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HolidayBuyer's Guide

Denon AVR-790 review:

Denon AVR-790

There's enough connectivity to cover the vast majority of home theater setups. Four HDMI inputs are standard at this price and the other analog video inputs are more valuable considering the AVR-790 has solid video upconversion. We were also happy to see full 7.1 analog audio inputs, as this is the latest feature that's starting to go missing on AV receivers. The AVR-790 also includes a pair of switched outlets on the back, which is a rarity at this price. On the downside, the AVR-790 can only handle seven video gadgets at one time because of its relatively low number of "input slots." Seven may be plenty for most people, but competing receivers generally offer eight or more.

While we generally appreciated the AVR-790's connectivity, we were less enthusiastic about the back-panel layout. Like last year's Yamaha RX-V663, audio inputs and video inputs are separated into separate sections, instead of being grouped by input. If you're using a cable that bundles cables together (like a standard composite AV cable or a Wii component video cable), you'll have to stretch cables across the back panel--it can create a real mess. If you're mostly using HDMI connectivity, however, this won't be an issue.

Multiroom features
Line level 2nd zone outputs Yes Line level 3rd zone outputs No
Speaker-level 2nd zone outputs Yes Speaker-level 3rd zone outputs No
2nd zone video output No 2nd zone remote No

The AVR-790 has solid multiroom functionality, offering both line-level and speaker-level second zone outputs. Note that like many systems, the second zone, speaker-level outputs are shared with the surround back outputs, meaning you can't have both a 7.1 system and a second, powered zone at the same time.

Audio performance
We started our AVR-790 auditions with "The Soloist" DVD. We loved the scene where Lopez presents Ayers with a cello, and the sound of the magnificent instrument amid a wash of city traffic was truly gorgeous. Later Lopez takes Ayers to an orchestral rehearsal, and the sense of being there in a large concert hall was impressively rendered. The AVR-790 had a sweetness of tone that's rare in midprice receivers.

We've experienced mixed results from Audyssey's MultEQ and Dynamic EQ processing modes in various Denon and Onkyo receivers we've tested; sometimes it improved the receiver's sound, sometimes not. And we can't say the AVR-790's Audyssey's EQs made a distinct improvement in the sound of our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system. But it's great that the AVR-790 offers direct access via the remote to switch the two Audyssey EQ systems and Dynamic Volume on and off. So it's easier than ever to try them out for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

We turned up the heat with the "Spider-Man 3" Blu-ray's Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. When shape-shifting Sandman accidentally gets stuck in a scientific molecular accelerator experiment, the intense sound of charged electricity whooshes encircling the CNET listening room was impressive. We watched the scene again with Audyssey's Dynamic Volume at a late-night-volume level and thought that the processing reduced detail, but it otherwise worked reasonably well. You can watch movies with lots of dynamic range at quiet levels and still hear everything.

When we cranked up the volume on Eminem's "Live from New York City" concert DVD, the AVR-790 didn't have the oomph we wanted. The receiver's 90 watts per channel seemed to run out of gas on "Kill You," so we brought the subwoofer volume up, but it didn't restore the dynamic punch we were looking for.

Pitting the AVR-790 against Sony's STR-DN1000 with the naval battle scenes on the "Master and Commander" Blu-ray, the Sony had greater dynamic life than the Denon.

The AVR-790 sounded fine with Wilco's "Sky Blue Sky" CD, though its soundstage was less dimensionally developed than the Sony's. Resolution of detail and tonal qualities were similar between the two receivers.

Video performance
The Denon AVR-790 is capable of upconverting analog video signals to 1080p over its HDMI output, so we put it through our image quality tests. We connected the Oppo BDP-83 via component to the Denon AVR-790, with the BDP-83 set in 480i mode. The AVR-790 was connected to the Samsung PN50B650 via HDMI, upconverting to 1080p.

We started off with Silicon Optix's "HQV" test suite on DVD. The initial resolution test was reassuring; so many AV receivers stumbled right out of the gate, but here the test pattern showed the full detail of DVD, with barely any image instability save for some minor moire-like artifacts in part of the test pattern. Next up were a pair of video-based jaggies tests, and the AVR-790 passed both with ease. We finished up with the 2:3 pull-down test pattern, and the Denon had no problem displaying the grandstands in the background without moire.

We switched over to program material. First we looked at the introduction to "Star Trek: Insurrection"--our favorite real world test for 2:3 pulldown processing--and the Denon AVR-790 deftly handled the open pans, by smoothly rendering the curved edges of the boat hulls and bridge railings. Next up was the difficult opening sequence to "Seabiscuit," and surprisingly the AVR-790 had no problems with the montage of black-and-white photos. Sure, it didn't look as good as if we let the Oppo BDP-83 upscale the DVDs itself, but that's not the point. Out of all the midrange AV receivers we've tested this year, the Denon AVR-790 has the best upconverting image quality, with only the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K coming in the same ballpark. If you're looking to easily integrate analog video components in your home theater, the Denon AVR-790 is a solid choice.

It's also worth mentioning that the AVR-790 is the only midrange AV receiver that is capable of scaling incoming HDMI sources to higher resolutions--like scaling a 480i HDMI source to 1080p. It can also accept HD resolutions over component video and convert them to HDMI. We can't think of too many practical applications for either of these features, but we appreciate the AVR-790's extensive flexibility.

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