The Changing of the Guard

I adopted a new reference receiver recently. You've already read all about the product itself, the Denon AVR-X7200W. But it's one thing for a reviewer to evaluate a product positively. It's another thing to give it the coveted reference-receiver berth on my rack. This is a big event, so perhaps I should say a few words about it.

Why do I need a reference receiver? For loudspeaker reviews. Any speakers I review need an unimpeachable source of power. Both the speaker manufacturers and I have to have absolute confidence in my reference receiver. If I'm asked what I use, when I answer the question, the reaction should be "that would do fine."

Why don't I buy a reference receiver? If I reviewed nothing but two-channel, I certainly would buy an amp. In fact, I actually did buy a Jeff Rowland Model One power amp and Consonance preamp some years ago (and sadly they go unused most of the time). I also own a couple of stereo integrated amps including the Peachtree Decco2 that sits on my desk. But because AVR technology is a constantly shifting quicksand, keeping my reference surround receiver up to date would be a constant expense. And I hate to break it to you, folks, but I'm not getting rich at this. So I depend on AVR makers to provide me with a constant procession of the latest and greatest.

Why did my last reference receiver have to go? As excellent as it was, the Pioneer Elite VSX-53 was a seven-channel receiver that had evolved no further than Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. With the advent of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, it was time for the changing of the guard. I now need a receiver that handles the new surround standards—and it has to have nine amp channels to support a full 5.1.4-channel Atmos and X configuration. It doesn't hurt that the Denon is capable of passing and upsampling to Ultra HD, though I must admit I haven't bought a UHDTV yet. I'm waiting for the HDR thing to shake out.

Why did I pick the Denon? Naturally it won five stars for performance; otherwise it wouldn't have gotten the nod. It has plenty of power and can therefore handle any speaker that can run off a receiver. But my reference receiver has to do more than sound great. It has to sound neutral. Otherwise it would influence my assessment of a speaker's tonal balance. The Denon is well qualified in that respect. In the short time I have known it, I have come to trust its truthfulness absolutely. Any receiver imposes some of its personality on a loudspeaker but this Denon does it less than most.

Did features play a role? No, the feature set was secondary. I think it's great to have Audyssey MultEQ XT32—the best version of Audyssey's room correction, with the highest filter resolution. But I don't get to use it because it would interfere with my reference receiver's prime directive, which is to behave neutrally in loudspeaker reviews. I prefer to compensate for my room's acoustic deficiencies mentally rather than introduce another variable in the form of room correction. In fact, I keep the room correction shut off all the time, even for personal listening, to avoid misunderstandings.

Does the Denon change anything? It does change my frame of reference. While I might strive for neutrality when picking a reference receiver, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. I have never embraced the ideology that amps measuring alike always sound alike. So I will have to make minor adjustments. But the Denon's personality isn't far removed from the Pioneer's. It has a bit more power, but I can live with that!

How long will the Denon last? At this point it's hard to imagine what kind of tumult would rock the foundations of home theater audio technology hard enough to justify jettisoning the Denon for a new reference receiver. But then, I'd have said the same thing about the Pioneer and its predecessors. They're valid choices until they're not.

Finally, is the Denon the greatest reference receiver I've ever had? No, that honor belongs to the five-channel Rotel RSX-1065 and its seven-channel successor the RSX-1067 (pictured above, photo courtesy of Canuck Audio Mart). Parting from the 1067 was particularly painful. But they were pre-HDMI and the time had come to move on. These Class AB receivers dated from before Rotel's adoption of Class D ICEpower amplifier topology. However, I never considered their brawny amp sections to be outdated. These were receivers with the oomph of outboard multichannel power amps. They were effortlessly dynamic and I can't believe this is a receiver good. I still see their distinctive front-mounted heat fins in my dreams.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

utopianemo's picture

Mark, it's a shame to see you switch brands. I bought the Elite SC-95 last fall, in part because you had enjoyed the VSX-53 and its class-D amplification enough to make it your reference. That said, I know Denon makes high quality products, so I'm sure your decision was an informed one.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
Actually the VSX-53 is Class AB, though Pioneer has retired AB at price points above $700 in subsequent lines, making it among the last of the Mohicans. I have reviewed the D3 models at higher price points and they might be reference-quality. But in sticking with Class AB and moving to Denon, I'm making a conservative choice that hinges on the perceptions of speaker makers. A few of them have told me they prefer old-school amplification.
utopianemo's picture

