Denon HEOS AVR A/V Receiver Review Page 2

Associated equipment included three to five Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4 speakers and a Paradigm Seismic 110 subwoofer, along with an Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player and both Android and iOS tablets: 2016 Samsung Galaxy Tab A 10.1 and 2013 iPad mini. All movie demos were on Blu-ray with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Some of my listening focused on comparing the HEOS 1 speakers with the Paradigms in the surround channels. I also compared the HEOS Subwoofer with the Paradigm Seismic 110. (I’ll say a little about that below and more in the sidebar.)

The Energy-Efficient AVR
The HEOS AVR uses an advanced Class D switching amplifier rated at 50 watts per channel. Class D is more energy-efficient than Class A/B and with performance advances in recent years is slowly taking over the stodgy receiver world, notable already in the Pioneer line. It's even showing up now in audiophile separates. In this case, Denon incorporates feedback and other refinements said to lower noise and distortion and improve the amp’s ability to drive a wide range of loads. Its voicing worked for me, with a crisp top end and enough power to keep my average-sensitivity speakers happy at moderate volumes. If your speakers need a warm-voiced amp, this isn’t it, but neutrally voiced speakers will likely get along fine.

917denonrec.rem.jpgSolace features Anthony Hopkins as a clairvoyant who assists in homicide investigations. In its dramatic supernatural moments, it goes from abrupt silence to sucker-punch effects, and the HEOS AVR handled these transient peaks well, along with the more prosaic (but crucial) job of making dialogue sound both intelligible and realistic. The crisp top end helped there. The timbre match between the HEOS 1 surrounds and the three Paradigms in the front channels was better than I’d expected. With the system’s pink-noise test tones, they were close. However, in a scene with rainfall—my all-time favorite surround effect—the HEOS 1 speakers did seem to detach slightly. A small level cut might have finessed the minor mismatch, but I wanted to see if it recurred with other content. (Keep in mind that there will always be some mismatch, potentially even a big one, between the wireless surrounds and the front three speakers with the HEOS AVR because there is no option for using voice-matched wireless speakers for the left, right, and center channels. The only way to avoid this is to use wired and fully voice-matched speakers in all locations; see my comments on that below. Of course, Denon’s target customer for this may be more concerned with not having to run wires to the rear of the house than with any perceived differences in timbre between the front and rear speakers.)

In Life on the Line, John Travolta dramatizes the life of the lineman, that everyday hero whose work on the power grid keeps your home theater going. This movie steps up the rain effects with an aggressive spattering that made me feel like I was really caught in the storm. On this test, the HEOS 1 surrounds did seem to detach a little more.

Sleepless stars Jamie Foxx as a Vegas undercover narcotics cop caught in an endless fistfight. Several scenes with disco-level dance music gave the system a chance to throb, which it did with good grace. The front-channel Paradigms and rear-channel HEOS 1s united to produce a convincing soundfield. With fisticuffs, gunshots, and car crashes abounding, this movie might have been bestowed with better dynamics from a muscle amp and sidestepped the blurring and fatigue that came at the highest volumes. At the other extreme, a low-volume listening mode would have come in handy.

The link between the HEOS 1 and the rest of the system was solid and reliable. I couldn’t detect any obvious issues with latency, though any differences here between the wireless surrounds and wired front speakers could have also contributed to whatever I heard with the surround bubble. More critically, there were no audible glitches or dropouts.

However, when I plugged the Paradigms into the system, there was no question that switching to identical speakers all around generated a more seamless soundfield and, unexpectedly, a larger one. It was most obvious in the natural effects (inasmuch as anything is natural in a movie): Rain was more enveloping, thunder more realistic. The network-connected HEOS 1 was a good-sounding surround speaker, but the hardwired, voicematched Studio 20 was a better one. Switching from the HEOS Subwoofer to the much more expensive Paradigm sub also helped thunder effects by making them deeper and more forceful. Synth pulses and resounding drums in action-movie soundtracks were meatier and more hypnotic.

