As I said in my post on Upgrading to 7.1, a few weeks ago I set out to upgrade my amplifier and speakers to 7.1 – hoping to keep it under a grand. Initially the amp I was looking at was the Sony STR-DG820 which retails for $399. I considered Sony because my Projector is a Sony and they were advertised to work well with each other. Luckily, I’m somewhat of an impulsive shopper and when Best Buy didn’t have the Sony on hand, I started looking at alternatives. 30 minutes later I was driving home with the harman/kardon AVR254.
Normally I would probably do a little research before purchasing a piece of home theatre gear. There were several factors in my deliberation that led me to take the leap and buy the AVR instead of looking elsewhere for the Sony:
Against the harman/kardon:
- The number of HDMI ports. The Sony has 4 while the h/k only has 3.
- Out the door it was $100 more expensive than the Sony.
- The AVR254 has good stylings – I do like that ring of white light
- It was on sale – while it retails for around $599, Best Buy had it for $499. And you can find it on Amazon for around $389.
- I’ve had good luck with harman/kardon audio in a few cars and it just seemed like a higher end brand. Read on for why..
The other serious factor was a con for the Sony. Earlier in the week I had visited the Sony Style store at the Forum Shops in Las Vegas. The Sony sales people knew nothing about audio components. I’d say they knew less than me. I really got the sense from that visit that Sony is just not a good option for audio components. If the store doesn’t staff trained sales people to convince me to buy it, maybe it’s just not their strong suit.
Of course I had just purchased an amplifier without looking it up online at all. Before opening it I finally did do a bit of research. The AVS Forum has rumblings about firmware and problems. I read about 40 pages of posts on the subject. Then someone asked the question, “given all that you’ve learned since your purchase would you buy it again?” A great question! Everyone on the forum said yes, “Pull the trigger!” So I opened the box…
One of the positives about this amp is all of the inputs. The back has 3 HDMI inputs, 2 component video inputs, and 3 composite/S-video inputs. For audio, there are the 3 HDMI inputs, 2 coax and 2 optical. On the front there’s also another composite/S input, a coax and an optical. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that everything upconverts and is sent out the HDMI out. This means, for example, that while my XBox 360 only has an HD component output, it will still be switched with the amp and show up over HDMI to my projector. This is huge. I no longer have to switch inputs on my projector (TV) and can let the amp do all the switching.
The main reason I purchased the AVR254 was the fact that it both decodes HDMI audio and supports all of the new Blu-ray audio formats such as Dolbly True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. As I mentioned in the Upgrading to 7.1 post, these audio formats have too high a bandwidth to go over coax or optical and (unless you have this feature) are downmixed, usually to stereo.
HD On Screen Menus
The on-screen menus on the AVR 254 are also impressive. Unlike other amps that I’ve seen, all on-screen information is presented in HD 1080P and is superimposed over top of whatever HD video is playing at the moment. The menus look good. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. It’s just a amp menu. But it was nice to see an HD menu system. One place where it’s useful is that when you change the volume, it is displayed on the screen for 5 seconds, complete with a fade up and down.
On a certain level this superimpose thing worries me a bit. In theory the best signal to present to your projector is one that hasn’t been touched by an intermediate process. Surely the process of superimposing the menu degrades the video quality a bit. Well, I haven’t noticed anything yet. The amp supports Deep Color and HDMI 1.3 and has a Faroudja DCDi Cinema processor that handles the superimposition and transcodes (changes S to component and component to HDMI) the and upscales everything up to 1080p.
Upgrading speakers and adding two more
I won’t bore you with the 5 hour ordeal of trying to fish a single cable underneath 5 feet of hardwood flooring. I’ll just say that it sucked and left me very tired and a little bloody. I will however tell you about my choice of speakers. All the AVS Forum members get ready to cringe… Bose!
Hardcore audiophiles all have an opinion about speakers. I tend to believe that some of that is like the monster cable scam… spending more money on audio cables doesn’t make them better. For speakers I believe that the price you pay is not a direct relationship to the quality of the sound. I don’t disagree that more expensive speakers aren’t going to be better. I just feel that there is a point of diminishing returns. And for most real people, especially in this economy, limited budgets are a reality. I can’t spend thousands on each speaker or even per pair. For me it was about getting the best sound for the money that I had to spend.. Â So for my front left and right speakers I went with Bose 301’s, which are $295 a pair. For the 4 surround speakers I got the Bose 161’s, which are $142 a pair. I really like the way the 161’s mount to the wall. Integrated, easy to use wall mounts are very important. My total budget ended up being $500 for the amp, $300 for the fronts, and roughly another $300 for 4 surround speakers. Pre-sales tax it totaled around $1100. I’ll still need to purchase a new front center speaker and a sub. But what I have in those two areas has to suffice for now.
One important point… how does it sound?
At first it still sounded very flat. I have a Dolby HD DVD test disc and a DTS Bluray test disc that I got at NAB. Initially all the tests sounded fairly flat. The HD DVD has a speaker identifier which revealed that I was only getting 5.1. Time to check the settings. Next I plugged in the included microphone and ran the self test setup. It did speaker tests on all 8 speakers setting the volume, delay and the tone. It went through several cycles of tests. Here’s a clue.. don’t run a speaker test in the middle of the night while your wife is sleeping. Just a piece of friendly advice. After the speaker setup it sounded better, but still somewhat flat. That was when I finally figured out to look in the Blu-ray player’s audio setup. Everything was set to downmix. Setting both Dolby and DTS to pass through allowed the 7.1 (or 5.1 in most cases) to come through. 7.1 DTS fills the room with sound. As I pointed out the other day, some of my speakers placement isn’t perfect. Some had to be placed where I could mount them and get cable to them. But 7.1 forgives this and honestly surrounds the listener with an audible hologram. Whether it’s the amp or the speakers, I have to say that I’m very happy with the way it sounds.
What about those firmware problems mentioned in the avsforum?
I did not experience any of the problems that were mentioned in those 45 pages of posts. It could be the way I’m using the amp or maybe I just haven’t had it long enough yet. But so far so good. I will say, however, that harman/kardon bungled the firmware upgrade process. The AVR254 has an RS232 serial port on the back. To update the firmware you have to connect that serial port to one on a PC (non-mac) computer. I’m not sure where I’m going to get a 1990’s PC or how I’m going to get it close enough to my amp. Luckily, as I said, I haven’t had any problems that would require me to update the firmware.
I’ve had the harman/kardon AVR 254 for about a month now. I am enjoying the amplifier and the speakers. The amp is well worth the price tag, especially if you pick one up at amazon for under $400. The setup is easy, the on screen graphics rock, and the transcoding from component to HDMI puts all my source switching on one remote. On the downside, the firmware upgrade process is out of the 90’s and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it. But I haven’t had any problems with it so far. And therefore I give it buy recommendation.