Harman/Kardon AVR 330
Style is always a matter of taste, but we loved the AVR 330's cool and contemporary edge. The blue-halo volume-control ring adds a distinctive motif, and the oversize display imparts highly legible information, telling you which surround-processing modes and speakers are active. The receiver measures a manageable 15 inches deep.
We couldn't help but be impressed by the 330's extensive setup flexibility. You can preset surround modes for each input--say, Dolby Pro Logic II for CDs and Dolby Digital EX for DVDs--and even preselect a higher subwoofer level for DVDs than CDs. Another neat feature, Triple Crossover, allows you optimize the sound of a system made up from differently sized speakers. If you have medium-size bookshelf speakers in the front left/right positions, a slightly smaller center speaker, and tiny surround speakers, for example, the AVR 330 can assign each set its own crossover frequency. In this hypothetical example, the left/right speakers might sound best with a fairly low crossover point of 60Hz, while the center takes 80Hz, and the bass-challenged surrounds lock in at around 120Hz. Most receivers make do with just one crossover point (say, 80Hz), and you wind up with less than optimum sound quality from all speakers.
Harman's EzSet feature automatically balances the volume levels of all five speakers but curiously neglects the subwoofer's volume; you still have to set that by ear. Harman better step up to the plate; some Pioneer and Yamaha receivers, such as the VSX-D912K and the RX-V1400, offer far more extensive auto setup and calibration systems. They not only adjust the volume of all of the speakers, including the subwoofer, but determine the speakers' size and measure listener-to-speaker distances.
The remote is fairly easy to program and use, though it crams in too many buttons; at least the "source" controls are backlit. Harman includes a second, smaller remote that's intended for use in another zone (or room).
No doubt some buyers will be concerned about the AVR 330's modest 55-watt power rating. That's why we'd like to bring up another specification we find a more reliable predictor of true power: the receiver's weight. The AVR 330 tips the scales at a hefty 30.6 pounds, which is right up there with most similarly priced 100-watt-per-channel receivers. Onkyo's six-channel, 100-watt TX-SR701, for example, weighs 27 pounds.
Surround-processing modes extend beyond the everyday 6.1-channel Dolby and DTS to include Harman's proprietary Logic 7 and VMAx modes. The former powers 5- or 7-channel systems from a stereo source, while the latter simulates surround over stereo speakers or headphones.
The AVR 330's connectivity offerings should accommodate all but the most complex home theaters. You get two sets of component-video inputs and one output, plus four A/V ins and two outs. The digital-audio jack set is even more generous, with a total of four ins (two coaxial, two optical) and two outputs (one coaxial, one optical). Beyond the 7.1 inputs for DVD-Audio and SACD players, analog audio connections are slim, with just two ins and one out. The front panel has its own unusually complete set of A/V connections, with two more digital inputs, one coaxial, and one optical, along with stereo analog audio, composite, and S-Video inputs. The AVR 330 also offers a full set of pre-out jacks that might be used with an outboard power amplifier. If you forgo 7.1 surround, you can redirect the "surround back" speaker outputs for use in a second room/zone.
We first put the AVR 330 though its paces with the X-2: X-Men United DVD. Oh boy, this disc sounds amazing: superclean, with wide dynamics and lots of ominous deep bass. Listening to chapter 10, "Nightcrawler," we found that the surround effects of the birds flying around an old church sounded amazingly realistic.
The Rolling Stones' new concert DVD set, Four Flicks, presents the rockin' geezers in truly remarkable form. We especially liked disc four, where the band played the Olympia Theatre in Paris; the 5.1-surround mix delivered vivid textures and you-are-there ambience. On "Honky Tonk Women," Charlie Watts's drum kit sits in the rear of the stage and lays down a ferocious groove while the other guys pile on. Even Jagger's vocals sound clear as can be. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the AVR 330 is a 55-watt-per-channel receiver. Its effortless delivery of power sounded more like double that conservative rating.
Next we tried Harman's Logic 7 surround circuit on a couple of CDs. Compared to Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6, the surround effect was decidedly more spacious.
For the final rounds, we compared the AVR 330 to Harman's entry-level receiver, the $449 AVR 130. While the 130 sounds very good, we found the 330's sonics to be slightly more refined.