Big-League Receivers

Photos by Tony Cordoza

There are high-priced major-league baseball players (is that redundant?), and then there are the Mark McGuires and Sammy Sosas - players whose abilities and accomplishments leave even their overpaid teammates in awe. The same holds true as you approach the stratospheric reaches of high-end A/V receivers. There are plenty of high-priced models that perform better than your average discount-store receiver, but then there are the models that leave even jaded audio reviewers awestruck.

Jump ahead: Features and Specs In the Lab
We decided to test three high-end receivers to find out what you get when you step up the price ladder. They range in price from the merely high - Integra's $1,200 DTR-7.2; through the very high - Yamaha's $2,799 RX-Z1; to the really, really high - Denon's $4,300 AVR-5803.

Each of these receivers offers a wealth of features and capabilities, including high power output to at least six main channels, Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES Discrete 6.1-channel decoding, and Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6 processing for stereo and other sources. Many more features are listed in the table on page 43. (For a complete overview of what each has to offer, I urge you to download the receivers' manuals from their manufacturers' Web sites.)

Most impressive are the refinements you get in the basic operating functions that will help you set up a home theater speaker system for the best possible sound. For instance, these receivers can compensate for different speaker distances with delay steps smaller than the typical 1 millisecond (or 1 foot), which is far too coarse. Both the Integra and the Yamaha let you make adjustments for 1/2-foot differences in position, which is essential for getting the most solid and accurate frontal imaging. The Denon takes things to the extreme by allowing for adjustments in 100-microsecond (0.1-foot) increments. And both the Denon and Yamaha let you balance the speaker levels in half-decibel increments instead of the typical 1-dB steps. This fineness of control helps you get carefully gauged surround sound effects to come out as the sound designers intended. Even a half-decibel change in levels between the front and surround speakers can throw the perceived balance in the completely wrong direction.

Denon AVR-5803 Price: $4,300
Spending more money also gets you features that, while found in less expensive models, are executed here with a precision that makes an audible difference. The Yamaha and Denon receivers, for example, use more advanced digital signal processing (DSP) circuits than are found in most others. While these circuits have little audible effect on the receiver's performance in the primary surround-decoding modes - Dolby Digital, DTS, and so on - they can have a profound influence on the quality of any additional processing, such as digital tone controls, bass management, and especially ambience enhancement. In all these areas, lesser DSP chips can generate audible noise and distortion. Two of these high-end receivers give you THX certification in exchange for your hard-earned dollars - THX Select for the Integra and THX Ultra2 for the Denon. While certainly not required for topflight performance, such certification does guarantee a high level performance in certain areas, as my lab tests verified.

Sound Quality

A high-end receiver can be bursting with features, but the main thing you should be looking to get from your investment is the best possible sound. Denon, Integra, and Yamaha all have enviable histories of producing superb receivers at or near the top of their lines, so it wasn't too surprising that our listening tests yielded uniformly excellent results. All three models in this group provided loud and clean Dolby Digital and DTS playback in both 5.1 and 6.1 channels, with distinctly lower background noise than we often hear from less expensive receivers. Of course, the Yamaha and Denon receivers were able to play louder than the Integra thanks to their heftier power-amplifier sections (more on that later).

The advantages of each model's various 6.1-channel capabilities were often evident in films not specifically designated as being encoded in a 6.1-channel format. For instance, Steven Spielberg's disturbing A.I., which for the most part has a rather subtle sonic design, includes some environments that are nicely enveloping in 6.1-channel playback. Check out the scenes in Rouge City (its decadence is signaled by a quote from Richard Strauss's ever-lush opera Der Rosenkavalier as the city is entered). In particular, the airborne escape from the city (Chapter 22) employs some circular panning effects that are as unusual as they are brief.

More sustained back-channel action can be heard in the soundtrack of Behind Enemy Lines, what with a repeatedly barking dog behind the listener (Chapter 19). Then there's that spectacular running of a gauntlet of exploding booby traps (Chapter 16), which alternately gives quite a workout to the left and right front channels as well as the subwoofer. All three of these receivers reproduced this sure-fire demo material with high-volume impact.

I obtained even more stupendous dynamic-range performance with the San Francisco Symphony's new self-produced four-channel SACD of Mahler's Sixth Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, easily the best-sounding recording ever of this huge piece. The finale, with its two massive hammer blows, bass-drum whacks, and a shocker of a fortissimo final chord - it produces an effect like the last scene of Carrie, and I've seen audience members jump in surprise - are sure tests of any system's dynamics, especially in multichannel reproduction. All three receivers delivered the power necessary to play this recording at lifelike levels.

