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Harman/kardon HS 100 - home theater system - 5.1 channel review: Harman/kardon HS 100 - home theater system - 5.1 channel

Harman/kardon HS 100 - home theater system - 5.1 channel

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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6 min read

The solitary backlit volume control on the receiver/DVD player's jet-black front panel is the focal point of the head unit's elegant design; the top front edge of the unit has a few buttons. Its ventilation slots are laid out in a distinct pattern on both sides of the chassis, and instead of the usual round feet, the HS 100 rests on clear plastic rails. Viewed from the front, the receiver/DVD player appeared to float just above the shelf in our A/V rack.

6.9

Harman/kardon HS 100 - home theater system - 5.1 channel

The Good

Sleek, jet-black A/V receiver and DVD-Audio/video player; wraparound metal-mesh grilles add pizzazz to the five two-way satellites' look; matching 10-inch, 100-watt, powered subwoofer.

The Bad

Middling home-theater performance; less than intuitive onscreen menu navigation; crowded DVD controls on remote control; slow switching between A/V sources; no HDMI output.

The Bottom Line

The Harman Kardon HS 100's elegant good looks and sweet musicality may be enough for some buyers, but the pricey system lacks the oomph for convincing home-theater duty.
Intro
Most folks who buy home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems do so because they're affordable, they're easy to set up, and all of the pieces match. They don't seem to mind that many HTIBs' silver-plastic speakers and electronics look and feel, well, cheesy. With the HS 100 ($900), Harman Kardon broke that stereotype--this sleekly styled receiver/DVD player and six-piece satellite/subwoofer package will look great mated with higher-end plasma screens. Alas, the sound quality isn't as sophisticated as the style: it didn't rise above average for HTIBs but was enjoyable enough for straight dramas and music. The Harman Kardon HS 100 is a home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) package that features a combo receiver and DVD-Audio/video player, as well as a six-piece satellite/subwoofer speaker. What sets it apart from most of its HTIB brethren is its stunning industrial design--it's easily one of the best-looking home-theater systems we've seen. The HS 100 has a high-end aura that makes most even pricier HTIBs look and feel rather cheap by comparison. The complete ensemble comes in a muted silver finish.

The remote will be familiar to anyone who has used a Harman Kardon design of the last few years. The tapered design's button contingent offers quick access to all of the necessary functions, but the DVD player's transport buttons are squeezed together at the skinny, bottom end of the remote. Operating those buttons was a little awkward.

Wraparound metal-mesh grilles grace the three-sided satellite speakers;,which are just 7 inches tall. The sats come packed with brackets to facilitate wall mounting. The matching 9.5-inch-wide center has an integral base, and the speaker can be set atop at TV or on a shelf under the set. The subwoofer mimics the speakers' style on a grander scale: it's 13.4 inches wide, 18.9 tall, and 13.4 deep. Like the receiver's volume control knob, the LED on the sub's top panel changes from orange to blue when it switches over from standby to operating modes. Beautifully constructed and finished, the sub weighs 33 pounds. Setup particulars weren't as elegant as other aspects of the design--we found the HS 100's onscreen navigation less than intuitive. But at least that's not something you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The factory default settings for speakers' volume levels were way off--the center speaker was much louder than the front and surround speakers--and correcting the imbalances on the HS 100 was an exercise in frustration. More annoying was the unit's slow response to commands. For example, pressing the Source button on the receiver, we sometimes waited 6 or more seconds to change sources, say from DVD to FM radio; the switchover is near instantaneous on most HTIBs.

The HS 100 comes with two user's manuals: one for the receiver/DVD player and one for the satellite/subwoofer system. Both offer general setup information but fail to give specific advice for matching the receiver with the speakers. The Harman Kardon HS 100 emphasis is clearly on design, but it covers the basic features. The single-disc player can spin just about any standard disc format, including DVD video, DVD-Audio, VCDs, SVCDs, and audio CDs. All the standard home-burned disc formats will play as well, including DVD-R/RWs, DVD+R/RWs, CD-R/RWs, and CDs encoded with MP3, WMA, and JPEG files. Standard Dolby and DTS surround processing modes are on board.

The receiver/DVD player's connectivity is bare-bones basic: it's got the standard DVD player outputs--composite, S-Video, and progressive-scan component--but no video inputs. In other words, the HS 100 won't be able to switch between video sources such as a cable box, a VCR, or a game console; you'll have to hook them up directly to your TV. We were also disappointed to find the HS 100 lacked an HDMI output, which is becoming all but standard on models that can be had for less than half the price. The HS 100 has two sets of stereo analog inputs and two digital audio inputs (one coaxial, one optical); there's also an analog audio output. The speaker connectors accept bare wires or banana plugs, not the proprietary jacks found on many HTIBs. Normally, that would mean you'd be free to utilize different speakers if you so chose, but the manual specifically admonishes that doing so would void the warranty.

