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 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.
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.