Whether you're listening to stereo CDs or discrete multichannel soundtracks encoded in Dolby Digital or DTS, imaging quality is determined primarily by the program material, the speakers, and the speaker setup. Nonetheless, a receiver can help improve imaging with processing that provides additional spatial cues. Not surprisingly, the Integra is the least ambitious of the three in this regard, since it provides no ambience enhancement of multichannel material aside from standard THX postprocessing, and it offers only a few ambience-enhancement modes for stereo material. The latter, however, can sound a bit better than similar modes in many receivers since the Integra gives you the rare ability to turn off the artificial ambience in the front speakers. This is especially effective with acoustic music like classical and jazz and many pop vocals. Without the distancing effect of the extra ambience, the image remains solidly up front.

To achieve similarly clean front-channel results with the Yamaha receiver, you can add a pair of small, separate left and right front-effect speakers, which get their own amplifier channels. That way you'll hear the processing as ambience rather than as a coloration of the main front channels. As always with components incorporating Yamaha's renowned "digital soundfield processing," the results can be spectacular in terms of an increased sense of spatial realism, especially with acoustic music, and particularly classical. Even the DSP modes intended for enhancing multichannel movie soundtracks sounded realistic (I usually avoid these in favor of the surround sound environment provided by the program material, which presumably reflects the producer's intention). They generally avoided the common pitfall of making the dialogue less intelligible because of excessive center-channel ambience.

Denon offers up a major contribution to enhanced spatial reproduction, though it's obtained by entirely different means. The AVR-5803 has connections for two sets of surround left/right speakers. This capability allows you to optimize your system's sound - if you have the space and the money for a second set of surrounds - for the radically different ways the surround channels tend to be used for movie soundtracks on one hand and multichannel music productions on the other.

Movies on DVD almost always sound more theaterlike with dipole surround speakers since they create a diffuse sound field similar to that produced by a theater's multitude of surround speakers. And multichannel recordings - even of acoustic music - usually sound better with monopole surrounds, since that's the kind of speaker used when they were monitored and mixed. Being able to instantly switch from dipole surrounds placed above ear level for soundtracks to monopoles located at ear level for multichannel music paid great sonic dividends. It's an excellent and very important feature that I wish more manufacturers offered.

While the Denon has relatively few DSP ambience modes (Wide Screen, Super Stadium, Rock Arena, Jazz Club, Classic Concert, Mono Movie, and Matrix), if you spend a little time fine-tuning their operation, they can be useful in livening up older mono or stereo material.

Hitting for Power

While a receiver's signal-processing capabilities are probably its most important feature, because they have the most direct effect on what comes out of your speakers, sometimes what you want from it is sheer power. And to obtain THX certification, a receiver must deliver high power levels even in multichannel operation. Without that kind of oomph, it would be impossible to reach the movie-theater sound levels that THX-certified components are intended to produce. In truth, however, most listening situations never call for that much power - movie-theater sound levels at home are immensely LOUD.

Integra DTR-7.2 Price: $1,200
That said, the Denon AVR-5803's measured power at clipping was exceptional. Even with all seven of its output amplifiers being driven at full tilt, it easily delivered more than 100 watts to each channel. This high-output capability is the main reason the Denon weighs a hefty 64 pounds. It takes a massive power transformer to generate so much audio wattage and a massive heat sink to dissipate excess heat. The non-THX-certified Yamaha receiver weighs a little less, but it, too, delivered more juice than all but the largest home installations would require to produce theatrical sound levels, even when all of its channels were being driven full out.

The Integra, as the smallest, lightest, and least expensive of these receivers - that's why it carries the less power-stringent THX Select certification - could not be expected to match the seemingly endless power reserves of the other two, and it didn't. But it will deliver the peak sound levels most people require most of the time. The Integra passed my listening tests with flying colors. The maximum-output capabilities of receivers like the Denon and Yamaha come into their own if you have a very large listening room or unusually power-hungry speakers, or if you want consistently louder-than-theatrical volume or to be absolutely, positively sure that your amplifier sections will never overload.

Rated power output is important, but the truth is that receivers spend most of their time operating at the other end of the dynamic range. When it came to the background noise level, all three receivers performed equally well - which is to say, very well indeed. Their noise levels for stereo signals fed through the digital input and for Dolby Digital operation fell within a decibel or so of each other. To suggest just how exceptional this performance is, the readings for all three also fell within a decibel of the theoretical limits for 16-bit digital audio (the stereo-input results are not given in our table on page 46 because of space limitations).