Well then! I knew I should have double-checked myself before I posted. What I remembered was your glowing reviews of the SC-89, 68, 71, but especially the 61, where you said:

"When Class D sounds this good, why would anyone stick with Class AB? Sentimentality, perhaps, coupled with a fear of change. The fear of change extends to a reviewer like me, and I also have to be concerned with what other people—specifically speaker manufacturers—would think of using Class D in a reference system. They might wonder whether the top end of their products is getting the best possible belt-and-suspenders demo. So the Pioneer Elite VSX-53, with Class AB, will continue to serve as my reference receiver indefinitely. However, if I were just a civilian designing a system for my own satisfaction, I might reach a different decision."

That quote stuck with me(most of it, anyway). Since I AM just a civilian designing a system for my own satisfaction, and I happened to choose 4-ohm speakers(Epos Epic 2's) as my mains, I purchased a class-D Elite as soon as they added HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2. In hindsight, I must have subconsciously amalgamated you with the other HT Mark(AVS Forum's Mark Henninger, who DOES use a class-D Elite as his reference AVR).

utopianemo's picture

In researching my mistake above, I re-read some of your comments about the joys of listing to stereo recordings in Dolby Surround. I don't enjoy DSP hall effects, but I also LOVE how Dolby Surround adds depth to recordings(well, height, anyway). Dynamic pipe organ recordings, especially from a theater pipe organ, sound especially amazing.

But there are some exceptions. Firstly, I noticed when listening to recordings in very large halls, like Gustav Holst's The Planets(James Levine, Chicago Symphony), that it would place large parts of the orchestra in midair. I think it happens because the massive reverb of the room masks the attack of the instruments. Still, the overall effect is mostly enjoyable for acoustic music.

Less enjoyable is some mid-80's rock, particularly recordings with heavy synthetic gated reverb. The snare will place solidly in the front of the room, but the snare's reverb emanates from above, resulting in a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Lastly, very modern ambient electronic recordings can sound very strange, particularly ones that mix dry, very close-sounding sounds with heavily reverberant synth pads or effects. In recordings such as these, the Dolby Surround upmixing isn't bad per se, but it clearly was not created with these artificial soundscapes in mind. The results, while always interesting, tend to make me ponder the concept of "artist's intent".

Jonasandezekiel's picture

Hi Mark. I've had similar issues with Audyssey xt32, not liking the electronic signature that is leaves on my music, but I find that when I shut it completely off, it sounds thin and weak. Is that in my head, or is there a point to be made? Should I go into the menu and set the speakers on large or change the bass management? I have a Marantz pre-amp and monoblocks.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I've never tried to tweak room correction to achieve a different sound though I do second-guess certain settings. Most often what I do is change speakers from large to small and drop the sub crossover (typically set at 40 Hz for my monitors) to the THX-approved 80 Hz. If your front speakers have flat bass down to at least 40 Hz, you might try running them full-range. But not having heard your system, I'm not sure what Audyssey may be doing to it.
Jonasandezekiel's picture

Actually I meant that I wanted to see how I could get the best sound without using Audyssey. I really don't like the way it mixes the sound, so when I mentioned setting the speakers to large, I meant WITHOUT any eq. I thought that if I changed bass management, that thin sound I spoke of would go away. My speakers go down to about 40 Hz. Any thoughts?

Mark Fleischmann's picture
You have nothing to lose by trying. Turn Audyssey off in the setup menu, then do a manual speaker setup with the speakers set to large. You might also want to try the pure direct mode, which I think switches off both Audyssey and the bass management, effectively running your speakers full-range. That would let you hear the difference without altering settings.
cdial01's picture


I too have a Rotel RSX-1067. I replaced it a few years ago with a Pioneer Elite SC-79, specifically because of HDMI. I had moved into a new house and utilizing HDMI make things much, much easier. I do miss the Rotel as I think it sounded better, so much so that I have thought about pairing it with a standalone pre-amp and utilizing the 1067 just as a power amp. Any thoughts?