I got my 354 yesterday so I've only had limited time to play but thought I would post some initial impressions. The first thing I noticed was how light it was. It is about 30 pounds lighter than my HK 7200 that it is replacing. I know weight is only one indicator of build quality but this was a bit disturbing. It was also about 7 inches less deep than my 7200 so I have a bit more space in my equipment closet.
It looks beautiful. I just love the glowing dial. HK always does a great job on design. If it only had the rounded corners like the 355 I'd be in heaven...but I digress.
Hooking up cables was not a problem. Everything is clearly labelled. Some of the posts are close together making cable insertion difficult if you have any of those tight fitting ones (I do). The speaker posts are almost impossibly cheap for a receiver of this calibre. Think Walmart 100 dollar receiver for how it looks from behind. Some of the posts were loose and wiggly which didn't inspire a lot of confidence. Compared to my 7200 the build quality is a joke.
Getting the remote to recognize my sources was not a good experience. I gave up quickly on the remote. It has a layout similar to my 7200 remote only much much cheaper looking and feeling. Very light plastic versus solid metal design with an LCD output. IR pickup is horrible for the HK's. This is consistent with my older model. If you are putting this thing behind glass or out of the way off at an angle you need an IR repeater.
GUI and EZSET- I loved the headphone jack speaker. Very nice. The GUI on this receiver is the best I've seen. Very intuitive, flexible, pretty looking. Just outstanding. The EZSET was easy to do but I'm not sure it works properly. In my 7.1 setup it set the crossovers for my fronts at 60 hz which is where I had done it manually before but it set my CC at 200 HZ which is way way off (I have a massive Paradigm CC that has nearly the same frequency range as my fronts so that was bizzarre). I overrode this cutoff as it is simply wrong. BTW tried the EZSET twice and got the same errors. It also set by back surrounds as large speakers with no cutoff whatsoever. WTF??? I have Paradigm Studio 20's V3's back there and they are a great little speaker but don't have a bigger range than my fronts which are Studio 60's in the same line. Just unthinkable that this thing would set the back surrounds as large. It also set my front left speaker 6db higher than my front right speaker and my CC. I was sitting roughly in the middle of the room for calibration so I have no idea what is going on there. It sounded lopsided so I dialed this in manually as well. BTW I wasted 20 minutes trying to get my sound working after I did the EZSET because I forgot that the mic was in the headphone jack which cuts off all sound. Doh!
Verdict: The EZSET was easy to but woefully flawed. It might work in your setup but I would not take it's recommendations as gospel. Double check to see what it is doing.
This receiver has that beautiful HK sound that I love. It does not have the headroom of my 7200 so it sounds like it is trying much harder and at higher volumes is far more compressed and harsh than my old receiver. Then again, the 7200 was a flagship at 4 times the MSRP of the 354 and it sounds like one. This is a midrange receiver and sounds damn good for the price but if you owned a big HK before you might be somewhat disappointed.
I loved the PLIIX movie setting as I can now finally get 7.1 output from 5.1 sources. Unfortunately the HK often lost the sound signal when I was watching HD programs on PVR. For example, when fast forwarding over commercials it would sometimes lose the sound and the only way to get it back was to switch to another source and switch back. This is a huge glitch in my world as I like to skip over commercials. There had better be a firmware update to fix this soon or mine will be going back.
Video worked very good. I saw a noticeable improvement over my 7200 on the video side. SD sources fed at 480i were upscaled properly to 1080p 60 and looked great. I'm not as sure about 1080i sources as these actually looked worse than going straight to my projector but I need some more time to evaluate that. It could be my projector because it needs a firmware update to override an automatic cropping of the picture at 1080p so I'm not getting a 1:1 match and therefore I get two sets of scaling instead of 1 by going through the 354.
HDMI synching was slow and painful to watch. HK's have always had an annoying delay before the sound kicks in and this AVR has the same issue. I'm disappointed that years of customer complaints have not resolved this issue. However, once the sound is up and running it is very pleasing to the ear.
Overall initial verdict:
In my opinion this receiver is a good value for the money. But don't kid yourself that this is anything close to a flagship model. Although it looks elegant from the front, the build is cheap, it is light, and it is a bit underpowered. I'm glad I didn't get the 254 as this would only exacerbate the underpowered issue.
The GUI is amazing. The automatic setup though was completely wrong despite trying multiple times. Ease of use is only functional when the end result is great. Otherwise, do it yourself. The remote is light, flimsy and basically useless. Invest in something better. It's sad that I have to use my 4 year old learning remote from my HK 7200 which is better than this thing.
The sound is very good and has the HK feel that I love. But it is underpowered and sounds like it is trying harder than the bigger HK's like the 7XXX's or the 7XX's. This results in a more compressed sound at higher volumes and not as dark and quiet between notes as you get from the bigger boxes.
I'm still playing with it so these are my initial impressions. But thought I would share.
Healthy skepticism is the best component for your HT