Today's A/V receivers can deliver extraordinary sound quality if they're properly set up. And that's a big if. Most receivers' setup chores are so complicated that the average consumer never makes it past the first onscreen menu. Harman Kardon is hip to that fact, so it cooked up EzSet to streamline the setup process. We checked out the least expensive EzSet model, the AVR 220, and were thrilled by its combination of smooth sound, plentiful features, and intelligent user interface. Today's A/V receivers can deliver extraordinary sound quality if they're properly set up. And that's a big if. Most receivers' setup chores are so complicated that the average consumer never makes it past the first onscreen menu. Harman Kardon is hip to that fact, so it cooked up EzSet to streamline the setup process. We checked out the least expensive EzSet model, the AVR 220, and were thrilled by its combination of smooth sound, plentiful features, and intelligent user interface.
A sound idea
EzSet isn't totally automated; it won't set parameters such as speaker size or time-delay settings, but thanks to the microphone built into the receiver's programmable remote, it can measure the sound level of each speaker from the listening position and send calibration information back to the receiver. EzSet is a clever system, but audio nerds will still prefer to fine-tune their speaker levels the old-fashioned way, with a sound-pressure level meter. That said, EzSet will deliver better balanced sound than that which most nontechie folks are currently experiencing.
Connecting all the wires in back may prove to be far more complex than setting speaker levels. There are enough inputs and outputs to accommodate most users: it has Super Audio CD (SACD)/DVD-Audio 5.1 inputs; six digital audio inputs and two outputs; numerous A/V and S-Video jacks; and extensive front-panel A/V connections. Only the turntable input was neglected. MP3 playback is possible but requires an S/PDIF-compatible signal, which is something that most DVD players won't do. However, many PC sound cards with digital audio outputs will work. This receiver, like so many others, occasionally mutes the first fraction of a second of sound when changing CD tracks.
The AVR 220's digital-to-analog converters are audiophile-grade, 192KHz/24-bit devices. In addition to all the standard digital-signal-processing modes, Dolby digital, and DTS, the AVR 220 sports Dolby's latest update, Pro Logic II, and Harman's proprietary surround-enhancement system, Logic 7. Both provide superb surround sound from two-channel sources, such as CD and radio; they sounded enveloping and far more natural than the standard-issue Concert Hall or Jazz Club surround modes found on lesser receivers. We were also impressed with the clear sound of the AVR 220's tuner.
Relative power rating
We once again learned not to judge loudness capability by power-rating numbers alone. Remember, since your home theater's powered subwoofer handles most of the bass content, this 5-by-45 watt receiver can play small satellites loud enough to annoy your neighbors. But if you have full-sized speakers and like to crank your music, the power limitations will be more obvious. We certainly didn't feel shortchanged when we pumped up the volume of the new Planet of the Apes DVD; its thunderous score rolled out of our bookshelf Dynaudio Contour speakers, and the film's wraparound surround effects were completely enveloping. The Session at West 54th, Volume 2 DVD's sonics knocked us out, especially the energy and rhythmic drive on the John Hiatt cut "Cry Love." DVD after DVD, the sound was smooth and detailed, and even after hours of listening, our ears never felt fatigued.
The $549 (list price) AVR 220 is a fine receiver, but it lacks 6.1-channel surround processing. That extra channel can fill out the rear-surround soundstage, and Harman Kardon's next model up in the line, the $799 (list price) , decodes DTS ES discrete and matrix 6.1 DVDs, and it's slightly more powerful. That said, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the AVR 220.