a reasonably good job of putting us in the jungle scenes. Directional cues of the creatures in the jungle were nicely done, and the front-to-back surround envelopment was good, though it wasn't as seamless as we heard with the Marantz NR1403. The NR1403 receiver also created a smoother blend between the Hsu VTF-1 MK4 sub and all five Aperion speakers. The dinosaur battles loomed larger over the NR1403, which felt more powerful but is, in fact, only rated at 50 watts per channel, while the AVR-1610 has 85 watts per channel. Both receivers played loud enough, but the NR1403 sounded better playing loud. Then again, it sounded better at any volume we tried.

Moving beyond comparisons, the AVR-1610 was hard to fault when we played CDs. Turning up the heat with some LCD Soundsystem tunes, we were very satisfied with the receiver's power reserves for stereo music.

What are the alternatives?
The Sony STR-DN840 ($450) is the most compelling alternative. While it's $50 more expensive, it has Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi capabilities, plus it offers one more HDMI input. The STR-DN840's Bluetooth (and AirPlay) are also much better implemented, including the capability to wake up the receiver as soon as you start streaming to it. Altogether, it's worth the extra $50 to us, especially for a device that you're likely to hang onto for more than five years.

If you're drawn to the AVR 1610's sleek look, it's also worth considering the Marantz NR1403, which is even thinner. Like the Sony STR-DN840, it has six HDMI inputs, but it doesn't have any networking or built-in Bluetooth functionality. The lack of networking features isn't a huge loss in our book and you can always add Bluetooth later if you'd like, although it's not as convenient as having the capability built in.

Finally, it's worth considering whether you even need an full-fledged AV receiver in the first place. If you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a compact integrated amplifier. They sound great, take up a lot less room, and can make your home theater much simpler.

Conclusion: A missed opportunity
Based on the spec sheet, we expected the Harman Kardon AVR 1610 to be one of the best AV receiver options of the year, with a smart combination of features and an attractive, slim look. However, the reality is the AVR 1610 misses the mark in day-to-day use, with a frustrating remote, convoluted Bluetooth implementation, and only so-so sound. The Harman AVR 1610 isn't a bad AV receiver and it's prcied particularly well, but the vast majority of buyers will be better off with the excellent Sony STR-DN840.

What you'll pay

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