With a similar budget, you could put together a pretty impressive-sounding separates system yourself – for example, the excellent Sony BDP-S570 player, Onkyo TX-SR608 receiver and Teufel Theater 100 speakers would set you back about £1,200. All of which means that the BDS 800 finds itself up against some stiff competition and needs to work hard to justify that price tag. But guess what – it easily holds its own in terms of sound quality, knocking our Avatar Blu-ray out of the park with an invigorating, polished and powerful performance.
What we look for when listening to a system is a smooth and palatable sound that doesn’t compromise on punch or dynamics, and amazingly the BDS 800 manages all that and then some. High-frequencies are gloriously crisp and detailed, refusing to sound hard or steely no matter how high the speakers are pushed. Take the Battle For Pandora scene, for example – the whirr of helicopter blades, the score’s brass section and the screech of banshees are all delivered with a clear, undistorted tone.
This superb clarity continues into the midrange frequencies, allowing for prominent dialogue expression even during chaotic action scenes. And at 65W per channel there’s plenty of power in the tank too. You can hear that in the thunderous stampede of Dire horses charging through the forest and in the meaty explosions as helicopters smash into the side of mountains. The sub takes these sounds in its stride, infusing them with just the right amount of depth and punch without falling into the trap of sounding boomy – one of the benefits of choosing an active sub over a passive one.
Meanwhile the clarity and precision of the rear speakers coupled with the BDS 5’s smooth steering makes for a thrilling surround experience, and because they’re voice matched to front and centre speakers you get a coherent soundstage that you can really lose yourself in.
It is, however, just a little brash for music playback – fine when playing loud dance or pop tunes but doesn’t articulate the finer details of delicate jazz compositions as well as some speaker systems we’ve reviewed of late. But that’s being picky, as the sound is still a cut above most of the budget systems that end up on our test bench.
As for pictures, we really can’t fault the crystal clear reproduction of Avatar's glorious 1080/24p images – colours blaze from the screen and detail looks razor sharp, just as it’s supposed to. It also sails through the Silicon Optix HQV disc, reproducing the jaggies and resolution loss test patterns with stability. It’s also surprisingly quick to load discs, taking around 40 seconds with Terminator Salvation and 30 seconds to fire up Avatar.
Overall, the Harman Kardon BDS 800 is an impressive home cinema bundle, bringing super-stylish design and seriously good sound quality to the table. It’s proof that one-box systems shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush when it comes to sound quality – Harman’s Blu-ray playback is more akin to what you get from a separate receiver and speakers, thanks to the competent, detail-loving speakers and punchy sub. Yes, you’d expect nothing less at this price, but we don’t think anyone would feel short-changed after hearing it in action.
Where it falls down is features, as it lacks the bells and whistles found on cheaper systems from big names like Sony and Samsung. We’re talking about DLNA networking, built-in Wi-Fi, access to Internet content – those things would have taken the BDS 800 to another level. But if that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat and you have this sort of cash to splash then the BDS 800 is a terrific choice and a safe alternative to separates.