Harman Kardon's AVR 1610 seems to be one of the most balanced AV receivers of 2013, with built-in Bluetooth, just enough HDMI inputs (five), and a slim, handsome design -- all for a very reasonable price of $400. But in this case, the specs don't tell enough of the story. The AVR 1610's Bluetooth implementation is far from the instant convenience you'd expect, requiring several more steps to start streaming than it should. The included remote doesn't appear so bad at first, until you realize the all-important volume buttons are remarkably small. And the AVR 1610's sound quality wasn't that great in our listening tests, even compared with the similarly slim Marantz NR1403.
That's not to say the AVR 1610 is a bad receiver, especially for the price, but it's not the knockout value that it initially appears to be. For most buyers, it's worth paying a little more to get the Sony STR-DN840 ($450), which has a similarly stacked spec sheet, and does a better job of living up to its promise.
Design: Slim and stylish
Most AV receivers put little effort into looking good, using the same boxy, metal chassis that hasn't changed much in 20 years. The Harman AVR 1610 has a much more polished look, with sleek rounded corners and one of the few glossy black finishes that manages to appear stylish rather than tacky.
The front panel looks refreshingly free of buttons and knobs, punctuated by the large volume knob on the right. The knob's illuminated look is attractive, although it's a bit bright for a home theater; luckily you can set it (and the front-panel display) to go dark after a few seconds of inactivity. Marantz's NR1403 could be considered slightly better-looking, but it's a matter of taste.
You'll also notice the AVR 1610 is shockingly light -- even by the diminished standards of modern AV receivers -- weighing just 10 pounds. It does make the AVR 1610 quite a bit easier to handle when installing the unit, or even just pulling it out slightly to make small adjustments. However, a light weight can sometimes be an indicator of lackluster sound; more on that later.
The AVR 1610 is also noticeably slimmer than the average receiver, standing 4.75 inches tall. That's considerably shorter than most of its contemporaries, like the Sony STR-DN840 (6.14 inches) and Onkyo TX-NR525 (6.81 inches), although it's not truly a slim-line unit; Marantz's slim-line NR1403 is just 4.19 inches. The smaller size, lighter weight, and handsome front panel all make the AVR 1610 feel more approachable than your typical AV receiver.
The remote isn't nearly as thoughtfully designed as the receiver. It gets some things right, particularly the clearly delineated source buttons and large directional pad, but otherwise there are way too many buttons. What really pushes the remote into bad territory are the laughably small volume buttons, which are the most important buttons on the remote. We were frequently frustrated by how hard it was to find the volume buttons, especially in a darkened home theater. As with most receivers, we'd recommend adding a quality universal remote to your system to make up for the lousy included clicker.
Features: Built-in Bluetooth, bungled
On paper, the Harman Kardon AVR 1610's feature set is excellent for the price.
On the back, you've got five HDMI inputs, which should be enough for most home theaters. If HDMI connectivity is your main priority, you can get six inputs at the same price from the Marantz NR1403, Denon AVR-E300, and Pioneer VSX-823-K, but in most cases we think five is enough. The AVR 1610 does include an MHL-compatible HDMI input, which is also certified as "Roku Ready," so it should work particularly well with Roku's nifty Streaming Stick.
There aren't many legacy connections on the AVR 1610, with only two digital inputs (one optical, one coaxial), two stereo analog inputs, and no component video connections at all. It all makes for a very uncluttered back panel, which is fine by us now that nearly all devices use HDMI.
The AVR 1610 is considered a "network" AV receiver, although it has a particularly lackluster implementation of network features. For one, there's no built-in Wi-Fi and Harman Kardon doesn't sell a Wi-Fi adapter, so you'll need a wired connection (or a workaround) to take advantage of features like smartphone control, DLNA compatibility, and Internet radio streaming. Secondly, firmware updates inexplicably can only be done via USB, even if your AVR 1610 is connected to your home network. Finally, aside from Internet radio, there aren't any integrated streaming-audio services, such as Pandora and Spotify, which are typically included on competing receivers.
However, the inclusion of built-in Bluetooth theoretically makes up for the lack of built-in streaming services. Using AV receivers to navigate streaming services is usually clunky and slow, while Bluetooth allows you to stream audio directly from any app on your smartphone, including apps like Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio. Sure, you're sacrificing some audio quality with Bluetooth, but the idea is you're gaining a lot of convenience, which is an acceptable tradeoff for many listeners.
The problem is that Harman's Bluetooth implementation isn't nearly as convenient as it should be. We struggled to get Bluetooth working at all, until we discovered you need to bring up the onscreen menu, go into source select, and select Bluetooth every time you want to listen. Unlike other receivers that support Bluetooth, the AVR 1610 doesn't automatically switch to the Bluetooth input when paired and there's no Bluetooth button on the remote, which is why you need to go into the menu. The AVR 1610 also doesn't let you power on the receiver via Bluetooth, adding another step before you can start streaming. For us, the benefit of Bluetooth is all about being able to stream from your mobile device almost immediately, and the AVR 1610's implementation largely kills the fun.
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.
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.
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.