The AVR 255 is Harman Kardon's most affordable 1080p-scaling, HD-audio decoding receiver to date, and easily the best-looking £600 receiver on the market.
The features list is right on the money, with Faroudja DCDi Cinema video processing, full Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio compatibility and full-spec v1.3a HDMIs.
Okay, there are only three HDMI inputs and a single output (not good for those running both a projector and a flatscreen) but there is a repeater circuit to ensure that the output will drive a full-length HDMI cable.
On the downside the Deep Colour and xxYCC features of the v1.3a specification are only pass-through, and its HDMI handshaking system means your display device will have to be switched on to get any audio over HDMI input. Not a problem for home cinema applications, of course, but you will need to hook up analogue interconnects if you want to play audio CDs in your BD player, for example.
Inside its suave and sophisticated-looking case are seven channels of a claimed 50W a piece. Now this isn't going to set the world afire by current standards, but as I suspected, our Tech Labs' tests show the real figures are above this – measuring 90W per channel into 8ohms with five channels driven.
Partially responsible for this is the chunky power supply – few listeners are going to be left wanting more grunt. Perhaps a more salient omission is a lack of an iPod docking port – which is probably tantamount to making a car without a steering wheel these days...
Just to complete the overall visual appeal, Harman's new GUI is a full-colour 1080p treat, and the pink volume graphic is, er, unusual to say the least.
This amp is incredibly straight forward to use, helped in no small way by Harman's EZset auto-set-up system.
This does apply a measure of Room EQ but there isn't any way to delve into the settings and tweak them manually. Then again, when you have got assignable rear-back channel amps for zone two, a seven-device pre-programmed remote control and such wizardry as programmable power-up volume to play with, do we care?
The whole outfit is complete with a large and only marginally stylish remote control with some keys that light-up but no overall backlight. That is seriously not helpful in a darkened room….
Home cinema heaven
The AVR 255's performance makes a mockery of Harman's modest power output claims.
The lightning-fast opening fight scene in The Matrix (Blu-ray, Trilogy Box Set) is a set-piece born to demonstrate why Dolby TrueHD is the ambrosia of home cinema heaven, and the AVR 255 steps up to the challenge with a huge sound and beefy, thumping bass that will give your subwoofer a real workout.
The sound effects of Carrie-Anne Moss moving in a tight leather cat suit are worth the investment in both the BD version of this movie and the Harman receiver alone – audibly animating each arm movement
with crisp and focused blows.
Rack up the volume as the shots ring out: the AVR 255 articulates each gun blast with a real percussive crack and reverb that sets out the dimensions of the room as clear
as a surveyor's tape measure.
Back in Neo's cluttered and tech-ridden apartment (on which I have modelled my listening room for authenticity) the Harman does a good job of recreating the ambience and tense atmosphere.
There is no background music to detract from Neo's rising paranoia and the sharp knock at the door will make you jump. There is a little more low-level hiss than some of the competition, but unless you constantly listen at fairly serious volumes it is unlikely to be a great issue.
The stilted dialogue with the visitors in the doorway is nicely presented in the front of the soundstage and free of sibilance.
Yet with female voices in particular the AVR 255 can sound a little too easy-on-ear, robbing voices of very high-frequency detail and articulation. The Harman isn't going to suit a speaker package that is more laid back that a sunny Sunday afternoon, but is likely to be just the tonic if your speakers are a bit on the feisty side.
No review based on The Matrix would be complete without mention of the lobby shoot out – a scene that has its place in home cinema system demonstration history.
From the sound of the bags of guns hitting the stone floor, the Harman really gets into its stride. The apocalyptic soundtrack and rain of bullets leaps out of every speaker in a huge wall of detailed effects.
The EZset system was clearly tuned by someone who liked their LFE because bass is simply huge and on more than one high-volume occasion my subwoofer's cone hit its end stops. The overall effect is a little too bass-tastic but easily rectified by knocking back the sub's gain by a click or two.
Thankfully the Harman Kardon AVR 255 is not just about impact. It resolves detailed sounds, like the plaster breaking from the walls and hitting the floor, with aplomb.
Even at high volumes the sound is never going to get acerbic or harsh, and that certainly encourages you to use all of the AVR 255s power reserves.
This ultra-smooth top-end will be ideal for smaller rooms, but those with more space, or perhaps large floorstanding speakers, might find the overall effect a little tame at the top. Compared to Onkyo's much more in-yer-face sounding TX-SR706 the Harman is positively mellow and it is certainly never going to fatigue in long-term listening.
Nor for that matter will the onboard scaling – because it is superb. Faroudja knows a thing or two about getting a standard PAL signal up to 1080p resolution, and its DCDi technology means that – unless you have a top-flight scaling disc-spinner or very high-end projector – the AVR 255 scaler will give the best result from a standard-def source.
With my display (a Marantz VP15 S1 projector) the picture was, at first, a little darker and softer than ideal (pretty standard for inexpensive scalers) but the onboard brightness, contrast and sharpness controls do wonders for the Harman's image abilities.
The acid test for scalers – the opening scene to Ice Age, with lots of block blue sky and white snow – passed muster with a bright, crisp image and barely any hint of colour banding.
Harman Kardon's AVR 255 sounds very much like it looks – smooth and sophisticated throughout.
It won't win awards for searing top-end projection, but the balance will really gel with a lot of today's sub/sat speaker packages.
As this is probably just the style-conscious market Harman is aiming at, then the AVR 255 is a complete success.