Editors' note: This review is nearly identical to the Denon AVR-1910, as the two products are extremely similar. The only differences are slightly different cosmetics and the AVR-790 lacks IR inputs/outputs and the ability to drive "B" front speakers.
The capability to upconvert analog video sources has become standard on midrange receivers, but the feature is rarely well-implemented, with poor image quality being the norm. Denon's latest midrange model, the AVR-790, is a standout in this regard, offering up the best upconverted image quality out of all the receivers we've tested in 2009. It also delivers a solid midrange AV receiver feature set with four HDMI inputs, second zone functionality, 7.1 analog inputs, and onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Our disappointments were mostly on the design side, with the AVR-790 having a difficult double-sided remote, annoying back-panel design, and a text-based onscreen display (vs. a graphical user interface). Also, its $550 price is on the high end for a midrange receiver and we thought that the sound quality was only average next to competitors. The Denon is a solid choice if you expect to integrate a lot of analog video sources into your home theater or need some less common connectivity options, like switched-AC outlets or full 7.1 analog inputs. On the other hand, competing receivers offer more features for less money--often with better sound quality--and will be a better option for most buyers.
Denon's line of AV receivers all feature the same slightly curved front panel. The editors at CNET are divided over the style; some like it, some don't, but most agree that it's nicer than the rugged-looking Onkyo TX-SR607. The two main knobs (input select and volume) are appropriately large and are on opposite sides of the front panel. The center is dominated by a large glossy display, and underneath are few additional buttons. Just to irk obsessive home theater nerds who hate extra light sources, there's an illuminated ring (green when on, red when off) around the power button in the lower-left-hand corner.
We've complained about Denon's baffling remote design previously, but it's worth mentioning again. The included clicker has a series of small buttons up top to select inputs, and below is a series of important buttons that seem to be nearly randomly placed. Yes, button differentiation is a good thing, but there's not much method to this madness so you're going to have to stare at this remote to do to anything other than adjust the volume (which isn't labeled as volume, by the way.) The number of buttons is actually pretty sparse; that's because the rest of the functions are located on the back of the remote under a flip-open panel. Perhaps we're being too harsh, but it's really worth considering a quality universal remote if you go with the AVR-790 to make up for some of its shortcomings.
Denon includes a graphical user interface on all of its step-up models this year, except for the AVR-790--even though competing models like the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K and the Sony STR-DN1000 include them. Instead, the AVR-790 sports an old-school text-based onscreen display, with white text on a black screen. It's not a huge drawback; most people don't access an AV receiver's menu frequently. Still, we wish it was a little more user-friendly. The first option on the menu is "Parameter"--who has any idea what that means? On the upside, we liked the chart-based method of assigning inputs, although it forces the screen to "refresh" every time you make a change. (Can't handle Denon's cryptic manual either? Check out the easier-to-read manual created by a Denon fan.)
Luckily, the AVR-790's menus are more straightforward for speaker setup. Autosetup conforms to the standard Denon/Audyssey routine we've used over the past few years. Plug in the included calibration microphone and the receiver automatically brings up the onscreen setup display.
Audyssey MultEQ requires the user to repeat the setup test tones up to six times, and before you start each pass you'll need to move the microphone to a different listener location in the room. The whole operation took around 12 minutes to complete. The system determines each speaker's "size," volume level, distance from the calibration mic position, and optimal crossover frequency relative to the subwoofer. Audyssey MultEQ also calculates EQ (equalization) curves to correct for speaker and room acoustic anomalies.
We like that the AVR-790 allows the user to easily confirm the test results; previous generations of Denon receivers were less than clear on that front. But in this case, Audyssey misidentified our Aperion 4T tower speakers as "Small," so we used the Manual Setup to correct that and set the Front Left and Right speakers to "Large." We also noted that Audyssey measured the subwoofer-to-mic distance as 14 feet, when it was actually 11 feet, so we fixed that. Speaker volume settings were accurate, but the sub was too loud, so we turned it down. The bass management/subwoofer crossover settings were fine. The manual setup menus are logically organized, so we advise AVR-790 owners to take a few minutes and confirm test results and make the necessary corrections.