Harman Kardon's latest range of receivers take a radical approach to one aspect of design. Instead of the traditional iron-core transformer, they use a digital power supply. The result is the Harman Kardon AVR 161 five-channel home-theatre receiver, weighing just 4.6 kilograms. It looks a bit chunkier, so I kept being surprised every time I picked it up.
The five amplifiers are each rated at 85 watts and require loudspeakers rated at an impedance of at least 6 ohms, ruling out some options. There is no support for other zones, and the five amplifiers are locked into their basic functions. The receiver supports 7.1 channel audio from Blu-ray discs, but the two surround back channels are mixed down into the regular surround channels.
You get five HDMI inputs (one supports MHL), all on the rear panel, with a USB socket on the front. And a network connection. Unusually for a home-theatre receiver, Bluetooth is built in.
The receiver comes with only a 10-page quick-start guide in the box to apparently "conserve our natural resources". If you want the proper 52-page manual then you're going to have to find your way to the UK website of Harman Kardon and download it. Other brands that don't want to print a big manual slip in a CD with the PDF manual.
Otherwise, set-up was mostly unremarkable. There's an automatic calibration system called EzSet/EQ. Rather than using blasts of pink noise, this one sweeps up simple tones from deep bass to high frequencies, four times for each speaker, to do its measurements. It wrongly decided that all my speakers — the ones that some other receivers equally wrongly take to be all Large — were all Small and set their crossovers to the subwoofer at 80 hertz. As always with any receiver, check this setting and change it manually if it seems warranted.
Harman Kardon tends to have its receivers default to delivering surround-sound processing of one form or another with stereo inputs. The first stereo music I listened to had a rather echoey surround effect thanks to something called Virtual Surround. If you like your sound reasonably pure, take a few minutes to go and set the default sound modes.
(Credit: Harman Kardon)
Sound and picture performance
I steered clear of my more demanding loudspeaker system and went for one with good sensitivity (ie, greater acoustic output for a given input power) and reasonably high impedance (6 or 8 ohms). The results were very impressive in terms of sound, both with movies and music (after I'd turned off that surround processing). You don't actually need a huge headline power rating for high sound levels if you choose your loudspeakers wisely. Better amps mostly just give you more options. The difference in output between 85 watts and 100 watts is seven tenths of a decibel.
A bigger effect on the sound is whatever EQ the receiver is applying, and this one was nicely balanced, resulting in a rich, full sound. Of course, you can switch it off if you'd prefer the native unadjusted sound of your loudspeakers.
The receiver doesn't do anything with the video: there is no conversion of any kind offered. It does, however, overlay its menus and brief notifications (eg, a volume bar when that's adjusted) over the top of the picture. The receiver supports 3D video and can pass through 4K as well.
The new media functionality was a mixed bag with this receiver. First, the good. With Bluetooth built in you can readily stream content from most modern portable devices. Second, although the manual denies it ("no other types of media are supported") the unit supports FLAC audio in addition to MP3 and WMA. It worked with my 44.1kHz and 48kHz FLAC music but none of the high-resolution stuff. Third, you get vTuner for perhaps the widest internet radio access available.
Not so good, though, was navigation through lists of media. You can connect to DLNA servers to feed the music, but scrolling through long lists is too trying, for my patience at least. I have about 500 album artists for the music on my server. It took 46 seconds to scroll from the top down to those starting with "C". There is no accelerator key. If your music server can break lists up alphabetically, it might be usable, but otherwise, access is way too slow.
Fortunately, you can avoid that problem with vTuner because once you register the receiver online, you can set up favourite stations using a web browser, resulting in a relatively short list that is fine for navigation.
There are Android and iOS remote control apps. The iOS would not work on my fourth-gen iPod Touch, nor on an iPad mini nor on a first-gen iPad. It would start up and then just crash out back to the "desktop" whenever it started up. The Android one worked but offered only a subset of the controls available on the regular remote so was hardly worth the trouble.
Still, the price of this unit should be borne in mind. For regular home-theatre functionality, and for internet radio and regular AM/FM radio, fine. Likewise, for plugging in a USB stick with some music. What a pity it doesn't have skip keys on the remote so that your network music is also effectively supported. All it would take is a tiny bit of programming. But, gee, the Bluetooth is useful.