Harman/Kardon steps into the crowded, competitive midrange receiver market with the AVR 171, a product packed with compelling cutting-edge features and an impressive specification.
The 7.2-channel AVR 171 sits at the top of Harman’s latest range, above two 5.1 models – the AVR 131 (£300) and the AVR 151 (£380). Unusually for an AV receiver, it's a thing of beauty, side-stepping the hard, boxy lines of most rivals for a softer, more elegant look with curved edges and a gloss-black fascia. The bodywork is surprisingly light and compact too, thanks to a slimmed-down power supply.
Also refreshing is the almost complete lack of clutter. The thin buttons are swallowed up by the black finish and sockets are hidden behind a removable flap. A ring of bright light surrounding the flush volume dial draws your attention, but this, along with the easy-to-read LED display, can be dimmed or turned off.
Behind the flap are a headphone socket (which doubles as an input for the setup mic) and a USB port – the latter can be used to play music from flash drives and Apple devices. All of the AV inputs are located on the back, which doesn’t help if you want to quickly plug in a mobile device.
The rear selection is okay for the money – you get six HDMI inputs, all of which support 3D and 4K passthrough. Another one also supports MHL, allowing you to view HD content from Android smartphones and tablets. There are two HDMI outputs – one of which supports ARC. A lone coaxial and two optical inputs complete the digital contingent; analogue jacks include Zone 2 audio and twin subwoofer outs.
Network connectivity is Ethernet-only (whereas many rivals are offering onboard Wi-Fi at this level), but built-in Bluetooth makes it easy to beam music wirelessly. Logged onto your network, the AVR 171 can stream music via AirPlay or DLNA 1.5, or access internet radio stations through the vTuner portal. It works well in all cases, pulling music from connected servers with minimal fuss.
On the cinema side, it claims 100W into each of its seven channels and, naturally, decodes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. In addition, proprietary Natural Sound Processing (NSP) aims to create a ‘surround listening space’ from two-channel sources.
The setup wheels are greased by EzSet/EQ III, an auto calibration system that sets volume, speaker delay and EQ for you via the supplied microphone and test tones. It’s relatively quick, and checking the results afterwards reveals accurate distance settings and sensible volume levels.
AV receiver menus aren’t pretty at the best of times, but the AVR 171’s are particularly primitive, plonking a simple list of options over the picture. The jagged white text and tiny icons are like a throwback to another era, but at least the layout is easy to follow, and there’s very little it doesn’t let you tweak, including surround mode parameters, manual speaker configuration and Zone 2 settings.
The remote isn’t great – the all-important volume controls are buried at the bottom amid a bunch of similar looking buttons, and all of the keys have a sticky, unresponsive feel unbefitting a receiver at this price. You’re better off with the remote app for Android and iOS devices. Slick, attractive and practical, it makes day-to-day control a breeze.
When faced with Cloverfield’s wonderfully raucous DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the AVR 171 tackles the carnage head-on. Or head-off as the case may be, because when the monster sends the Statue of Liberty’s severed bonce careering down a New York street, you get an immediate sense of the Harman’s remarkable power and punch.
As it clatters into the side of a building and rolls down the road, each impact is accompanied by a forceful crunch and an explosive bass 'whomp' that slams right through your gut. By the time the beast starts smashing up the bridge, you’re ducking for cover from the crunch of splitting concrete and whipping bridge wires. This level of vigour and muscle makes the AVR 171 such a compelling performer and puts it up there with superb power-purveyors like the Pioneer VSX-923 and Onkyo TX-NR626.
The AVR 171 also demonstrates top-drawer organisation, laser-guided effects placement and swift steering. As the army storms down the street shooting at the beast, bullets zip across the soundstage at breakneck speed and there’s real fizz to the machine guns and missiles. The attack on the mids and highs is a touch bright but not wince-inducing. There’s also a terrific sense of scale when the monster lumbers away in the distance. Its thumping footsteps and booming roars have heft and depth.
It’s not all about power though – the AVR 171 also handles quieter, atmospheric stuff competently. As the group travel through the underground tunnel, you can hear the echoes bouncing gently off the walls and the rustle as a horde of rats scurry past them. Voices are also clear and life-like.
That said, if you’re looking for sparkling levels of subtlety and transparency then you might want to check out something like the Marantz SR6008, which has a laid back but more refined and informative sound.
Music fans won’t feel let down. This stylish AVR draws plenty of detail from hi-res files and CDs and backs it up with head-nodding rhythms and terrific vocal clarity.
The AVR 171 is up against stiff competition, and its antiquated operating system, Wi-Fi no-show and a lack of sonic subtlety compared with some rivals counts against it. However, there's no arguing with its stunning looks and thrilling sound.
Harman/Kardon AVR 171
Price: £500 Approx
Highs: Impressive scale, dynamics and organisation; chic design; generous features for the asking price
Lows: Sacrifices subtlety for out-and-out thrills; clunky remote; old-school onscreen menus; MHL input on rear
Dolby TrueHD: Yes. And Dolby Digital EX, Pro-Logic IIz
DTS-HD Master Audio: Yes. And DTS Neo:6
Multichannel input: No
Multichannel output (claimed): 7 x 100W (1kHz, 0.9% THD, two-channel, 8 ohms)
Multiroom: Yes. Zone 2 audio
AV inputs: 2 x composite; 3 x digital audio (2 x optical and 1 x coaxial); 2 x analogue stereo
HDMI: Yes. 6 x inputs; 2 x outputs
Video upscaling: No
Component video: No
Dimensions: 440(w) x 121(h) x 300(d)mm
Also featuring: Apple AirPlay; Bluetooth; DLNA 1.5; vTuner; Harman TrueStream; MHL; ARC; dual subwoofer outputs; EzSet/EQ III auto setup; Android/iOS remote app; Natural Sound Processing (NSP); FM/AM tuner; 3D and 4K passthrough
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