One With Everything
This spring Denon unveiled its new AV receivers, and there weren't a whole of lot of surprises, except perhaps in the pricing: for the first time in a long time, Denon will be able to compete at the entry level with advanced features such as analog to digital HDMI video transcoding and an excellent selection of surround sound decoding, including Dolby TrueHD, Dolby ProLogic IIz and DTS-HD Master Audio.
The new line ranges from a 5.1 channel AV receiver with three HDMI inputs that retails for around $350 all the way up to a custom installer-friendly 7.1-channel model that includes networking functionality via Ethernet and access to more than 7,500 Internet radio stations and built-in HD radio for $1,999. Being more of movie guy than a music fan, I opted to check out (and for full disclosure, actually purchase) the Denon AVR-1910 Home Theater Receiver, which is the custom installer-friendly version of the AVR-790.
The AVR-1910 is a full 7.1-channel AV receiver with four HDMI inputs, offering the ability to upconvert analog and digital video signals to 1080p output over HDMI. It includes four digital audio inputs and a plethora of analog video and audio inputs including a 7.1-channel analog audio input. It's also XM/Sirius-ready with subscription to that satellite radio service. At about $550 (MSRP) this is a lot of bang for the buck.
Home Theater Out of the Box
The receiver showed up in a sturdy box within the box from the retailer (OneCall.com), and it was simple enough to unpack and get going. To save a few bucks, I purchased an "open box" version but you could have fooled me that it was not brand spanking new. Not a mark on it and all accessories were factory fresh and still sealed. The AVR-1910 was about a half an inch taller than my previous receiver, and that meant I had to take a few minutes to adjust the space in the rack system so as to provide adequate ventilation. But otherwise, the switchover from the old receiver was straightforward enough.
Out of the box the AVR-1910 comes with a pretty beefy manual, or so it seems until you realize half of it is in French. But honestly, why spend money on classes to learn another language when you could use these manuals as your bilingual training guide. I mean are you going to need to hook up a receiver in France or order dinner? Priorities people!
Unfortunately, the manual and the additional Getting Started pamphlet are the weakest links, especially if you're the type of person who doesn't think you need a manual but then needs to look something up. The annoying part of the Getting Started guide is that it assumes you're running a cable/satellite box and a DVD player (Hello? Blu-ray anyone?). Cables are, of course, not included (but I made the run to the store before the receiver even arrived). For the most part most users are likely going to be swapping out an old receiver and can use existing cabling.
The Getting Started guide is a little confusing -- not that it actually confused this reporter -- in the way that it presents the various connection options. The guide offers a "Best" (HDMI), "Better" (component) and "Good" (composite) option for which video cable to use, and how to set it up. Choices in words such as "Please choose the option that is best for you" after referring to HDMI being "Best" is something that results in a phone call to writers like us from our parents, uncles and anyone who doesn't understand, as they desparately search for HDMI jacks on their VCR and Wii console. But obviously for those of you that do know what you're doing, you won't even need to open the Getting Started pamphlet.
Where the set up might make even a seasoned pro take a second to think is when it comes to the inputs. Instead of merely numbering these, the kind folks at Denon choose to label everything, complete with the type of device printed by the input. Thus instead of HDMI 1, HDMI 2, HDMI 3 and HDMI 4 we're left with "1 (DVD), 2 (HDP), 3 (SAT/CBL) and 4 (DVR)." What exactly is an HDP? Is that a "high definition player" perhaps? And do people really have separate DVRs which are not also cable or satellite receivers? And the same nomenclature is used for the component video inputs, which are "assignable" but still listed as "1 (DVD), 2(DVR)." Again, if you recommend this receiver to those less experienced friends and family, expect phone calls asking for clarification.
The manual does a bit better when it comes to determining the best option for your speaker arrangement, and offers solutions for 7.1 with surround back speakers, 7.1 with front height speakers (PLIIz), 6.1 and of course 5.1. The "Surround Back/Amp Assign" channel outputs can be assigned a number of different ways. For a standard 7.1-channel configuration, the rear outputs will be your rear surround channels. If you have a 5.1-channel speaker set-up, and your front speakers support bi-amping (separate amps for low and high frequencies), then you can configure these outputs to be bi-amped front channel outputs. If you want to set the receiver up for dual zone usage, then these outputs can be configured for a powered zone 2 (for different sound in another area of your home), leaving you 5.1 channels for your main system. And if you want to explore a height-enhanced surround soundstage, then you can configure these outputs for the front height channels (Dolby PLIIz).
Given that I live in an apartment in Manhattan my usual configuration is 5.1 channels most of the time, but I like to have the option of adding two extra rear speakers or hieght channels when I feel inspired to do so. The main speaker system used for this review was Aperion Audio's new Intimus 4B-BP Fusion SA system (review forthcoming).
Once everything was wired, it was time to hear the magic. With the AVR-1910 you can choose to do a manual setup or use the Audyssey Auto Setup. We chose to try both. The Audyssey MultEQ automatically measures the acoustical properties of your room as well as the characteristics of your speakers and their placement in the room and tries to create the best audio experience for your specific environment. This involves setting up the device's microphone, which also involved pulling out a camera tripod to mount the microphone at ear level [editor's note: you can also hold it in your hand]. While running through the Audyssey set-up routine, I found that one of the rear speakers was out of phase as the wires must have been inadvertently reversed during setup. With that solved, I completed the auto-calibration routine and we were good to go.
