Harman/Kardon Citation 7.0 AV preamplifier

With an elegantly minimalist front panel containing a sensual blue and green display, the Harman Kardon Citation 7.0 A/V preamp is one of the most attractive components I have ever tested. Even better is that its beauty extends to the performance and versatility of its circuitry.

The large central window that dominates the front panel contains four displays. On the left is a deep-blue two-line alphanumeric readout, which can be used (after some practice) instead of the on-screen display to adjust many system functions. The color does make the display a little harder to read at a distance than, say, an amber display might be, but it is sumptuous-looking. In the middle of the window is a set of green LED's that indicate the activation of various system functions such as the high-cut or sibilance filter. To the right are two moving displays, mostly green. First is a vertical array of LED's that indicate level, which is most useful for customizing input levels for best noise performance without overload. At the far right is a circle of LED's that show approximately where the preamp's surround processing is steering the sound.

The seven buttons below the display window control the preamp's basic functions. Two are used to select the input source, and two select from the twelve surround processing modes, eight preprogrammed and four user-programmable. One button turns the full-mute feature on and off, and the last two raise and lower volume. You cannot, however, switch surround processing off from the front panel to get to the preamp's two-channel stereo mode. That can only be done with the supplied infrared remote control, which is also the only means of accessing many of the other features.

Most of those features are concerned with customizing the preamp's factory settings for your system's requirements and your listening preferences. Virtually everything in the operation of the Citation 7.0 is adjustable and the adjustment is memorizable, whether important, like the turn-on volume setting, or unimportant, like the background color of the on-screen display. You encounter this flexibility right off the bat when you start hooking the preamp up and find that the eight inputs, all A/V, do not have fixed labels for specific components, though there are some power-on defaults (Input 1 is initially labeled for a laserdisc player, for example). You can program the labels for each input in the front-panel and on-screen displays after everything is hooked up.

The first four inputs have both S-video and composite-video connectors, and while only one type of video connection can be used with an input at one time, you can select and program the memory for either type. The remaining four inputs have only composite-video phonotype connectors. As with most components able to switch between S-video and composite-video connections, there is no conversion between formats. Two sets of A/V recording outputs are provided, and the preamp will let you record from one input while listening to another. There's also a jack for a small microphone (supplied) used in an automatic speaker-balancing procedure.

There are fourteen audio-output jacks. Two pairs are stereo recording outputs, and the others carry the main-channel and surround-channel output signals, two for the front left and right channels, one for the center, two for "side" surrounds, two for "back" surrounds, and one for a mono subwoofer. The last two provide separate left and right subwoofer outputs for deluxe installations. The distinction between "side" and "back" surrounds was not clearly addressed in the preliminary instruction manual we had. It appears that the two different sets of surround outputs are to be used simultaneously with special Dual Drive surround speakers available from JBL (another Harman International company). Otherwise, which set of outputs you should use depends on the type of surround speakers you have (dipole or bi/monopole) and where you have placed them.

The eight factory-preset surround modes are labeled Dolby Pro Logic, THX, 70mm, 6-Axis, Class(ical), Jazz, Rock, and Mono. The THX mode supplies the standard THX re-equalization, timbre matching, and surround-decorrelation processing. The 70mm mode is an enhanced movie-decoding setting providing an extended bandwidth to the surround channels, faster sound steering than Pro Logic, and some blending of the front left and right channels into the corresponding surrounds to increase the sense of spaciousness. The 6-Axis mode is said to be "universal", equally suitable for soundtracks and music. It selectively feeds front left/right signals to the surround channels and is claimed to be able to produce a phantom rear image. All the surround modes delay the signal to the surround speakers, and Classical and Jazz add some artificial reverberation to this delay. Virtually all the characteristics of these modes can be altered by the user and the resulting settings stored as one of four Custom modes.

Separate remote-control buttons can select Venue (a specific combination of reverb level and decay rate), activate a sibilance filter (to prevent "splatter" of dialogue out of the center speaker), Bass EQ (providing up to 12 dB of boost at 40 Hz in 3-dB steps), and High EQ (a high-cut filter following the THX re-equalization curve in THX mode but a different although similar curve in the other modes). There's also the important Stereo Only button, which immediately switches surround processing on and off without muting.

