Although I love movies, I'm not a big fan of 5.1 home theatre systems. The trade off between quality of a stereo system and the ability to pan audio across multiple channels in the same budget is just too difficult for me to condone. That is, of course, unless you have a handsome budget to spare for the extra four channels entailed by a decent 5.1 setup. With an MRP of Rs 45,000, the Harman Kardon HKTS 9BQ doesn't figure among your average entry-level home theatre speaker package. For that price it's expected to be built with more care and with better materials. Needless to say, that should ideally preclude it from being marred with the same issues that prevent entry-level 5.1 speaker packages from performing well with music. Whether the HTKS 9BQ actually lives up to these expectations is what I intend to find out during the course of this review.
The costliest components of a good speaker surprisingly aren't the drivers or crossovers, but the cabinet itself. It's far more difficult and expensive to make a structurally rigid speaker enclosure than to just plonk in the choicest drivers and crossovers. The HKTS 9BQ's satellites seem to be built better than your average satellite speaker, and this is evident from their weight (725 grammes). However, rapping the enclosure with the knuckle doesn't quite give out the dead thud that you'd expect from a rigid cabinet. This just might be due to the vibrations from the metal protective mesh that's wrapped around most of the speaker enclosure. The spring clip speaker terminals are a major disappointment, especially at this price where one expects regular binding post type terminals.
The build quality is quite good; especially on the subwoofer
The satellite speaker houses a 0.5" tweeter and a 3" squawker. The centre channel is considerably heavier at 1.2kgs and packs in a larger 0.75 tweeter and a pair of 3" squawkers. The subwoofer impresses with its 9kg heft and solid build quality. The 8" driver is humongous and is enclosed in a rigid acoustic suspension type cabinet. The lack of a bass port makes the sub more flexible placement-wise, because this allows you to put it closer to walls than you otherwise would be able to. In addition to the standard volume control knob, the sub includes a toggle switch for phase control and bass boost functions, in addition to the ability to use or bypass the onboard low-pass filter.
The cabling provided is ample for a mid-sized room, which is what this speaker system is meant for with a power rating of 80 watt per channel at a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. I like the way Harman Kardon has designed the glossy piano black satellite speakers sporting a triangular shape, while the heavy subwoofer bears the same glossy finish and a typically rectangular design. Not only do they look good, but a removable base allows the speakers to be tilted up for desktop placement. The provided wall mounts are easy to install and also allow the speakers to be swivelled. If you loosen your purse strings a bit, you can even purchase bespoke snap-fit stands that go well with the speakers' aesthetics. Being a passive speaker package, the HKTS 9BQ was paired to the Yamaha RX-V473 AV receiver for the listening tests.
The subwoofer has a fairly large driver, which is good if you seek bass extension required for impressive explosions and a window rattling low-end performance preferred by home theatre buffs. However, it's quite difficult to make a driver that large move quickly, thereby affecting the tightness and speed of the bass delivery. Unfortunately, Harman Kardon hasn't been able to defy physics with this speaker system. The satellites aren't full range, so when I set the LFE crossover at 120Hz, the drums and bassline sounded quite muddled and loose—a clear sign that the subwoofer isn't nearly fast enough for music.
The 8" driver on the subwoofer can generate deep bass, but it's too slow for its own good
Turning it off altogether wasn't an option either, because the satellites make the music sound tinny and devoid of body and weight sans the subwoofer. The only real way to get acceptable music performance out of the package was to set the crossover point at 80Hz. Doing so tightens up the low end, but at the cost of a hollow mid-bass performance. In a nutshell, like your entry-level multichannel speaker packages, this Rs 45,000 home theatre package is no better at music either.
Once you ignore the lacklustre bass, though, the rest of the package manages to impress. The highs are crisp and pack a lot of detail. This allows the speakers to dig a fair amount of detail from the source material. A minor bit of tweaking later, I managed to get a strong centre image and a great soundstage as well. The separation between instruments was good and it was easy to pinpoint each one in the soundstage. The slightly bright nature of the speakers emphasises the higher end of the audio spectrum, which tends to colour the sound. Having said that, these speakers are good for throwing a party at a house, but not really ideal for critical music listening sessions.
Fortunately, the movie performance doesn't disappoint. The large 8" driver may not be fast and ma have a slow decay rate, but it's capable of pushing large columns of air and maintaining low notes. That's just what you need to enrich action movies. The explosions sounded terrific, while the rumble of infrasonic notes was handled well by the subwoofer. This gave a fair bit of weight to the undead samurai fight scene Sucker Punch Blu-ray, where the deep growls of the 12ft CGI samurai were enough to shake everything in the room.
The centre channel is solid and does a great job with dialogues
The panning and positional accuracy of the speakers was proven when I threw the infamous Normandy landing scene from Saving Private Ryan at it. The low end heft and imaging accuracy was evident in games such as Tomb Raider (2013) and Far Cry 3, both of which possess a painstaking attention to foley work. Locating enemies hidden away within smoke and vegetation was made easy by these speakers. My only grouse, again, was a palpably weak mid bass that sticks out even with movies and games, albeit with much less annoyance as compared to the music performance.
Verdict and Price in India
All this would have been great for a speaker package costing say Rs 25,000-30,000, but it just doesn't cut it for the Harman Kardon HTKS 9BQ since it commands a cool Rs 45,000. The satellites cannot handle music on their own, whereas the subwoofer isn't fast enough for critical listening either. I don't expect multichannel setups to excel at music, but had expected a much better music performance from these speakers considering their price. While the speaker package does a tidy job with movies and video games, it still lacks the accuracy and tightness one would get by upping the budget by a bit and resorting to matched floorstander and bookshelf combinations from brands such as Wharfedale, Jamo, Mission, and Morduant Short.