Every year, most audio brands churn out a new line of AV receivers, adding incremental new features and maybe a power bump here or there. Some manufacturers, however, are more languid. Brands like Harman Kardon and Rotel have seemingly concentrated on sound quality, releasing new models every couple of years, rather than participate in the features arms race.
Indeed, Harman Kardon's new AVR models for 2015 are updates of the company's 2013 line. And Harman has opted for an iPhone-style naming scheme, simply adding an "S" to the three upgraded receivers: the 1510S, the 1610S (reviewed here) and the 1710S are upgrades of the 1510, 1610 and 1710, respectively. Despite the low expectations inherent in such a subtle name change, however, the feature upgrades are both plentiful and useful: the 1610S adds Spotify Connect and five HDMI 2.0 ports, while retaining its predecessor's support for wireless Bluetooth streaming and $400 price point. Sadly, though, there's no Wi-Fi; it's Ethernet only. (Incredibly, Harman doesn't offer Wi-Fi until you step up to its $1,000 offering, the AVR 3700.)
Home-theater playback is excellent, creating a soundfield every bit as enveloping as competitors'. Music replay is also passable, though the Yamaha RV-X479 does a better job, especially at reproducing the bass lines of rock and dance music. The Yamaha receiver also adds multiroom music capabilities -- including wireless! -- making it a better rounded package than the Harman Kardon. However, if you're a fan of the HK's style -- and it does have a great look -- the AVR 1610S is a solid, if a little flawed, buy at the price.
If you like design minimalism, then the AVR 1610S should probably be in your sights. The receiver is the spitting image of its predecessor, as the addition of an "S" would suggest, though this is actually a good thing. Height-wise, the 1610S is halfway between the ultratrim Marantz NR receivers and the rest of the category pack at 4.75 inches (12cm).
Unlike similar brands there is only one knob on the HK, and it does exactly what you'd expect it to do: adjust the volume. While other receivers offer a source dial, or even better direct buttons, the AVR 1610S only has small source up/down buttons.
The remote. Oh, the remote. It's terrible. The buttons are small, and it's easy to accidentally start controlling the disc player, for example, without realizing and then wondering why the buttons don't work.
The menu system is also horribly dated with a 480i interface and spindly white text. While it's actually just as usable as other receiver menus, the looks aren't such a problem: most people will use the menu only to set up their system and then never look at it again.
The Harman Kardon AVR 1610S is capable of 85 watts per channel in stereo, though it doesn't give a true rating with five channels driven at once. Unlike competitors, HK uses a digital amplifier in its AVR1610S which accounts for the low weight. This is compared with analog designs like the Yamaha RX-V479 which need a hefty transformer. (Once upon a time, Harman Kardon made a big deal about its conservative power ratings, even as competitors pumped up their reported wattage to more unbelievable levels.)
The AVR includes five HDMI 2.0 inputs (including one that's MHL-compatible), so support for 4K video standards is possible. You also get two analog AV inputs, one each coaxial and optical digital inputs, plus a front-mounted USB port.
Harman's "TrueStream" Bluetooth technology allows for wireless streaming from any phone or tablet. An Ethernet port provides wired networking support, but there's no Wi-Fi -- though you could always add a $35 Chromecast Audio for that.
While the HK's competitor is all about the wireless multiroom streaming in the form of its MusicCast technology, the 1610S will only support Spotify Connect, vTuner Internet radio and UPnP/DLNA streaming from your network. While there is a Harman Control app that enables you to stream music to the device, it's not as slick as competitors' efforts.
If there's one piece of home-theater equipment that uses the most electricity, it's a battle between the television and the home-theater receiver. The AVR1610S, like most of Harman Kardon's line, boasts Harman GreenEdge technology which is designed to cut down on the carbon footprint: less materials and less power usage. Indeed, the AVR 1610S weighs just 10 pounds, making it the lightest AV receiver we've ever tested (the Yamaha RX-V 479 is more typical and weighs 17.9 pounds). And HK says the 1610S uses a maximum of 450W in operation while the Yamaha uses a maximum of 600W.
The AVR 1610S' manual speaker calibration setup was easy and quick, and we opted for 80 Hertz crossover settings for all of our Andrew Jones-designed ELAC B6 speakers in the front left/right spots, ELAC C5 center channel speaker, ELAC B5s as surround speakers, and a Klipsch R-110SW subwoofer. Our only gripe at this point with the AVR 1610S: the remote control's tiny volume up/down buttons. They're the most used buttons, but they're just crammed in along with the other buttons, so they're not so easy to locate in a darkened home theater.
While there's still no Bluetooth button on the remote, at least we found it easier to set up than its predecessor, the AVR 1610 . We used the source select button on the unit itself, then selected Bluetooth on our phone, at which point the AVR appeared and let us connect.
As mentioned, Harman claims 85 watts per channel for this receiver, and we found the AVR 1610S played loud enough to shake the walls of the smallish CNET listening room.
Settling in with the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Summer Day" live 2013 concert Blu-ray, the Harman Kardon AVR 1610S receiver filled the CNET listening room. The tonal balance was full and warm, which we liked. Sure, the band members are old and so are the tunes, but the sound was lacking oomph and energy. Turning up the volume helped, but the sound was still missing something.
So we hooked up the Yamaha RX-V479 receiver for comparison, and that one managed to unleash more of the Stones' get-up-and-go. Even when we turned the volume down a bit, the RX-V479's sound was more vibrant. Continuing with the "Avatar" Blu-ray didn't alter our opinion about the AVR 1610S' pleasantly warm home-theater sound. Paired with a set of overly bright speakers, the AVR 1610S might really come alive.
Next, we listened to the AVR 1610S in stereo, with just a pair of ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf speakers playing jazz saxophonist Peter Epstein's "Staring at the Sun" album. There, the AVR 1610S came into its own, and the little speakers' easily handled the drummer's uncompressed dynamic range. We heard a surprising amount of bass, and thought for a second the subwoofer was on, but it was not. The AVR 1610S brought out more bass from these little speakers than we're used to.
The Kronos String Quartet's "Early Music" album was also tonally rich, but we wished for a bit more immediacy and presence in the sound of the cello, viola, and violins. We're not claiming big differences between the sound of the Yamaha and Harman Kardon receivers, but careful listeners might prefer one over the other.
Comparing the Yamaha's MusicCast sound quality to streaming via the Harman Control app we found that the Yamaha system had better control over bass frequencies and was also a little less tiring to listen to. The deep, deep synth line that appears at 2.20 mark in the Beta Band's "Life" was kept in check by the Yamaha but became bloated in the hands of the HK.
The Harman Kardon AVR 1610S is a perfectly adequate AV receiver, but the sound didn't blow us away. It's certainly not harsh or fatiguing, and we're thankful for that. We were also happy to note that, despite its lighter-than-average weight, the AVR 1610S seemed about as powerful as any other similarly priced receiver that's passed through the CNET listening room.
Ultimately, though, there are so many other great receivers -- including the identically priced Yamaha RX-V479 that we directly compared -- that it's tough to recommend the HK unless you're just in love with the design.