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Harman Kardon SB16 Soundbar Review

Hardware Review

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#1 of 2 OFFLINE   Todd Erwin

Todd Erwin

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Posted April 24 2012 - 10:54 AM

When you want better stereo sound from your new HDTV, many consumers are considering soundbars when space is at a premium. Harman Kardon’s entry-level soundbar, the SB16, is a 25-watt per channel 2.1 stereo solution with virtual surround and a wireless 100-watt 10” subwoofer.

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Harman Kardon SB16 Soundbar


Specifications
Frequency Response: 50 Hz to 20 kHz

Soundbar:
High-frequency transducer: One x ¾” dome per channel, video shielded
Midrange Transducers: Two x 3” (75mm) cones per channel, video shielded
Amplifier Power: 25 watts x 2
Power Requirement: 24V DC, 2.5A - 2.7A
Dimensions (HxWxD): 110mm x 920mm x 89mm (4-5/16” x 36-1/4” x 3-1/2”)
Weight: 3.6kg (8 lbs.)

Subwoofer
Woofer: 10” (254mm) cone
Enclosure type: Ported
Power Requirement: 120V AC, 50Hz/60Hz, 100W
Dimensions (HxWxD): 480mm x 380mm x 380mm (18-7/8” x 13-3/8” x 13-3/8”)
Weight: 15.4kg (34lbs.)

Note: Specifications are provided by the manufacturer and were not tested in this review for accuracy.

Let’s face it, one area HDTV manufacturers are skimping on are speakers. I often tell prospective clients that current TV speakers are not much better than the speakers found on most notebook computers. An easy solution for most is the soundbar, a growing segment in the consumer electronics industry. It provides for simple placement, usually underneath the television, and minimal connections (typically using the television as the switching source via optical or analog stereo cable).

Harman Kardon’s SB16 soundbar, usually retailing for around $599.99, offers a 2.1 solution for those wanting better stereo sound reproduction from their television with minimal space. The review sample arrived in a reinforced cardboard crate weighing, according to the UPS driver, over 75 pounds. I unpacked the crate, and inside was the SB16 box. Inside that box were two more boxes: the SB16 soundbar and the SB16 subwoofer.

Packed within the soundbar were two sets of wall-mount brackets (one shallow and one extended depending on the cable connections to be used), two rubber feet, one 24V DC power supply and AC power cord, one 1.5m optical digital audio (toslink) cable, and one 2m RCA stereo analog audio cable with L-connectors at one end. It is important to note that all of the cables included (audio and power) are NOT in-wall rated, and the optical audio cable has literally no shielding whatsoever. The subwoofer is an all-in-one design with a built-in AC power cord. If you are wondering where the remote control is, Harman Kardon does not include one. That is because the soundbar has the ability to learn IR codes from an existing remote.

The soundbar resembles a long black tube with a grilled metal front. On the top of the soundbar are five buttons: Power/Mute Button (which illuminates blue when on, flashes blue when muted, and illuminates orange in standby), Surround Mode Button (which illuminates blue when activated, white for normal stereo processing), Volume Down Button, Volume Up Button, and Source Selector Button (which illuminates white when using the analog input and blue when using one of the two digital inputs). At the rear of the Soundbar, there is a Wireless Code Switch (allowing you to change to one of four matching wireless frequencies for the subwoofer), an EQ Switch (which adjusts the bass for either wall or table mounting), a Trim Switch (which adjusts the input sensitivity level), Source 1 (Analog) inputs, Source 2 (Coaxial) Digital Input, Source 2 (Optical) Digital Input, Power Input, and a Power Switch (to use when you do not want the soundbar in Standby mode when not in use).

The wireless subwoofer is, perhaps, one of the largest I’ve seen in a 2.1 soundbar kit, just a bit smaller than a small, dorm-sized, refrigerator. On the top is a link light that illuminates blue when powered on and linked with the soundbar, orange when in standby mode. On the rear is the Crossover Control knob, Volume Control knob, Phase Switch (0° or 180°), Wireless Code Switch (1-4), Power Switch, AC Fuse, and Power Cord.


