X

Harman/Kardon HS 300 review: Harman/Kardon HS 300

Harman/Kardon HS 300

headshots_Steve_Guttenberg.jpg
Steve Guttenberg
headshots_Steve_Guttenberg.jpg

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.

See full bio
7 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

In 2006, we gave the Harman Kardon HS 100 HTIB (home theater in a box) a good review, but there was definitely room for improvement--especially considering that it originally sold for $900. For this 2007 update, the HS 300, Harman bumped the price a notch, added HDMI and USB connectivity, and pumped up the performance capabilities of the six-piece satellite/subwoofer package. The designers retained the original AV receiver/DVD player's modernist black-gloss look, and the silver mesh-covered speakers are quite attractive in their own right. Last year's model's sound quality didn't bowl us over, but this year's is a different story. The HS 300 is a distinct improvement, on par with some of the better high-style HTIBs.

7.0

Harman/Kardon HS 300

The Good

Sleek jet-black AV receiver/DVD-Audio/Video player; HDMI and USB connectivity; five two-way satellites; matching 10- inch, 200-watt, powered subwoofer.

The Bad

Awkward remote; quirky setup menu navigation takes some getting used to; no automatic speaker calibration; video upscaling should be better at this price.

The Bottom Line

If you can look past the quirky interface and high price, the sexy Harman Kardon HS 300 delivers sophisticated styling, solid performance, and better connectivity and speakers than last year's model.

Design
The Harman Kardon HS 300 features a combo AV receiver/DVD player and a six-piece satellite/subwoofer speaker package. We think it's really gorgeous; the receiver's jet-black faceplate isn't marred with rows of buttons or controls of any kind except for the blue-backlit volume control. It resembles the iPod-style touch wheel controls we're starting to see on home components, but since it's a mechanical volume control that actually turns, it always works. The top front edge of the unit has just power on/off and open/close buttons--everything else is found on the remote control. The receiver rests on clear plastic rails that run the complete width of the component, so when you look at it straight on the receiver appears to "float" just above the shelf it's resting on.

The tapered remote's button layout felt pretty awkward. For example, the DVD player's transport buttons are squeezed together at the skinny bottom end of the remote. Operating those teensy buttons was a chore--we could only imagine what it would be like in the dark, but fortunately all of the buttons on the remote are backlit. We also noted that when changing to the AUX input (where we had our Sirius tuner plugged in), we could no longer control the volume with the remote. We eventually figured out that the remote's Mode button would restore the volume control capability. What a pain.

Wraparound mesh grilles grace all three sides of the speaker cabinets. The matching 9.5-inch-wide center has an integral base--the speaker can be set atop a TV or on a shelf under the set. The 9.5-inch-tall satellite speakers come packed with brackets to facilitate wall mounting. Harman also offers HTFS 2 slim aluminum-extrusion column floor stands designed to match the satellite speakers. An internal wire-management system keeps speaker wires out of sight.

The cube subwoofer's curved corners match the satellites' rounded style, but it's a full size design measuring 20.5 inches high by 14.5 inches wide by 14.5 inches deep. 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 a hefty 48 pounds. The complete sat/sub ensemble comes in a silver finish.

The HS 300's setup routine was fairly straightforward. It's all manual, but even straight out of the box, the sound levels of all the speakers was in the ballpark--we just needed to boost the surround channels a little. Alternatively, you have the option of adjusting one or all of the speakers in the system. Video is just as easy, and we selected the 1080i for the HDMI output we were using. As we made our way through the onscreen menus, the system would occasionally stop responding. We never really understood the logic behind Harman's navigation interface, so once setup was completed, we never dared to go back.

Features
The HS 300 AV receiver is conservatively rated at 35 watts for each of its five channels, but in actual use, the HTIB seemed as powerful as any of the 1,000-watt systems we've tested. Numbers are just numbers, and since the Federal Trade Commission no longer keeps manufacturers on the up and up, HTIB power ratings are meaningless. If you care about power and want to play movies or music really loud, buy a powerful AV receiver (or better yet, separate components). Standard Dolby and DTS surround processing are included with the HS 300 and the DVD player can also play DVD-Audio discs.