The modest 35-watts-times-five power amplifiers of the Harman Kardon HS 100 are well matched to the job at hand--driving the wee speakers--and it's worth noting that Harman Kardon's power ratings are far more conservative (honest) than those of other manufacturers. The satellite speakers are two-way designs outfitted with 3-inch woofers and 0.5-inch tweeters; the center speaker uses a larger, 0.75-inch tweeter and twin 3-inch woofers. The speakers' spring-type wire connectors are recessed in their bases. The subwoofer's down-firing 10-inch woofer is vented through a rear-mounted port. The subwoofer features a 100-watt amplifier; on the rear panel you'll find stereo and dedicated LFE (low-frequency effects) RCA inputs, plus stereo speaker-level inputs and outputs. The sub's nonadjustable, 120Hz crossover can be bypassed, and we discovered the sub/satellite sounded best in bypassed mode; the owner's manual leaves out that valuable bit of information.

The HS 100 is the most elegant and affordable of Harman Kardon's HTIBs. If you want to spend more and get more flexibility, connectivity options, and power, consider the CP 15 ($1,000), the CP 25 ($1,400), or the CP 35 ($1,900). Each of them is a component-based home-theater system that bundles separate Harman A/V receivers and DVD players, along with speaker packages similar to the HS 100's.

Harman Kardon's 2006 HTIB models compared:

Model Quick take Included components Price
Harman Kardon HS 100 Harman Kardon's most affordable HTIB is also its most attractive: this slick-looking system is anchored by an all-in-one receiver/amplifier/disc player that's not much bigger than your average DVD player. All-in-one receiver/DVD player; HKTS 7 5.1-speaker package
Harman Kardon CP 15 This system offers HK's entry-level 2005 receiver, 5.1-speaker package, and matching DVD player in one package. AVR 135 receiver; DVD 22 DVD player; HKTS 8 5.1-speaker package
Harman Kardon CP 25 The step-up to the CP 15 includes a better receiver and a 7.1-speaker system--as well as a DVD player--in one package. AVR 235 receiver; DVD 22 DVD player; HKTS 7 (5.1) plus one pair of HKS 3 speakers
Harman Kardon CP 35 HK's top-of-the-line HTIB bundles the AVR 335 receiver, the DVD 31 DVD player, and a 7.1-channel version of the capable HKTS 14 speaker package. AVR 335 receiver; DVD 31 DVD player; HKTS 14 (5.1) plus one pair of HKS 4 speakers
The Harman Kardon HS 100's 35-watt-per-channel amplifiers and teensy satellites couldn't convey the impact and dynamic punch from special-effects-driven DVDs such as Revenge of the Sith. The subwoofer menacingly rumbled and quaked, but the satellites sounded strained on the battle scenes coursing through The Thin Red Line DVD. Reducing the volume helped a bit, and the special-effects-free series finale of the Six Feet Under HBO series put the HS 100's home-theater talents in a better light. The sound from that DVD was crisp and clear, and we lost ourselves in the heart-wrenching drama.

Johnny Cash's Live from Austin concert DVD was a treat. The first thing we noticed was that Johnny's big baritone voice wasn't reined in by the small satellites, and we could play the HS 100 louder with music than we could with The Thin Red Line. Oh, and while the subwoofer sounded powerful enough to fill even a large room with bass, the bass wasn't as defined as what we heard from the sub in the Denon DHT-486DV ($749) HTIB.

Bowie's David Live DVD-Audio disc couldn't demonstrate the advantages of the format's higher-resolution sound. These shows, recorded in 1974 at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, have impressed us on separates-based systems, but the HS 100 squashed the sound, taking the life out of Bowie's music. Then again, what DVD-A-compatible HTIB could? We can't think of one.

Plain vanilla CD sound was actually pretty decent. The soulful voices of Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and Eddie Bo communicated a deeper level on the Our New Orleans benefit CD. The pianos on this CD had remarkable weight and power, thanks to the HS 100's subwoofer. All in all, we were most happy with the sound of the system when playing CDs, and that's rarely the case for HTIBs. We'd recommend the HS 100 primarily to buyers who play more music than watch movies and want a great-looking system.

6.9

Harman/kardon HS 100 - home theater system - 5.1 channel

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 6Performance 5
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