The only operationally significant parameters that are not adjustable are the crossover frequency of the sub-woofer-output low-pass filter and the corresponding frequency of the five main-speaker high-pass filters that are switched in whenever a subwoofer output is turned on. The filtering is THX-standard, meaning that the crossover frequency is 80 Hz; the low-pass filter rolls off at 24 dB per octave above 80 Hz, and the high-pass filter rolls off at 12 dB per octave below 80 Hz. With a high-performance component like the Citation 7.0, it's only fitting that this filtering is optimal for high-end home-theater speaker systems with their larger subwoofers.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of the Citation 7.0's automatic speaker-balancing feature for adjusting the levels from each speaker in a surround system. It worked very quickly and very well, producing listening-position levels from each speaker - including the subwoofer - that were matched to within +1 dB. The subwoofer balance may have to be altered after setup, however, either for reasons of taste (many listeners think flat bass response sounds somewhat thin) or to compensate for a less than perfect tonal match with the main speakers. This can be done either by manually raising the subwoofer level during the speaker-balance procedure or, an easier path, using the Bass EQ control. Bass EQ was also useful in its intended application of giving an impact-improving low-frequency boost to soundtracks.

The Citation 7.0's measured performance ranged from very good to outstanding. Particularly noteworthy were the flat frequency-response figures and the low noise and distortion levels in Pro Logic mode, and the noise and distortion performance in the music surround modes was nearly as good. The data vindicate Harman Kardon's use of true 16-bit digital audio signals in the surround-channel delay circuitry.

In listening tests, the Citation 7.0 sounded as noise- and distortion-free as it measured in both plain stereo and surround operation. Pro Logic decoding was accurate and very clean. The surround-channel decorrelation circuits used in THX processing to produce a greater sense of envelopment from Dolby Surround movies were blessedly free of the all-too-common THX "tunneling" coloration. The 7.0 is one of only two THX processors I have tested that did not turn a sur-round-channel grand piano into a clangy barroom upright (the other was from Lexicon, yet another sister company of Harman Kardon).

While not strictly theater-accurate, the 70mm and 6-Axis modes were great fun, depending on the program material. They did not add the spurious "ambience" of a movie theater to soundtracks, which other processors that employ multiple ambient artificial reflections sometimes do. Such reflections can greatly reduce the intelligibility of soundtrack dialogue - which, no matter how hard I tried, I could not do with the Citation 7.0's 70mm and 6-Axis modes. Whether you prefer your soundtracks played as they are in a theater (Dolby Pro Logic or THX) or souped-up (70mm or 6-Axis), you'll get better results faster and with less fine-tuning with the Citation 7.0.

Similarly, the music-processing modes provided a superior enhanced musical experience with all music except the pure-acoustical genres. In particular, the sonic image from many pop recordings in the 6-Axis or Rock mode was often entertainingly spread around the room in a very convincing fashion, but again without a spurious sense of acoustic space created by ambience-generation techniques. On the other hand, the sense of you-are-there realism of many pure-acoustical recordings, such as classical instrumentals and some jazz and folk music, was not as great as can be obtained from a good artificial ambience generator. Still, those devices often have difficulty enhancing any music containing singing (such as opera) without sounding cavernous, something that never occurred with the Citation 7.0.

About the only significant feature I found lacking in the Citation 7.0 is Dolby AC-3 decoding. But Harman Kardon says that next spring we can expect the Citation 7.5, a stand-alone device for AC-3 decoding that can also connect directly to the Citation 7.0 so that both can be controlled by the same remote. If I were lucky enough to own a Citation 7.0, I'd be more than willing to wait to add the Citation 7.5 (assuming, of course, that it performs at the same exalted level as the Citation 7.0).

Harman Kardon's designers can be proud of their achievement in the Citation 7.0. Its high performance both in normal stereo operation and in surround playback of soundtracks and music, its ease of setup and use, and its programmable versatility are second to none and superior to most. Combined into one component, the result is unbeatable. The Citation 7.0 is the best A/V preamp I have tested.

Harman/Kardon Citation 7.0 AV preamplifier photo