There are those who can afford a high-end A/V receiver, but the vast majority of home-theater shoppers seem to be gravitating toward midrange products that deliver a nice mix of power and features for around $500. Over the years, Denon has developed a strong audiophile clientele by maxing out sound quality, so it's no surprise that the company's entry in this price class, the AVR-1906 ($549 list), offers first-rate sonics. Are we slightly disappointed that you have to step up in Denon's receiver line to get such extras as HDMI switching and XM Satellite Radio compatibility--features that are just starting to appear in midrange models? Sure, but there's still plenty here to like for the money.
Editors' note: Denon Electronics will not honor the warranty on Denon components purchased from unauthorized dealers or if the original factory serial number has been removed, defaced, or replaced. If in doubt about a particular online or brick-and-mortar retailer, call Denon at 973/396-0810. Denon's handsome styling has worn well over the years, and there's no doubt the AVR-1906 exudes solid build quality. The same can be said of the system's large remote, which offers a well-conceived button layout that makes you forgive the fact that there's no backlight. Our only real complaint is that the gold labeling on the receiver's front panel is tiny and hard to read in dimly lit home theaters.
Everything about the receiver worked as expected, including navigating the manual setup's onscreen menus, but the Denon AVR-1906's autosetup system will be the preferred mode for home-theater novices. True, the autosetup doesn't have all of the bells and whistles of higher-end Denon receivers (such as the auto-equalization found on the AVR-3806), but it's a lot easier to use. Just plug in the supplied measuring microphone, bring up the onscreen setup menus, and away you go. After a few minutes of passing tones and beeps, the AVR-1906 will determine the sizes of your speakers, set the listener-to-speaker distances, and level match the volume of all the speakers and the subwoofer. We found the autosetup to be almost as accurate as what we achieved in our manual setup, though no autosetup system has beaten us yet.
As far as dimensions go, the Denon AVR-1906 is of average size: it's 17.25 inches wide, 5.75 high, and 16.25 deep. The receiver weighs nearly 26 pounds, which is on the heavy side for a midrange receiver and indicates that Denon isn't cutting design and build-quality corners. The Denon AVR-1906 is an 85-watt-per-channel receiver and comes with the standard assortment of Dolby and DTS 7.1-channel surround processing modes. There are only three rear-panel A/V inputs, which many will likely find to be too confining--once you've connected, say, a cable box, a DVD recorder, and a video game system, you'll be full up. On the bright side, each of the three inputs can accept S-Video, composite-, or component-video sources, and the receiver can convert any of those inputs to component output, which means you'll need just one set of component cables running to your TV or projector. That's particularly useful if your TV has two or fewer component inputs. (Anyone needing HDMI connectivity will need to step up the price scale a bit to more full-featured receivers.) An additional set of composite-only A/V inputs are available on the front panel for temporary camcorder hookups.
On the audio side, the hookup suite includes 7.1-channel pre-out jacks that can be connected to external power amplifiers, three stereo sources, and SACD/DVD-Audio players. We counted four digital-audio inputs (two optical, two coaxial) and one digital optical output.
A/B speaker switching is just the beginning of the Denon AVR-1906's output options. The receiver's optional biamp configuration will be appreciated by owners of compatible speakers--ones with separate connectors for their woofers and tweeters. In some cases, those speakers will sound substantially better biamped. The AVR-1906 is a 7-channel receiver, but if you take advantage of the biamp capabilities or assign the surround back channels to Zone 2, the unit will operate like a 5.1-channel model. That said, it is worth mentioning that according to the fine print in the owner's manual, you can alternatively hook up a stereo amp to the AVR-1906's Zone 2 outputs to regain 7.1 capability. Another potentially useful feature is lip-sync delay, which can be helpful for owners of whose TVs' image lags behind the AVR-1906's audio.
All in all, the Denon AVR-1906 is a remarkably flexible design; the only obvious absences are HDMI video connectivity and built-in XM Satellite Radio compatibility. The Denon AVR-1906 didn't pull any punches when we played the Cinderella Man DVD. Yes, the boxing scenes were visceral and strong, but it was the naturalistic dramatic scenes where we came away impressed with the purity of sound. The outrageous displays of muscle-car horsepower on The Dukes of Hazzard DVD came through loud and clear. It's all stupid fun, but scrawny receivers and puny HTIBs won't come close to dishing out the DVD's bare-fisted brawling and ZZ Top's boogie-fueled music the way that the AVR-1906 can.
John Hiatt's Live from Austin concert DVD was thoroughly enjoyable. Hiatt's stage show is lot looser than his studio recordings are, but we did note that on this DVD as well as on some CDs the sound lacked warmth. Hiatt's voice was ever so slightly thinned out, and the AVR-1906 doesn't deliver much in the way of soundstage depth and wide-open spatiality that we've experienced with Denon's pricier siblings such as the AVR-3806.
As direct competitors go, in our listening tests we found that the ($499) sounded fairly similar to the AVR-1906, though we ultimately give the nod to the Harman for its wider stereo separation and better depth. On the other hand, the Denon AVR-1906 offers superior features, so we can't declare the Harman the clear-cut winner.