Harman Kardon SB30 review

Pros

  • Build quality
  • Classy looks
  • Assured sound quality

Cons

  • Fiddly operating system
  • No HDMI inputs
  • Unconvincing surround processing

Soundbars provide a terrific way of boosting TV and movie sound quality without hogging your precious living room space. Whether placed on the wall or in front of your TV, they aim to deliver more power and excitement than your TV speakers can muster – offering a neat alternative to a full 5.1-channel system.

Harman Kardon’s latest effort is a classy customer, boasting an elegant soundbar speaker with 13 built-in speaker drivers and a wireless subwoofer that can be placed anywhere in the room.

But at £700 it’ll take a greater toll on your wallet than many of its rivals – let’s find out if it’s justified.

Design and connections

Fresh out the box, the SB30 is a stunner. The soundbar speaker is clad in a slinky gloss black finish, with a black mesh running its entire 1,160mm length. The rounded edges ooze elegance and build quality is of the highest order, with satisfyingly robust and weighty bodywork.

The subwoofer doesn’t let the side down either. Its design is surprisingly alluring for a sub, with rounded corners, thick rubber feet and a deeply sexy gloss black finish.

On top of the soundbar is a row of buttons for up-close control of volume, source and sound mode selection. There’s no display panel, but three lights are discreetly hidden behind the speaker mesh, which light up in different colours to indicate selected modes and sources.

Also on the back are switches that let you match the wireless codes of the two units, and a switch with two EQ settings for wall and TV stand placement.

Features

Some soundbars opt for straight up stereo but the SB30 features built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, which means you can feed bitstreams from a Blu-ray or DVD player and get discrete multichannel sound from the soundbar’s multiple speaker drivers.

In addition, Harman Wave surround mode attempts to create a surround experience using advanced digital signal processing, while a more basic Virtual mode widens the soundstage and a Stereo mode is your best bet for music.

It even offers Dolby Volume, which keeps the sound at an even level to stop you getting a nasty shock when the Go Compare bloke starts singing halfway through Downton Abbey. Three ‘Beam Energy’ presets allow you to select the most suitable EQ for small, medium and large rooms.

Inside the soundbar are six low-frequency drivers and seven tweeters, powered by 11 individual amps that total 230W. The subwoofer backs this up with a further 100W amp, with a 200mm down-firing woofer supplying the all-important bass oomph.

Operation

As mentioned you can hang the soundbar on the wall, which takes a little DIY nous but you get all the necessary brackets in the box. Once they’re up, the bar sits snugly using the slots on the bottom.

TV stand placement is obviously easier, but the cheap adhesive pads that stick onto the bottom are incongruous with the excellent build quality elsewhere. They cradle the soundbar snugly enough though.

Because it’s wireless, placing the subwoofer is a breeze – your only limitation is that it needs to be near a plug socket. There’s no tricky setup involved as they pair automatically when activated, all you need to do is set the switches to the same code.

Using the SB30 is a little awkward using the different combinations of LEDs. For example, blue lights refer to surround modes, with one light for Stereo, two for Virtual and three for Harman mode, and it’s the same system for Dolby Volume, Beam Energy and source selection.

It’s not too taxing but just a little tiresome toggling through all the options and trying to remember which colour is which – thankfully Harman helpfully provides a little crib sheet to stick on the back of the remote.

Talking of which, the remote is perhaps the SB30’s worst aspect. It’s a credit card sized handset with a bunch of nasty blister buttons that don’t always provoke a response from the unit. The layout is cramped and the labelling is unhelpful.

Performance

Operational foibles aside, the SB30 is a top-notch performer with movie soundtracks. Two things stand out – its sheer power, which creates a rich, room-filling din, and its refined handling of detail and dialogue.

Feed it a vigorous action soundtrack and the SB30 will dazzle you with its sparky, aggressive approach, handling loud, sudden effects like gunshots with a fiery snap.

High-frequency detail is deftly handled, whether it’s the crunch of gravel in Clash of the Titans or the delicate background chatter of Pandora’s rainforests in Avatar. It also imbues voices with depth and nuance.

The SB30 also keeps its cool when you crank up the volume to unsociable levels, refusing to sound spitty or distorted. And when called for, the subwoofer bolsters the action with rich, solid bass notes. Timing is tight and it integrates seamlessly with the soundbar.

My only gripe is that that surround processing left me a little cold. I wasn’t expecting the 360-degree envelopment of a true 5.1 system, but Yamaha’s YSP-2200 has opened my ears to what soundbars are capable of surround-wise and the SB30 doesn’t come close. The soundstage is definitely wide and spacious in the Harman Wave mode – helped along by the open, airy character of the sound – but it’s all limited to the front of the room with nothing to the sides and back.

Verdict

It may be more expensive than your average soundbar, but the SB30 justifies its price with luxurious build quality, gorgeous styling and sound quality that belies its dimensions.

Movie fans will love its open, detailed and powerful performance, which is made all the more exciting by the on-board Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, 13 speaker drivers and versatile sound modes.

The fiddly operating system, the lack of HDMI inputs and the lacklustre surround processing deny it top marks, but if you’re in the market for a soundbar then you’ll be hard pressed to find one as classy as the SB30.

Manufacturer and Model

Harman Kardon SB30

Quoted power

230W

Channels

13 speaker drivers

HDMI output

None

HDMI inputs

None

Component video output

No

Composite video output

No

Ethernet

No

Digital audio inputs

2 (1 optical ,1 coaxial)

3.5mm minijack input

No

Analogue stereo input

Yes

Dolby True HD decoding

No

DTS HD Master Audio decoding

No

Dolby Digital decoding

Yes

DTS decoding

Yes

USB port

No

Built-in Wi-Fi

No

iPod/iPhone support

No

DLNA media streaming

No

Online content

None

3D ready

No

Dimensions (soundbar) W x H x D

1,160 x 100 x 80mm

Dimensions (subwoofer) W x H x D

267 x 353 x 267mm

Smartphone control

No

Audio Return Channel support

No

Radio tuner

No

Sound processing

Harman Wave, Virtual, Dolby Volume