Harman Kardon HK 3480 Stereo Receiver Modified by Stereo Dave's Audio Alternative Part I May, 2007
In spite of surround sound music and movies, there are plenty of two-channel hi-fi buffs out there, including me.
There are also plenty of two-channel separate components to supply us.
Unfortunately, because the market is now focused on multi-channel sound, the two-channel products tend to be the high end ones, and rather expensive.
That's not a problem for aficionados, but what about those of us who can't afford the high end units? And suppose we just want a basic two-channel unit for a small TV setup to give us stereo sound with our movies?
Mass market manufacturers, now selling surround sound receivers by the container-load, are not spending much effort in the two-channel arena, because they would rather sell 10,000 surround sound receivers than 1,000 two-channel receivers.
You can find some two-channel receivers out there, but the pickings are slim, and the products tend to be on the low-end side.
Stereo Dave's Audio Alternative (SDAA) is a small company in Oregon that has taken what they consider the best of the two-channel receivers - in their opinion, Harman Kardon - and modified them to perform like high-end products, but keeping the final price still in the mass market range.
The HK 3480
The Harman Kardon HK 3480 is a low-priced ($449 MSRP) two-channel receiver that is no longer manufactured. It is pretty good to begin with, but SDAA bought some and modified them by putting in more powerful and higher quality power supply capacitors, changing the other capacitors, changing out some of the op amps, and modifying the power supply transformer. Since it is last year's model, SDAA gets them at bargain prices, so even with the $300 mod cost, the final price to the consumer is only $550 plus shipping.
The result is a two-channel receiver that sounds like the $2,000 preamp/power amp combos, but still is less than $1,000, in fact, far less.
Compared to a surround sound receiver, the front panel of the 3480 is plain. While plugged in, the unit remains in standby, and you just press the on/off button on the front to power it on. A row of input selectors (round buttons), along with speaker selectors and FM tuning buttons (rectangular buttons), are located in the center. The large illuminated volume control is on the right, underneath which are tone and balance controls. There are also some composite video and stereo audio jacks, and a headphone jack.
The rear panel is also Spartan compared to most surround sound receivers. There are numerous sets of stereo audio input jacks, above which are composite video input jacks. Interestingly, unlike most surround sound receivers, there are stereo subwoofer output jacks. The Pre-out and Main-in jacks come with a pin jumper, and, for the review, we replaced those with Stereo Dave's own hand made jumpers (the white rope-like short cables in the photo). They are $10, and well worth it (anyone noticed the price of custom cables these days?)
Click on the photo above to see a larger version.
You get two sets of speaker outputs so that you can switch between speakers in one room vs. a second room. The AC cable is non-grounded and non-detachable.
I tested the 3480 with an ONIX CD-3 CD player and Carver Mark IV Silver ribbon speakers. Cables were mixed, including a set of Stereo Dave's interconnects.
Just as I had heard at the 2006 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the Stereo Dave's mods on this HK 3480 made the unit sound more like a high performance product.
Spyro Gyra, Good to Go-Go, Heads Up SACD/CD HUSA9127.
Unlike what one might hear on other low-priced units, the brass instruments on this snappy disc did not sound harsh. They sounded smooth and mellow.
Bass was deep and clean, and there was plenty of it. And that was with my ribbon speakers that hover around a 4 ohm impedance, something that typical mass market receivers have a tough time with.
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, EMI Classics, 0-94638-47232-2.
With classical music, the 3480 almost has a tube-like sound, sweet yet detailed.
There was enough headroom to drive my ribbon speakers, which are not very efficient, to room-filling volume without breaking up.
Overall, I am amazed at what changing out some key parts with higher quality components can do for the sound. No, it is still not a Levinson, or Lamm, or McIntosh, but it sounds like a lot more than $550.