Setup: A gentler AV receiver, but still an AV receiver
Denon's big pitch for its 2013 AV receivers is that it's making them easier to use. That's a laudable goal and with the AVR-E400 Denon takes some steps in the right direction, although we'd say it's not enough to make receiver setup truly "easy."
The big addition is Setup Assistant, which is an onscreen guide intended to make the initial setup easier. Setup Assistant launches the first time you connect the receiver and walks you with step-by-step onscreen instructions through the installation process, including connecting all the speaker wires and AV cables. It's a welcome addition, especially for those new to receivers, although having the instructions on your TV isn't always helpful when you're crouched behind your TV cabinet.
Other changes have more mixed results. Denon has swapped out binding posts for spring-loaded, push-in speaker connectors on the back. The push-in connectors are more convenient if you're using bare wires, but less so with banana plugs. In fact, when we initially connected the AVR-E400 with banana plugs, the AVR-E400 kept shutting itself down. Turns out you can't fit a banana plug in the front right channel without it pressing against the analog CD input and short-circuiting the receiver. You'd think Denon would have tested that (and rearranged the analog inputs) before shipping the product.
As part of the setup, we ran the AVR-E400's Audyssey MultEQ automatic speaker calibration. The AVR-E400 comes with a small calibration microphone that should be placed at the height of a seated listener's ears when the Audyssey test tones are run through the speakers and subwoofer. You can stop after the first series of tones, but the system works best when you repeat the routine six times, moving the mic to six different locations in or near the main listening area. That took about 10 minutes and the results were accurate.
Sound quality: Solid, not exceptional
Sound quality evaluations of AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.
What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.
Once we started listening to movies and CDs we were pleased to find the AVR-E400 had the same richly balanced sound we've come to expect from Denon receivers over the years. With the volume turned down to late-night listening levels, we switched on the Audyssey Volume and Dynamic EQ processors, and they maintained a more consistent volume level, so movies with loud dynamics were automatically compressed. We felt the sound was slightly less clear with Audyssey Volume and Dynamic EQ turned on, but that's the compromise you have to make for late-night listening.
Our usual home theater demo discs, "Black Hawk Down" and "Avatar," never overtaxed the AVR-E400's power reserves with our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system and Hsu Research VTF-2 subwoofer. As Ben Affleck's "Argo" jumped from one location to the next, from cramped offices to busy city streets, the AVR-E400 made us feel like we were in those spaces, and the roar of the jet plane racing the Iranian police cars near the end of the film flexed the speakers and sub's home theater muscles to the max.
We also listened to a couple of high-resolution Blu-ray music discs, namely The Banda Brothers' "Primavera" and the Rolling Stones' "Live in Texas '78." With those and other discs we felt that the Audyssey MultEQ had set the subwoofer volume slightly higher than what we heard from thereceiver. The Pioneer and receivers both had leaner tonal balances, which made them seem a little more transparent and livelier than the AVR-E400. Those receivers also produced a more cohesive surround-sound environment, whereas the AVR-E400 was weighted toward the front channels. That said, the AVR-E400 is still a great-sounding receiver, as we've come to expect from Denon.
What are the alternatives?
One receiver looms large once you get into comparisons: the Onkyo TX-NR626. For less money, you get the same number of HDMI inputs, plus built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. We're all for receivers with , but Wi-Fi and Bluetooth offer real-world convenience that's worth getting. And if you don't need Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Onkyo's step-down TX-NR525 offers the same amount of HDMI connectivity for even less.
Finally, it's worth considering whether you even need an full-fledged AV receiver in the first place. If you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a. They sound great, take up a lot less room, and can make your home theater much simpler.
Conclusion: Take a long look at the alternatives
The AVR-E400 doesn't offer the best value, the nicest design, or the best sound quality, so most buyers will be better off with one of the alternatives.
But Denon has made some worthwhile strides toward making an AV receiver that's easier to use, especially on the initial setup front. If you want those features, look at the step-downfirst. It's "only" a 5.1 receiver and is limited to four back-panel HDMI inputs (plus one on the front), but for most people it will offer a better overall value. If you do need all that the AVR-E400 offers, however, it is a solid overall receiver -- it just doesn't provide the most bang for your buck.