Harman Kardon's AVR 1610 seems to be one of the most balanced AV receivers of 2013, with built-in Bluetooth, just enough HDMI inputs (five), and a slim, handsome design -- all for a very reasonable price of $400. But in this case, the specs don't tell enough of the story. The AVR 1610's Bluetooth implementation is far from the instant convenience you'd expect, requiring several more steps to start streaming than it should. The included remote doesn't appear so bad at first, until you realize the all-important volume buttons are remarkably small. And the AVR 1610's sound quality wasn't that great in our listening tests, even compared with the similarly slim Marantz NR1403.
That's not to say the AVR 1610 is a bad receiver, especially for the price, but it's not the knockout value that it initially appears to be. For most buyers, it's worth paying a little more to get the Sony STR-DN840 ($450), which has a similarly stacked spec sheet, and does a better job of living up to its promise.
Design: Slim and stylish
Most AV receivers put little effort into looking good, using the same boxy, metal chassis that hasn't changed much in 20 years. The Harman AVR 1610 has a much more polished look, with sleek rounded corners and one of the few glossy black finishes that manages to appear stylish rather than tacky.
The front panel looks refreshingly free of buttons and knobs, punctuated by the large volume knob on the right. The knob's illuminated look is attractive, although it's a bit bright for a home theater; luckily you can set it (and the front-panel display) to go dark after a few seconds of inactivity. Marantz's NR1403 could be considered slightly better-looking, but it's a matter of taste.
You'll also notice the AVR 1610 is shockingly light -- even by the diminished standards of modern AV receivers -- weighing just 10 pounds. It does make the AVR 1610 quite a bit easier to handle when installing the unit, or even just pulling it out slightly to make small adjustments. However, a light weight can sometimes be an indicator of lackluster sound; more on that later.
The AVR 1610 is also noticeably slimmer than the average receiver, standing 4.75 inches tall. That's considerably shorter than most of its contemporaries, like the Sony STR-DN840 (6.14 inches) and Onkyo TX-NR525 (6.81 inches), although it's not truly a slim-line unit; Marantz's slim-line NR1403 is just 4.19 inches. The smaller size, lighter weight, and handsome front panel all make the AVR 1610 feel more approachable than your typical AV receiver.
The remote isn't nearly as thoughtfully designed as the receiver. It gets some things right, particularly the clearly delineated source buttons and large directional pad, but otherwise there are way too many buttons. What really pushes the remote into bad territory are the laughably small volume buttons, which are the most important buttons on the remote. We were frequently frustrated by how hard it was to find the volume buttons, especially in a darkened home theater. As with most receivers, we'd recommend adding a quality universal remote to your system to make up for the lousy included clicker.
Features: Built-in Bluetooth, bungled
On paper, the Harman Kardon AVR 1610's feature set is excellent for the price.
On the back, you've got five HDMI inputs, which should be enough for most home theaters. If HDMI connectivity is your main priority, you can get six inputs at the same price from the Marantz NR1403, Denon AVR-E300, and Pioneer VSX-823-K, but in most cases we think five is enough. The AVR 1610 does include an MHL-compatible HDMI input, which is also certified as "Roku Ready," so it should work particularly well with Roku's nifty Streaming Stick.
There aren't many legacy connections on the AVR 1610, with only two digital inputs (one optical, one coaxial), two stereo analog inputs, and no component video connections at all. It all makes for a very uncluttered back panel, which is fine by us now that nearly all devices use HDMI.
The AVR 1610 is considered a "network" AV receiver, although it has a particularly lackluster implementation of network features. For one, there's no built-in Wi-Fi and Harman Kardon doesn't sell a Wi-Fi adapter, so you'll need a wired connection (or a workaround) to take advantage of features like smartphone control, DLNA compatibility, and Internet radio streaming. Secondly, firmware updates inexplicably can only be done via USB, even if your AVR 1610 is connected to your home network. Finally, aside from Internet radio, there aren't any integrated streaming-audio services, such as Pandora and Spotify, which are typically included on competing receivers.
However, the inclusion of built-in Bluetooth theoretically makes up for the lack of built-in streaming services. Using AV receivers to navigate streaming services is usually clunky and slow, while Bluetooth allows you to stream audio directly from any app on your smartphone, including apps like Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio. Sure, you're sacrificing some audio quality with Bluetooth, but the idea is you're gaining a lot of convenience, which is an acceptable tradeoff for many listeners.
The problem is that Harman's Bluetooth implementation isn't nearly as convenient as it should be. We struggled to get Bluetooth working at all, until we discovered you need to bring up the onscreen menu, go into source select, and select Bluetooth every time you want to listen. Unlike other receivers that support Bluetooth, the AVR 1610 doesn't automatically switch to the Bluetooth input when paired and there's no Bluetooth button on the remote, which is why you need to go into the menu. The AVR 1610 also doesn't let you power on the receiver via Bluetooth, adding another step before you can start streaming. For us, the benefit of Bluetooth is all about being able to stream from your mobile device almost immediately, and the AVR 1610's implementation largely kills the fun.