All that connectivity can't be fully utilized unless there are enough input labels to go around. The AVR-3808CI has this fully covered on the high-def side, with seven labels that can have either an HDMI or component video input assigned to them. That means that you can have seven high-def components connected to the AVR-3808CI at one time. We were a little disappointed to see that seven is actually the total number of video labels available, so if you have more than seven video components, you're out of luck (the competing STR-DA5300ES has nine high-def labels and 11 total video labels). There are also two additional audio-only labels, Phono and CD.
Denon packed plenty of multizone features in the AVR-3808CI as well. It supports three zone/three source functionality, meaning you can play a different source in each of the three zones, plus the GUI works in a second zone, as well. Second zone video is made possible with a second component video output, although it will only work with S-Video and standard composite video sources.
The AVR-3808CI comes equipped with an Ethernet port and two USB ports, both of which can be used with Denon's built-in digital music player. Simply by connecting the receiver to our home network via Ethernet, we were able to access digital music stored on our PC. The AVR-3808CI is capable of playing back MP3, WMA, WMA files with DRM (if Windows Media Player 11 is running), WAV, AAC, and FLAC files--although it cannot handle songs purchased from iTunes or subscription-based songs from Rhapsody or Napster. Audiophiles will definitely appreciate support for both FLAC and WAV formats, as they are both lossless, which means you'll get the full resolution from your ripped CDs. Denon claims it's also possible to view album art, although we could not get it working with our setup. As we expected from a wired connection, we did not experience any hiccups even when streaming large WAV and FLAC files. It's also possible to stream music and photos off a USB drive, but keep in mind that the drive needs to be FAT32 formatted.
In addition to streaming files off your PC, the Ethernet connection can be used to access Internet radio stations and podcasts. When you first jump into the Internet radio section, you are likely to be overwhelmed--there are thousands of stations from all over the world and the sluggishness of the interface makes it very tedious to truly browse. Luckily, you can circumvent the process by registering online at RadioDenon, where you can browse and select your favorite Internet radio stations (and even add your own). The nice part is that after you choose your favorites your Internet-connected AVR-3808CI will download them so you can navigate a much more manageable list of your favorite Internet radio stations. The site says it will take a day to update, but it happened nearly immediately for us.
While we certainly enjoyed this functionality, it should be pointed out that there are other products that stream music better than the AVR-3808CI, such as the Sonos, the Roku SoundBridge, and the Logitech Squeezebox. As mentioned above, the interface itself is frustrating to use and you're stuck with the lackluster remote (unless you get a universal model). So while the network streaming function is an added bonus, remember that dedicated music streamers can be integrated with any AV receiver and will probably do a better job.
Control via PC
The Ethernet connection also makes it possible to control the AVR-3808CI via a PC on your home network. To do this, simply put the IP address of your AVR-3808CI into the address bar of your browser, and you should be able to make changes. This is actually a much easier way to accomplish many tasks. For example, it's much easier to type in source names with a keyboard than use the antiquated system in the GUI (Denon really should have included an onscreen keyboard). Surprisingly, it updates nearly immediately so we could see our changes taking effect on the receiver as we tweaked it from a laptop computer on the couch. The other advantage is that it's possible for off-site custom installers to tweak your system if you give them access. Considering how complex the AVR-3808CI is, this is a really nice feature for those who'd rather leave the tweaking to the pros.
Video scaling and conversion
The AVR-3808CI offers more video scaling and conversion options than we've seen on any other receiver we've tested. First off, the AVR-3808CI is the first receiver that we've tested that offers scaling on HDMI sources. While many receivers offer the ability to upconvert analog sources to their HDMI output, the AVR-3808CI can, for example, upscale the 480p HDMI output from a DVD player to 1080p resolution. While it's theoretically a nice feature (and for some reason seems to really excite some AV geeks), there isn't much of a practical purpose to it, especially considering its high-def performance (see performance section for more info). Owners of older, pre-HDMI Xbox 360 models should note an important limitation: 1080p component video signals cannot be upconverted over the HDMI output.
All of these scaling options are further enhanced by the ability to choose whether you want video conversion to occur on each individual input. Since the video upconversion is mostly solid on the AVR-3808CI (see performance for more details), you'd be pretty safe just leaving it on, but videophiles will appreciate the ability to get things exactly how they want them.
How does it compare?
Anyone looking at the AVR-3808CI should also consider its step-down model, the AVR-2808CI. The main advantages of the AVR-3808CI are the music streaming over the Ethernet port and the additional two HDMI ports. However, that functionality can be added to the AVR-2808CI by adding a $50 Monoprice 5x1 HDMI switcher and one of the aforementioned audio streamers, such as the sub-$200 Roku SoundBridge. Likewise, be sure to compare the AVR-3808CI with CNET's other top-rated AV receivers.
