Harman Kardon Sabre SB35 review

If you don't own a Harman Kardon device you may be surprised that you've probably already heard the company's speakers before. Why? Because its responsible for most of the nation's cinema sound systems. And with the HK Sabre it plans to bring that quality at a physically smaller scale into your home.

It's not just the sound that makes the Sabre a special soundbar and subwoofer combination, it's the fact this is the among the sleekest and most attractive bits of home cinema kit that we've seen. But with its £850 price tag you could buy a lot of trips to the cinema for that kind of cash. Is the HK Sabre worth its cover price?

Long-form

One of the reasons soundbars have grown in popularity so quickly is because they offer a less cluttered sound system than 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound solutions. But the real reason they exist is to offer bigger, deeper and more rounded sound that lacks from ever-thinner televisions. As TVs have got slim so has their sound, inherently becoming little more than laptop-esque offerings. Add a soundbar and sub and that issue is solved - but until now you couldn't have both looking sleek and slim, especially a subwoofer that depends on physical space.

The Sabre soundbar is only 32mm thick at its deepest point and weighs a meagre 2.6kg and is dressed by a slim metallic bezel that gives it a look akin to a high-end smartphone or TV. Although its 1.15m length certainly could be a little long for smaller televisions - we have a 40-inch screen and the 'bar certainly takes centre stage as you can see in our pictures. But this isn't a bad thing as it can be used to cover up cables while sat on the included stand, or by being wall mounted instead.

The Sabre's 100W subwoofer is also achingly attractive for something that's usually a black box. It comes with an attractive brushed metal stand but can also be wall mounted. Yes, wall mounted, it looks that good at only 86mm thick - far slimmer than the usual cubes that you'll need to try and hide somewhere around the room.

Much in the way that the first slim-bezel super-slim LED TVs led the way to a next breed of screen, the slim Harmon Kardon Sabre soundbar and subwoofer combo are leading the charge for slim sound systems. The sub is wirelessly connected to the sound bar so only one power cable needs to be hidden away to keep the speaker-like form all that you'll see on display.

Connected to everything

The Sabre is not short of connectivity options. It'll even act as a Bluetooth speaker for your computer, phone or tablet once they're paired. This is a feature we found ourselves using all the time for music - it produces such great sound this replaced any other sound system for the duration of testing. It's that good.

There are four HDMI ports (three inputs and one output), alongside an AUX-in, optical-in and a connection for an infrared transmitter. The IR transmitter is a nice little extra that means you can block other devices like your TV or a Sky box and still have the remote control signal passed back there by the Sabre. It will also learn your TV's remote so you can control the soundbar from a single controller rather than yo-yoing between half a dozen controls.

The only gripe here is the need for micro-HDMI to HDMI cables for connecting devices. Despite four HDMI ports, and the hefty price tag, Harman only throws in one of these cables and an optical cable. Nothing new here, really, as this is typical of most manufacturers - but do consider the additional cost of cables.

Also while watching via HDMI and optical we've had the system cut-out and then need to be restarted to get sound again. While watching House of Cards via Netflix using the PS3 and the optical connection each time a new episode started we had to restart the Sabre. This suggests a software issue - our contact with Harman suggests the same - and that may be limited to this unit alone, but it's still a right pain.

Is it surround sound?

While soundbars can only produce virtual surround sound, the effort on the part of the Sabre is spectacular. It intelligently alters the levels so background sounds are pumped out a little louder which creates the illusion of immersion in whatever scene the user is watching. In normal mode it's very much a 2.1 sound experience, albeit a clear one, but switch into Virtual Surround and immersion is immediate. Harman has been able to create a really impressive pseudo surround experience.

The Sabre also offers a Wave setting to offer digital processed surround sound - this is great for fine tuning to suit the room size as it has small, medium and large modes. Harman Volume, built into the software, keeps sound balanced - we tried this while watching a loud action film turned up high on ITV and when the ads kicked in the volume was balanced comfortably. Also built-in are Dolby Digital TrueHD and DTS HD decoding smarts.

Even when listening to music the Volume mode creates a far bigger sound experience akin to being at a gig, rather than just listening to it at home. This is probably a big part of why we used this as the go-to home speaker and do miss it now the review sample has been returned to the company.

Fine-tuned to perfection

The bass is almost impossibly well balanced too. The Sabre is very much a simple plug and play device and sounds great from the off, but for the discerning listener the sub has a number of manual control options to fine tune the bass so it sounds spot on for various applications.

Crossover adjustment on the sub allows the user to raise and lower frequency threshold - the higher it gets the more it overlaps the soundbar. Perfect for adjusting to suit the room size. Then there's a phase adjustment switch that allows you to reverse the sub's driver piston 180-degrees to cancel out some sound waves from the soundbar to reduce bass and sonic impact. It's subtle but great if you don't want to disturb someone in bed while watching an explosion-heavy film at night.

The overall sound is great. The soundbar packs in four 20W and four 15W speakers as well as six 1.75-inch mid-range drivers and four 1-inch dome tweeters. The sub has a 100 watt amp and uses dual four and a half inch drivers powered out through the bass-reflex ported design. The end result is enough power and range to cover anybody's needs - even for use as a music player at a house party.

Verdict

The Harman Kardon Sabre is a really beautiful soundbar and subwoofer combination. One enhances the other wherever they are placed in the room, in both aesthetic and acoustic terms. The ability to balance the bass to suit the room via manual adjustments is brilliant too, as it makes for a sound that we would call pretty much perfect.

But for all its perfect points we had issues with the device cutting out when using Netflix via PS3 and even our Sky HD box. It's this sole reason that the Sabre doesn't achieve full marks, because this apparent software glitch disrupts the product's overall user experience. If this was ironed out then it would be full marks because as far as soundbars and subwoofer combinations go, and despite the high price point, the Sabre is a stunning bit of home cinema kit that's ideal for TV, movies, gaming and music.



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