Despite the steep price tag, we liked the Denon S-301 when it came out a couple of years ago, citing its iPod-friendliness and good sound. The company is now following up with a few more high-end home theaters in boxes (HTiBs), so we'll take you through the entire "S series" from the bottom up. For details on the tabletop radios, models S-32 and S-52, click here; the other three will be available in September 2007.
The S-81 isn't a true HTiB, because it lacks a DVD player, making do instead with a CD player and an AM/FM tuner. Its two speakers--designed by Europeans, according to Denon--are driven by 100 watts of power and should better than most compact audio systems. You can use its remote control to command an iPod if you connect Denon's ASD-1R iPod dock ($129), although since the S-81 lacks a video hookup, you don't get an onscreen display of your iPod's contents.
True HTiB territory starts with Denon's S-102, which consists of the main DVD-player-equipped unit, a pair of speakers, and a subwoofer. Surround sound is simulated using technical trickery and two speakers, but obviously you shouldn't expect the kind of rear-channel effects made possible by actual rear-channel speakers. Prominent features include an HDMI output that can scale DVDs to as high as 1080p resolution; 35 watts of power for the speakers and 75 watts for the sub; and a new graphical user interface (GUI) that lets you view album cover art on the TV screen when you pair the system with one of the company's iPod docks.
The successor to the S-301, the S-302 has all of the features of the S-102 but adds more power (50 watts for the speakers and 100 for the sub) and "powerful home networking features, borrowed from Denon's AV receiver lineup." In other words, hooking the S-302 to your home network, via either its Ethernet jack or its built-in Wi-Fi capability, allows the system to stream Internet radio and other music from network-attached storage devices or a PC or Mac on the network. The system requires you to install the TwonkyMedia software (currently $40) on your PC or Mac, and supports AAC, FLAC, WMA lossless, MP3, and WAV formats.