The AVR-3808CI's sound immediately impressed us with its quality and power. High-impact DVDs like 300 were heard without concern that the receiver would run out of power as the gruesome battle scenes filled the CNET listening room. The sounds of blood-splattering gore were detailed, perfectly conveying the metallic clangs of the soldiers' swords, but the sound never grew harsh or irritating. For a change of pace we popped on Seabiscuit and were pleased by the way the AVR-3808CI seamlessly integrated the surround channels' sound with the front speakers', so we felt like we were there at the racetrack. The rhythmic pulse of galloping horses and the way the musical score swells when the crowd goes nuts were vivid demonstrations of great home-theater sound.
The Rolling Stones' new concert DVD, The Biggest Bang, proved the old guys can still rock the house. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood's guitars had just the right electric edge, and Charlie Watts' drums sounded unabashedly live. When Mick Jagger strapped on an acoustic guitar and went "country" with his heartfelt take on "Bob Willis is Still the King," we could hear the crowd at Ziker Park in Austin, Texas, hanging on his every word.
We finished up with the Cobb's Corner new SACD, which took our appreciation of the AVR-3808CI's sound to another level. Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb's delicate touch on "Never Let Me Go" was set off against Roy Hargrove's lyrical trumpet. The SACD's natural presentation let the music come across as it would in real life.
We started off testing the extensive video upconversion capabilities of the AVR-3808CI by looking at standard-def upconverted to the HDMI output, using the S-Video output of the Oppo DV-980H to the receiver, which was set to output at 1080p. First we looked at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, and the AVR-3808CI did a great job with the initial resolution test, demonstrating its ability to display the full resolution of DVD when upconverting. The next two jaggies tests were also solid, lacking the jaggies and artifacts that show up on less-capable upconverters. The AVR-3808CI's processing really shined on an image of a waving flag, as the ripples looked lifelike and smooth without any "stair-stepping" artifacts. The AVR-3808CI was also up to the task for 2:3 pull-down detection, as it kicked into film mode in about a second on some program material of a racecar driving by grandstands.
Actual program material was impressive as well. It showed off its 2:3 pull-down prowess again on the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, rendering the railing of the bridge and the curved hulls of the boats without any jaggies. We moved to the difficult Seabiscuit opening sequence, and the AVR-3808CI didn't skip a beat. The slow pans over the old black-and-white photos give even the best video processors trouble, but the AVR-3808CI shows how good DVD can look.
The AVR-3808CI is also capable of scaling HDMI sources, which is a feature we haven't seen in any other AV receiver we've tested. We looked at similar material using the Oppo DV-980H's HDMI output set at 480i and had the AVR-3808CI upscale to 1080p. The results were nearly identical to the performance using the S-Video connection, with the digital connection providing an even slightly sharper image.
We also looked at 1080i deinterlacing on the AVR-3808CI. (This is the process that occurs when a 1080i signal is converted to a 1080p signal.) Since nearly all HDTVs are natively progressive, this process usually happens automatically in your HDTV, but how well your HDTV can actually do it varies from model to model. That's why 1080i deinterlacing could be useful on the AVR-3808CI--if your HDTV or HD DVD/Blu-ray player has poor 1080i deinterlacing performance, perhaps you can have the AVR-3808CI handle it instead, theoretically sending a better image to the screen.
Unfortunately, the 1080i deinterlacing performance of the AVR-3808CI isn't up to snuff. We used Silicon Optics HQV test suite on Blu-ray in the Panasonic DMP-BD30, outputting a 1080i signal via HDMI to the AVR-3808CI, and with HDMI-to-HDMI scaling enabled--which means the receiver was responsible for the 1080i deinterlacing. The AVR-3808CI failed both the Video Resolution Loss test and the Film Resolution Loss Test, failing to deliver full 1080p resolution and instead displaying a strobelike effect on the most detailed parts of the image. On the second part of the Film Resolution Loss Test, the panning shot across Raymond James Stadium looked significantly softer than when the 1080i deinterlacing is properly implemented.
We confirmed our observations from test patterns by looking at some actual program material with the same signal chain. In Mission Impossible: III, we saw the video-processing images crop up in the notoriously difficult sequence at the beginning of Chapter 8, as there was moire and flickering in the stairs in the background. We also saw issues in Chapter 11, with flickering apparent in the blinds in the background. Switching over to Ghost Rider, we also saw moire at the end of Chapter 6 in the grille of the RV as the camera tilts up. When we switched the DMP-BD30 to 1080p mode--meaning the Blu-ray player, not the receiver, was responsible for 1080i deinterlacing--these issues were not apparent in any of the scenes. The takeaway is that you're best off leaving 1080i deinterlacing to your HDTV or source, instead of the AVR-3808CI.
We looked at the same program material using a component video connection from the DMP-BD30 in 1080i mode and the results were nearly identical, with component video looking just a tad softer than HDMI.