While none of the receivers had audible noise in any operating mode at typical volume settings, the Integra's measured noise levels were exceptionally good (see "in the lab," page 46). The Denon's noise measurements ran a bit higher because of its digital bass-management processing, which operates on all inputs, including its multichannel analog input. But that's a very worthwhile tradeoff. Analog-input bass managment is very rare - I've seen it on only one other receiver we've tested. It's essential, however, for a DVD-Audio or SACD player to give its best performance in a home theater with a satellite/subwoofer speaker system. Neither the Integra nor Yamaha has this capability.

Remote Chances

Having a lot fewer features than the other two receivers, the Integra was the easiest to use. Certainly its setup procedure was the easiest, since there were fewer options to consider and possible connections to make. But I also preferred its straightforward, button-covered remote control over the menu-driven touchscreen LCD remotes supplied with the Denon and Yamaha. Touchscreen remotes can be considerably more versatile than any real-button remote since the LCD can lay the equivalent of hundreds of controls at your fingertips. But that versatility also makes the LCD remotes more difficult to fully set up, if not to operate. While the owner's manual for the Integra devotes 15 pages to programming its simple remote, Yamaha requires 21 pages and Denon devotes 33 pages of a separate 66-page volume to explaining the intricacies of its handset. Mastering these details, however, does give you the ability to control as many as 16 other devices in the case of the Yamaha and up to 23 others with the Denon (you can even control eight components of the same type from different brands).

Yamaha RX-Z1 Price: $2,799
Yamaha's remote had a few traits I found less than endearing. For instance, if you take more than 4 seconds to decide which virtual button to push, the backlighting goes off. Unless you extend that default value or turn on the Auto LCD Light function, both of which greatly increase battery consumption (the handset takes four AA alkalines), you have to press the backlight button again and again to keep the light on while you are making adjustments. That requires either awkwardly shifting the remote in your hand or operating it with both hands. The remote also makes a big visual to-do when switching menus, in this case when you switch among the controlled components. To go from operating the receiver to operating a DVD player, for instance, takes two button pushes and about 6 seconds while you wait for the menus to change.

Even though I have small fingers, I initially had trouble activating the Yamaha's touchscreen controls with precision because they're too close together. I ultimately determined that the Yamaha remote is best operated one-handed, using the thumb to activate the controls.

The Denon remote's virtual buttons are larger than the ones on the Yamaha remote. But since they're all either square or rectangular and are sized so the screen is always filled with buttons, you actually have to read the labels every time you use the remote to make sure you're hitting the right button on the right menu. At least the Yamaha's virtual buttons are well differentiated in size and shape as you switch among menus, so you'll rarely have to read their labels once you've memorized the layouts.

The Denon's backlight gives you a default of 5 seconds to execute a command before the screen goes dark, which is actually a noticeable improvement over Yamaha's 4 seconds. Shifting to another component, however, requires use of the handset's stubby joystick control, which can slow you down considerably. On the other hand, the joystick is very useful for navigating onscreen DVD menus, since you don't have to re-aim your fingers at touchscreen cursor-control buttons.

Three Home Runs?

Clearly, with the differences in price being what they are, it wouldn't be fair to declare a "winner" in this evaluation. Integra's DTR-7.2 is a heavy hitter in its price range not only for its ability to play loud, but also for its very low noise levels and resulting clean sound quality. Its ease of use makes the Integra a cinch to set up. But its ambience enhancement options are few - which will or won't matter depending on how much you like to tweak the sound of your setup. And if you have a palatial home theater with watt-guzzling speakers and like to play everything at apocalyptic levels, it might not be able to keep up. The Yamaha RX-Z1 is the way to go if you want to use state-of-the-art ambience processing on two-channel music recordings while remaining up to date with the multichannel scene. To take full advantage of this receiver's extraordinary sonic powers, though, you'll have to install those front-effect speakers and adjust the ambience processing to suit the program. The RX-V1 also provides superb playback quality in its primary decoding modes, and its maximum output is suitable for all but the most power-hungry installations.

Denon's AVR-5803 is an electronic masterpiece - it had better be, considering its Van Gogh pricing. It is one of only two receivers we know with effective bass management for its multichannel analog input, which makes it well suited for use with multichannel SACD or DVD-Audio players as well as any other multichannel medium that happens to come along. The bass management itself - for both digital and analog inputs - is unusually versatile and suitable for a wide variety of speaker setups. And the ability to switch instantly between radically different types of surround speaker provides a more refined match of its clean and powerful surround playback to the program material than could be obtained in any other way. For the ultracritical multichannel listener, the AVR-5803's combination of performance and features will be worth every penny.