Harman/Kardon AVR 630 7.1 Receiver July, 2004 Ross Jones
Harman/Kardon was one of the original hi-fi companies (HK produced the world's first receiver 50 years ago, and in 1958 made the world's first stereo receiver). Today, the company known as Harman International is the mothership that also owns audiophile brands Lexicon (SSPs and amplifiers), Revel (speakers), and Mark Levinson (SSPs and amplifiers), along with industry standards such as Infinity (speakers) and JBL (speakers). So you figure they know a thing or two about making high-quality A/V receivers, right?
The AVR 630 sits right below HK's flagship receiver (AVR 7300) in the AVR model line. At $1,299 list price, the 630 is targeted at the upgrading consumer looking for a big step up from the entry-level mass market receivers, but who is not yet ready for the sticker shock of the top receivers or separates. Because it is a crowded field, manufacturers are offering modestly-priced receivers with ever-increasing sets of features. And the AVR 630 offers up some stiff competition. So, let's take a look at it.
Nearly all audio equipment offers you two choices of colors: black or silver. HK chose a Solomon-like approach, with a faceplate that is black glass for the upper two-thirds, and brushed metal in the lower third. The instrument panel is minimalist, with a single row of seven buttons flanked only by the power switch on the left side and a comfortingly large volume dial on the right-hand side. A drop-down door exposes a row of function buttons, but even these are kept to a minimum, the result of a less-is-more design philosophy.
HK obviously put a lot of thought into set-up, as the AVR 630 was one of the easier rigs I've ever installed. The back panel jacks are well organized and amply spaced. I especially appreciated that the speaker binding posts were separated into two areas on the back panel. The 630 has two digital Toslink and two coaxial inputs (plus one more of each on the front panel), two high-bandwidth component video inputs, a seven-channel analog input (for DVD-A and SACD), pre-outs for all seven channels for use with an outboard amplifier, an RS232 port (used both for two-way communication to remote control systems and to download software and OS upgrades), and IEC detachable power cord.
The HK's remote control is well laid out and again, easy to use (are you detecting a common theme emerging here?). It is a large remote, but the buttons are legibly marked and the entire unit is back-lit (although the light button itself, a small rectangle in the lower left corner of the remote, might be difficult to find in a dark room). The remote has a two-line LCD readout that acts both as information and a soft-switch, depending on the function. It lets you know what input/device is being controlled, and also provides information during set-up and use.
For example, HK has an ingenious way of programming the remote to control
other devices. Rather than the usual trial-and-error process of entering an
endless series of three-to-five number codes listed in the back of the
manual, the HK simply asks you what kind of DVD player you have. The LCD
readout on the remote displays a running alphabetical list of manufacturers,
and you select your brand. Then press # 1 on the keypad, and push “off”
on the remote. If your DVD player turns off, you're set. If not, press # 2
then "off", and so on. I programmed the HK to run my Toshiba RPTV, Pioneer DVD
player, Panasonic VCR and DirectTV/Tivo box in no time flat.
Another nice touch starting to show up in mid- and upper-end receivers is automatic calibration, which HK calls “EasySet”. The remote control comes with built-in SPL meter, so you just push a couple of buttons and the HK will circulate pink noise and automatically adjust speaker trims (to all but the subwoofer channels). I tried it several times, and it worked generally well. You can also defeat the auto set-up, and still use the built-in SPL meter to manually set speaker levels. The AVR 630's Quadruple Crossover system lets you set crossover points for each speaker grouping (L/R, center, surround and surround-back), adjustable between 40 and 200 Hz. These settings can apply globally, or variable for each input (i.e., listening to CD's as opposed to watching a DVD).
The HK has the usual suite of processing modes (DD, DD-EX, DTS, DTS-ES [matrix and discrete] DPL-II, etc.), plus a proprietary processing mode called Logic 7, along with Dolby Headphone. The 7.1 analog input has full bass management capabilities for multi-channel music. You can configure each input independently with various speaker trims, which is particularly useful to tame differences between input source levels. The 630 has several features normally found in more expensive receivers, including AV (lip sync) delay variable for each input, and automatic turn-on (but not maximum) volume. You can also configure the AVR 630 to operate a second zone (using two amplification channels), and it comes with a second, scaled-down remote control for use in the second zone.
The 630 automatically caught the decoding “flag” in various DVDs and digital audio from my DBS feed, selecting the proper processing mode; it also allows you to override the settings and manually configure your own preferences. The receiver's display shows the input and processing mode in large letters (a nice touch for those of us with failing eyesight), along with a graphic display that confirms which speaker channels are in use. The display can be dimmed in three stages, including off.
The receiver did have one annoying quirk. There was an audible delay in locking on to a digital signal, resulting in the beginning of a music track (or movie) being chopped off by a fraction of a second. The delay was present regardless of input source, but seemed especially noticeable while listening to CDs using processing modes (I enjoy Dolby PL-II for music). According to the HK website, a software upgrade that can be downloaded through the receiver's RS232 port is currently being developed.
The AVR 630 is rated at a seemingly modest 75 watts x 7, but HK tests using
all seven channels driven simultaneously (a situation unlikely to occur in
real life use). Running the AVR 630 in 5.1 mode, I was able to drive the HK
without signs of audible distress or compression. Suffice it to say, the HK
will provide sufficient power for medium-size listening areas. As an aside,
while I recommend calibrating to “reference level” to establish common
parameters, I don't know anyone who regularly listens at reference level (or
even –10dB, for that matter).
The AVR 630 produced clean, dynamic sound that you would expect in a receiver of its pedigree and price. Trying to describe sound quality is a dicey matter; one person's “revealing” is another person's “bright.” Comparisons are even more subjective. With those caveats in place, to my ears, the HK had a little more detail in the upper frequencies than similarly equipped receivers. Depending on your own preferences, you might describe the sound of the AVR 630 as revealing, or somewhat edgy (especially depending on the source material). Of course, these tendencies will be either magnified or reduced depending on the characteristics of the other components in your system (for example, my B & W speakers tend by their nature to be a little “hot” on the top end).
The Harman/Kardon AVR 630 is an exceptionally user-friendly receiver, offering easy set-up and customization. If you are considering mid-priced receivers, the AVR 630 should definitely be on your short list of candidates.
- Ross Jones -