The Home Theatre in a Box (HTIB) business is dominated by brands that build systems to a price, loading them to overflowing with the latest digital doodads. There is, though, a less frenetic high-end to this market, where simple sophistication is valued. It is into this space that Harman Kardon has pitched the BDS 800, a high-end all-in-one 5.1 Blu-ray entertainment package.
The BDS 800 arrives in a huge container; five satellites, a largish subwoofer and the BDS 550 integrated amp/Blu-ray player are packed Russian-doll style inside. It quickly becomes apparent that these are not insubstantial products. Electronics enjoy lavish protection within a heavyweight chassis. All artfully rounded corners and a heavy metal lid, the BDS 550 won’t look out of place in a designer pad. The player-cum-digital amp is rated at 65 watts with all channels driven into 6ohms.
There’s no loading tray; the unit uses a slot loading mechanism. The volume knob glows like UFO over Nellis, but its intensity is variable. You can also set it to auto-dim. Nearby you’ll find a USB input for local media playback.
On the back panel are meaningful gold-plated speaker terminals, Ethernet LAN for BD Live functionality, an HDMI 1.3 output plus auxiliary audio inputs for three digital audio sources and two phono stereo components. Curiously, there’s no provision for extra video hardware. You will, however, find a connector for the brand’s iPod dock.
The partnered HKTS 60 speaker package is equally impressive. The satellites have a glossy finish and weigh 1.5kg apiece. Each sports dual 75mm flat-panel drivers and a 19mm tweeter. Guillotine-style speaker terminals are provided, disguised by slip on mini-stands. When setting up, one of these terminals sheared through the colour-coded speaker cable supplied, so take care inserting and removing your wires. The SAT TS60 satellites stand 299mm tall on their mini stands. There are wall fixings supplied in the box, should you wish to dot them around a wall-mounted flatpanel TV. The CEN TS60 centre speaker has the same drivers but is designed to sit horizontally. An integrated stand prevents it from rolling over.
The subwoofer itself is a cosmetically matched 200w sealed-enclosure design, with a downward firing 8-inch driver. On its back panel are the usual volume, phase and bass-boost controls.
Once setup, you’ll need to balance speaker levels and distances. There are rudimentary controls for this in the BDS 550’s Audio Settings menu. Perhaps surprisingly there is no provision for auto calibration; you can’t simply insert a supplied mic and let the device balance itself while you grab a cuppa.
While many of this year’s mainstream home cinema systems are chasing the fledgling internet-connected market, the BDS 800 is altogether more conventional. Sure there’s an Ethernet connection on the back, but it’s there for BD Live only. Similarly, there’s no DAB or internet radio onboard. However you can warm your hands to steam driven FM radio.
But this system is savvy to the sneakernet. The front mounted USB does a good job playing sound and vision files from a flash drive. MP3, AAC, WMA and WAV audio samples are all supported, as are AVI, MOV and (some) MKVs. SRT subtitles are also recognised.
Video setup is straightforward. There are four video viewing presets (Standard, Vivid, Cinema and Custom), with only routine Brightness, Saturation, Hue, Contrast, Sharpness and CTI controls to fiddle with. This is not a system for tweakers. It’s worth noting that there is no support for 1080/24p movie playback. The player defaults to 1080/60. Picture quality is fine within these constraints.
Blu-ray loading speeds are snappy. Even relatively complicated Java heavy discs reached their menus within a minute.
As a hi-fi proposition (CD only, Super Audio CDs are not welcome) the BDS 800 has both strengths and weaknesses. Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major, from 2L’s Trondheim Solistene (Blu-ray), suits the system rather well. The system’s audio characteristic is refined and a little toppy. By way of contrast, The Big 4 Live from Sofia Bulgaria, featuring Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax (Blu-ray) is a less comfortable fit. The digital amp may have a fair degree of welly and go loud, but it’s not massively dynamic.
Movie playback brings a smile to the face. The system’s voice-matched speakers contribute considerably to the believability of the surround soundstage, but make sure the subwoofer isn’t cranked up high; you don’t want it attracting too much attention to itself.
The BDS800 is a stylish, rather than innovative, home-cinema system. We’re told Harman Kardon is apparently aiming it at the Bose buyer, and there’s no doubt that one of its key attributes is ease of use; playback options for movies and music couldn’t be simpler. The remote handset is nicely engineered and has some heft. File playback from USB is also above average, although the lack of networking does seem a missed opportunity.
Harman Kardon’s BDS 800 is an elegant toff of a home theatre system. A snap to use, it combines elegant contemporary design with a refined audio performance. If you’re more Dire Straits than Muse, and prefer The King’s Speech to Inception, it’s been designed with you in mind. We rate it a welcome, if undeniably expensive, alternative to the AV system mainstream.