The receiver/DVD player's connectivity is a mixed bag. You get the standard DVD video outputs--composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI (with up to 1080i upscaling)--but no video inputs. That means that you will have to hook up all of your other video sources, such as a cable box and games, directly to your TV. Audio fares better--the HS 300 has two USB ports, two sets of stereo analog inputs, one analog output, two digital inputs (one coaxial and one optical), and one coaxial digital output. That means the HS 300 can accept two surround audio sources--say, a game console and a cable/satellite box--as well as two stereo audio sources, in addition to the USB hookups. We also noted the receiver has IR remote in and out jacks, plus a "sub trigger" connection to turn the sub's power on and off. The speaker connectors accept bare wires or banana plugs, and the receiver has a side-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack next to one of the USB ports.


The side of the main unit provides easy access to a USB port and headphone jack.

The satellites and center speaker are two-way designs outfitted with a pair of 3-inch woofers and a 0.75-inch tweeter. The speakers' spring type wire connectors are recessed into their bases. The subwoofer's down-firing 10-inch woofer is vented through a rear-mounted port. The subwoofer features a 200-watt amplifier; on its rear panel, you'll find stereo and dedicated LFE RCA inputs, plus stereo speaker-level inputs and outputs, and a phase switch. The sub has an external trigger input that can be used with the receiver to turn the sub on and off.


The rear of the subwoofer offers more connectivity options than many competing models in this price range.

The entire 5.1 speaker system is also sold separately as the Harman Kardon HKTS 11. A step-up HTIB, the HS 500, is also available; it features slightly larger speakers.

DVD, USB, and CD media playback
We put the HS 300's DVD player to the test, only to find that the video performance on this rather expensive ensemble isn't appreciably any better than some of the $350 HTIBs we've tested. It failed HQV's resolution test and only passed with an average score on the multiple "jaggy" tests. However, when we did test the DVD player with a more practical source, the The Fifth Element Superbit DVD, we were satisfied with the overall picture quality. The unit can upscale any DVD video to 720p or 1080i over the HDMI output when connected to compatible HDTVs.

Besides DVD playback, the HS 300 is capable of playing MP3s and WMAs via a data CD/DVD or from a connected USB drive. The system's onscreen navigation comes with a bit of a learning curve, but once we were able to get past its unconventional layout, we realized that, in fact, the software is actually quite intuitive. Navigating through folders is very easy, and the unit will also display ID3 file information onscreen when playing MP3s.

In addition, the HS 300 can display JPEG picture files. All of the usual features are here--zoom, slide show--but the HS 300 can also rotate and tilt your images too. One complaint we did have about JPEG playback, regardless of whether we were using a CD or USB, was that if you attempt to quickly flip through pictures, a significant lag will develop. This seems to be a result of the unit not being able to cache enough pictures ahead of time. Fortunately, this does not affect slide show performance.

Audio performance
Home theater trials commenced with the aid of the The Hitcher DVD, and the HS 300 didn't disappoint. The stormy night scene's rain and thunder sounded very wet. Resolution of fine details was quite good, so the blood and guts scenes were plenty creepy while the HS 300's dynamics packed a wallop. The system played louder than we would have thought possible, and the deep bass was big enough to fill our large room.

Next, we played the Beatles Love DVD-Audio disc and were wowed by the totally psychedelic surround mixes, especially on the "I Want You/Helter Skelter" mashup. The swirling sounds flying around the room were a lot of fun, but the actual sound quality wasn't anything special. The guitars and vocals, for example, were rather thin and harsh-sounding. The little speakers sounded small, mostly because the sat/sub blend felt disjointed. The speakers couldn't keep pace with the sub, but turning the overall volume down to a more moderate level helped.

The Cuban jazz on the Buena Vista Social Club CD was a much better match to the system's musical capabilities. There was an immediate quality to the percussion instruments--the drums and piano were all nicely detailed. The acoustic bass was weighty and each pluck of the strings was distinct. Overall, we judged the HS 300 as above average with music.

Conclusion
The HS 300's powerful home theater sound and strong performance with acoustic music made the best impressions with us. It's also a beautiful design--the HS 300 will look great paired with higher-end flat-screen TVs. But given the relatively high price and needlessly confusing interface, be sure you check out the abundance of competing models, many of which look and sound at least as good--often at lower prices.

Assistant Editor Jeff Bakalar contributed to this review.

7.0

Harman/Kardon HS 300

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7