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I placed the soundbar, per the user manual, on the TV stand at the bottom of the TV and attached the rubber feet. Since I normally run all my components through my Home Theater Receiver, I opted to connect only components to the soundbar, since I did not want to disconnect and change how my home theater operates in my living room (the wife acceptance factor). Per the User Manual, I connected my PlayStation3 to the optical audio input on the rear of the soundbar, then activated the optical audio output on the PS3, leaving both Dolby Digital and DTS output compatibility turned on. I then placed the subwoofer in the front corner next to the TV, and powered everything on. The soundbar has a nice feature, in that it will automatically switch sources when it detects a signal, and it selected the optical audio input as soon as the PS3 fired up. I chose a standard playlist of MP3 songs I have loaded on the PS3, adjusted the volume on the top of the soundbar, adjusted the crossover and volume on the subwoofer, and the audio was quite pleasing. The soundbar provided nice highs and midtones, and with good stereo separation. My experience with most wireless subwoofers that come packaged with soundbars is that they are on the wimpy side. To my surprise, the SB16 subwoofer more than adequately compensated for the low-end bass that the soundbar could not reproduce. I then proceeded to play a Blu-ray, Roadracers. After the disc booted up, there was no audio whatsoever. I looked in the manual under troubleshooting, and followed the steps (is the soundbar powered on, is it connected properly, is the proper source selected, is the soundbar muted, is the volume set to minimum, etc.). This prompted a call to Harman Kardon’s tech support, and I was not at all impressed. Like most companies these days, Harman Kardon’s tech support is outsourced to India. It is important to note that at no time did I indicate that I was reviewing this product in any way. The gentlemen who assisted me had a very thick Indian accent, and asked me if the PS3’s optical output was set to PCM or bitstream. I told him that I did not know, and proceeded to ask him where in the manual does it state that any component attached to either coax or optical inputs needed to be set to output PCM only. He apologized that it was not there, and mentioned that he would document my complaint and request that it be added to future versions of the owners manual and online troubleshooting steps. So, apparently, the SB16 does not include and Dolby or DTS decoding ability (even though the logos are clearly displayed on the packaging). That’s okay, but it should have been documented in the users manual from the get go.

So, now that the PS3 has been set to output PCM only over optical audio, movies sounded rich and full in stereo mode. But how would they sound when the virtual surround was activated? In a word, weird. Yes, there was a sense of expansiveness, but what should have been the center channel had an empty, hollowness to it. I tried another movie, Blade Runner, with the same result. Granted, I’ve never been a fan of virtual surround, but have heard some decent prototypes from SRS at CES in 2011. Sadly, the virtual surround on the SB16 was, to put it mildly, disappointing, and I do not recommend using it.

Now, back to the lack of a remote control. Harman Kardon has decided to allow the SB16 to learn IR remote codes from a customer’s existing remote rather than include what many would consider yet another remote to the stack. While I applaud them for that approach, I have a feeling many consumers may end up getting frustrated trying to program the remote codes into the SB16. Basically, you have to hold down both the power and source buttons until the Surround button flashes. You then have 20 seconds to press the button on the soundbar you want to program. If you are successful, the power button will then go dark. You then have 5 seconds (that’s right, 5 seconds) to aim the remote “at the front of the soundbar and slowly and repeatedly press and release the corresponding button on the remote until the Surround and Source buttons on the soundbar flash and then, after a few seconds, return to constant illumination.” This actually took me a few attempts for each button I wanted to program, but once they were programmed, everything seemed to work well. However, programming the MUTE command is a bit more complicated.

In summary, the Harman Kardon SB16 soundbar and wireless subwoofer is a good option for those wanting to simply and somewhat easily upgrade from the existing speakers on their television. But Harman Kardon needs to make sure their customers are aware that if they decide to connect anything (including their television) to the soundbar via digital audio (either optical or coax), then bitstream MUST be turned off and set to PCM only. Otherwise, this will likely lead to confusion and possibly unwarranted returns by the consumer, thinking the soundbar is defective when it is not. The virtual surround option is also a major disappointment, and I’m not sure what consumers will think of the size of the wireless subwoofer (it seems a bit over-sized), since one of the reasons consumers are looking to soundbars is not just for the lack of extra unwanted speaker wires, but also freeing up floor space in the living room.



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#2 of 2 OFFLINE   Adam Gregorich

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Posted July 09 2012 - 07:31 AM

Thanks for the great review Todd!