When I first streamed music, I was nonplussed to find that the default mode for streaming sources was five-channel stereo. I couldn’t change the mode in Quick Settings because there are no Quick Settings for streaming services. But the AVR’s Speakers menu did offer what became my work-around: Turn off music playback in the surrounds. Doing so did not affect movie or other surround-encoded material. It just ensured that CDs, streams, and other stereo sources played in 2.1 or stereo direct. Denon would do well to introduce a dedicated button for stereo playback in the app.

Setting the Table
The AVR originally broke in with Telemann’s Tafelmusik as performed by Frans Brüggen and Concerto Amsterdam. Das Alte Werk’s fourCD set offered an instructive lesson on the necessity of break-in and warm-up. With disc one, the AVR sounded grainy and incoherent. By disc two, it sounded better. By discs three and four, it sounded like a completely different animal, more fine-grained and listenable, if not relaxed. The best way to hear Telemann’s “table music” is on original 1965 black-and-gold-label Telefunken vinyl. But the recently remastered CD set did give the AVR a chance to show how confidently musical it could be, as the suites veered from full ensemble to intimate trios and quartets that showed off Brüggen’s recorder and other soloists.

Continuing serendipitously, I accessed one of the Beatles albums I’ve upgraded from MP3 to ALAC on a Windows 10 desktop PC. The HEOS AVR got along perfectly with Let It Be...Naked, the project that Paul McCartney initiated to expunge Phil Spector’s gooey choirs and orchestrations. It delivered the beloved voices with loads of definition. The overall vibe was relaxed and warm. The strong but amorphous bass that softened Macca’s bass lines was flattering to Ringo Starr’s drums. Experimentations with the bass and sub-level controls revealed that these characteristics were a question of quality of bass, not quantity of bass.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is the recently released Thelonious Monk soundtrack for the French film by Roger Vadim. Monk’s piano was extremely well imaged; even side-to-side head movements barely budged it. The AVR also handled Art Taylor’s distant-miked cymbals quite well, capturing both their ongoing hiss and the extra-hard taps they occasionally got for emphasis.

Like many other A/V receivers, this one accepts music from a USB storage device, so I plugged in one of the hard drives that store my library. It took several minutes for the system to access the full list of artist and album metadata for this enormous library— I don’t blame it!—and even longer to populate the albumcover thumbnails. However, I could browse to anything via folder right away. The system could play DSD, FLAC 192/24, FLAC 96/24, ALAC, and MP3 files (among others). While fumbling around with this giant library on two tablets and a phone, I finally managed to crash the system for the first and only time. I reconnected the AVR and Subwoofer and apologized meekly. They forgave me.

I asked Denon’s Paul Belanger for tips on how to manage a large library, and I got an answer worth quoting: “I have a large NAS drive with all my family’s content, which is accessed under Music Servers. Because this library is so large, it can be cumbersome browsing, so I also have my personal collection and my wife’s collection (which are smaller and more manageable than the large NAS) on separate USB drives—each plugged into a different speaker. That speaker serves each drive up on the network for all other HEOS devices to access.” Belanger also recommends having separate HEOS accounts for each family member if multiple people are using their own streaming services.

Denon’s HEOS AVR is a largely successful effort to transform the A/V receiver from a cumbersome Swiss Army knife to a sleek appdriven entertainer. While a forward-thinking design process demands hacking away at legacy features to emphasize today’s essentials, the AVR might benefit from the addition of a low-volume listening mode for action-movie buffs. I also would have liked the ability to select listening modes from the remote. Adding mode selection to the app’s much-used Music screen would also help. And please, let us plug our computers into the USB jacks. But for a first-generation product that attempts to reinvent the wheel, this one rolls along nicely. And it might get even better.

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mars2k's picture

Interesting product. Focusing on your system crash makes me think this first iteration lacks processing power for it's operating system. I too have considerable media on file. Choking while parsing an index of files shouldn't be happening in today's computing climate. The quirks you experienced are all about processing power, memory and of course system software (or firmware for the literal minded).
The notion that I should divvy up my multi tera media library and spread it around in a collection of smaller usb drives makes things harder and more confusing not easier and more fun.
Never mind having an bunch of expensive fragile hi end thumb drives sticking out the back of a bunch of speakers scattered around the room. I wonder how pretty that would be.
Denon, better chips,and better programing please.