Big, muscular and explosive – Harman Kardon’s trademark sound, manifest since its genesis in the early 1950s, is heard loud and clear through its latest AV receiver, the £450 Harman Kardon AVR-171.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: sound quality
The Harman Kardon AVR-171 is certainly up for the challenge. Spin the star-studded space-western Cowboys and Aliens on Blu-ray, and the AVR-171 delivers the explosions, gunshots and spaceship crashes with all the punch and brawn it can muster.
It’s not the subtlest presentation, though: there’s a slight edge to the sound that teeters on brightness. In comparison, the Sony STR-DN1040 is far more capable of digging out those fine layers of detail. And, loud and room-filling it might be, but the Harman can’t quite match the awesome scale of the Yamaha RX-V675.
One thing it can do, however, is effortlessly steer the sound effects of a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Low frequencies hit with satisfying impact, but more depth of detail would make drama and tension more palpable. Move away from explosion-laden soundtracks to the dialogue-centric The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and voices sound clear and direct.
Compared with the talented Sony STR-DN1040, the Harman Kardon feels like it’s just skimming the surface of a soundtrack. But its punchy and powerful sound is enthusiastic enough that big action films are really enjoyable to watch.
There are a couple of sound modes available via the Harman Kardon NSP (Natural Sound Processing) feature, although we’d steer clear of adding any extra processing over a film’s soundtrack. The sound modes for movies and music don’t add much to the AVR-171’s naturally exciting performance.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: music
The Harman’s strong sense of rhythm and energy works a treat with music Blu-rays such as Michael Jackson’s This Is It. In fact, it sounds enjoyable with music overall – an unusual feat for an AV receiver.
It’s a good thing, too, as the Harman is packed with streaming features. AirPlay, Bluetooth and DLNA streaming are the big names when it comes to playing your music wirelessly – although the AVR-171 itself needs to be connected to your network via ethernet.
Streaming over DLNA sounds the best to us, with Alt-J’s Breezeblocks bounding along with speedy, taut rhythm. Bluetooth sounds just as joyful, but with a little less muscle, and AirPlay trails along with a thinner sound than the rest.
You can also connect an Apple device or flash drive to the USB port on the front panel to play stored tunes. Internet radio is provided by the excellent vTuner service, while you also get FM and AM tuners in this receiver. You can store up to 30 presets.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: connections
Six HDMI inputs is plenty for a receiver at this price, although we should point out that the Sony STR-DN1040 (£500) and Pioneer VSX-923 (£450) do offer two more. You do get two HDMI outputs, though, one with ARC (audio return channel).
All HDMI connections support 3D and 4K pass-through, while a MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) compatible input means you can stream HD content from connected Android devices.
Digital connections are finished off with one coaxial and two optical inputs, while analogue also gets a good showing: composite video and two sets of RCA inputs. There are also zone-two outputs. Chuck in two subwoofer outs and you have a comprehensive set of plugs.
An ethernet port is provided for wired connection to your home network. There’s also the option to make the receiver wireless by connecting a Roku Streaming Stick (not included) to the MHL input.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: design
We don’t normally get hung up on the design of an AV receiver, but the AVR-171 looks beautiful. All smooth, curved edges with a clean and uncluttered fascia, it’s an elegant alternative to the boxy, sharp-edged style that’s more widespread in the industry.
The bright VFD light surrounding the volume knob looks nice too, and the display is easy to read from a distance.
That bright light does get distracting when watching films in a dark room, though, so we turned it off using the ‘dim’ button on the remote. It also lets you turn off the display and power indicator.
The slim control buttons are almost invisible on the minimalist front panel, while a USB port and 6.3mm headphone jack and mic input are hidden behind a small removable panel. Hats off to Harman Kardon for proving that AV receivers can be more than just big, black boxes.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: remote and app
You get a standard remote control with the AVR-171. It’s largely functional, but we have a major gripe with the placement of the volume buttons: they’re far too small and are grouped together at the bottom with similar-sized controls.
Considering they’re the most-used control on any remote, the poor placement makes them difficult to use, and the lack of a backlight means it take longer to find them.
For once, we prefer using the free iOS/Android control app (below). It looks great, and we like how the controls and source list are restricted to a panel each. The volume controls are easily accessible and it’s responsive, too.
A bonus feature is the music player, which lets you create playlists from music stored on your device.
It also automatically streams over AirPlay if your Apple device is connected to the same network. Simple and intuitively designed, we’d happily use this app on a daily basis.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: interface and set-up
Harman Kardon has carried over its minimal design approach to its menu interface: a straightforward list of settings that floats over whatever you’re watching on the screen.
We don’t think it’s as stylish as the Sony STR-DN1040’s home menu, but we like the fact that you can change the source without being transported to a different screen.
Setting-up the AVR-171 with your existing speaker package is reasonably quick with the the EzSet/EQ III auto-calibration system. The test tones are loud but short lived, but the calibration isn’t entirely accurate.
When we performed the procedure it didn’t register just how large our reference speaker package is, so if we were you we’d delve into the speaker settings to manually fine-tune the distances and levels of your speakers. Make sure you turn off the Room EQ option to make manual changes.
Harman Kardon AVR-171: verdict
If it’s a big, muscular sound you want, the Harman’s beefy delivery will keep you entertained (even if we’d like a touch more refinement and detail).
However, we’re more impressed by how well it delivers music – we’d be happy to stream our digital library through the AVR-171. Partner it with a suitable speaker package, and you have a good home cinema system that looks fantastic, too.