After a few action movies on Blu-ray Disc, including Valkryie and Ronin, it was back to the manual setup. The Audyssey did a bang-up job for movies with subtle sound, and provided excellent balance for movies with a lot of dialog. But the front speakers knocked me out of my seat during any film with any extreme bursts of sound. This might be the best cinematic experience, but it was too hot to handle for viewing and listening in an apartment building! So through the manual set up, I lowered the front speakers a bit while also raising the subwoofer level slightly. We're not using the most ideal placement for the sub (near a corner behind the TV), and this may have confused the calibration system a bit.
Now the receiver was truly ready for prime time, and my biggest complaint again comes back to those odd input labels which make it a little hard to remember what is what. The receiver does offer source renaming which helps (you can rename "DVD" to "Blu-ray" for example, or "CBL/SAT" to "Moxi") but that doesn't change the input labels on the remote control itself. Speaking of which, I found the remote terribly confusing, in part because it has some of its buttons on the back side, hidden and protected by a little flip door. This makes changing inputs, especially from a video source to a musical source a little confusing, at least until you memorize the inputs. For me, it was easier to get off the couch, go to the receiver and rotate the "Source Select" dial than it was to endlessly press buttons on the remote. If you're using an aftermarket universal remote, then this won't be a factor, but I think Denon could benefit from some usability studies on their remote controls.
The multi-channel tests continued with HBO's Band of Brothers on Blu-ray, and World War II came alive in the living room. From the roar of the machine guns to the subtle dialog and environmental sounds between combat sequences, the sound was fantastic. Likewise, the musical score came through crystal clear. To test a more music-driven movie, the DVD of Toppsy Turvy came into play, and it was like heading to the Savoy Theater to see Gilbert and Sullivan in their prime.
For music listening, a variety of classical CDs and military marches (disclosure: this writer is a big history buff) were used to hear the various brass and string sections. As with the movies, musical numbers were presented with excellent dynamics and delineation of fine details. And while the Denon AVR-1910 wasn't specifically designed for such things as an analog turntable (lacking a phono input), the results were also very good with my Numark USB turntable, which happens to be equipped with a built-in preamp and standard line level output. A few New Order and Secession 12-inch dance mixes made the audio transition from parade guard to dance club. Overall this system delivers the goods for movies and for a variety of musical styles.
Can You Take Me Higher?
As this receiver comes equipped with Dolby's new ProLogic IIz decoding, I decided to take this for a spin with a couple of height channel speakers. At Dolby's recommendation, I placed these about 3 feet above the main speakers and used an identical pair od speakers for height as for the main channels. While there is no material currently encoded in PLIIz for testing, Dolby does claim that PLIIz can be used to good effect even with standard 2-channel and surround sound recordings. So in addition to the standard 5.1-channel listening, I added the height channels to the mix and put on a few cuts which are recommended by Dolby for your height-litening pleasure, including scenes from The Fifth Element, Ratatouille and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
This added a bit to the overall experience, enough for me to hear some subtle differences, and the sound was a tad bit fuller over all, with a more expansive front soundscape. But when comparing it with a standard "non-enhanced" surround sound mix in in the receiver's "Direct" mode, it wasn't so dramatic that I felt the regular mix was missing something important. I imagine that when software (games, music and perhaps movies) are actually encoded with a PLIIz height channel, the effect will become more obvious. But all things considered PLIIz seems aimed at those who are looking to add something really more for the sake of adding something - to be the first on their block with the latest feature. Given the trouble of implementing permanent front channel speakers (at least in my listening environment), it's not something I feel compelled to use.
While the move to HDMI with just about everything is in full gear, there is still plenty of legacy gear and even some current generation stuff that just doesn't offer this connection. Fortunately the AVR-1910 can handle it. The receiver offers plenty of options for upconverting your content, including from a component video source, courtesy of on-board ABT (Anchor Bay Technology) video processing.
We put the receiver to the test, using the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD as well as real world SD DVDs, comparing this to our Pioneer DV-410V DVD player's built-in upconversion to 1080p over HDMI. It was really hard to distinguish which exactly offered a better picture, though I'd say the DVD player was a hair better than the receiver. But if you have an older non-upconverting DVD player or other analog source connected via component or composite video, the receiver's upconversion to 1080p is quite acceptable.
To be specific, the colors and details were very good with the Denon AVR-1910, and it passed the HQV "jaggies" tests showing that it has decent diagonal filtering. They say "these colors don't run" when referring to Old Glory, and the waving flag on the HQV DVD was free from any major jagged edges -- the stripes were smooth -- while the bricks in the background retained much of their detail. In the "Super Speedway" clip (Film Detail test), the receiver locked onto the underlying 3:2 cadence in under half a second, eliminating the moire distortion from the grandstand in short order. Overall, upconverted content was generally free of any major visual distractions. And those who want better upconversion can trade up to the higher end Denon receivers which offer enhanced video processing (also from ABT).
With four HDMI inputs, Zone 2 functionality and more processing power than a room full of 1980's era computers, the Denon AVR-1910 is a great all-around home theater receiver. Priced at $550 this system will give your home theater a boost even in these recessionary times. While it lacks some of the musical streaming and advanced video upconversion of the step-up models, this one cover the basics and even a few extras very well, and that's a true compliment.
Where to Buy:
Denon Electronics (USA), LLC
100 Corporate Drive
Mahwah, N.J. 07430-2041
On the Web: www.usa.denon.com
Where to Buy: