While the competition in the receiver market has always been fierce, the rivalry has been considerably more intense over the last year or so. Low-end models now boast the sort of extensive feature lists that were de rigueur on multibuck models of the late 20th century. Judged even in that context, the brand-new $799 Denon AVR-2803 receiver is a remarkable achievement.
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The 2803's fit, finish, and general feel are a step up from the low-buck competition's. The receiver's quality is reflected in its weight; this component tips the scales at nearly 29 pounds. We were especially pleased with the ease of setup and menu navigation, an area we knocked on the previous-generation models. We had the 2803 up and running in no time.
The 2803 lets you turn the EX/ES rear-surround speakers on or off from the remote or the receiver. That's a good thing because a lot of standard 5.1-channel DVDs don't sound right when played back in EX/ES mode. The remote control isn't backlit, but thanks to its differently shaped and colored buttons as well as its thoughtful design, we found it to be one of the best standard units we've seen in a while. Beyond the usual set of features, the 2803 offers custom installation options and multiroom flexibility, with independent volume control for the second zone. Sound quality in today's receivers is inevitably linked to the state of the digital-to-analog converter, and the 2803 sports Analog Devices' premium-level SHARC surround processors. A discrete 90-watt power amplifier serves each of its seven channels.
All surround modes are represented: Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 6.1, DTS-ES Discrete, DTS-ES Matrix, DTS-Neo:6, and Dolby Pro Logic II. The 2803 also features the latest advance: DTS 96/24. This format delivers nearly DVD-Audio-quality sound from specially encoded discs with standard DVD players. Also, Denon's Widescreen 7.1 mode coaxes 7.1-channel reproduction from 5.1-channel and stereo sources.
Connectivity facilities are comprehensive. There's wide-bandwidth, component-video switching for two HDTV sources, six digital inputs (four optical, two coaxial), and one optical output. Analog audio/video ins and outs are plentiful and include an eight-channel input for multichannel audio sources--in other words, DVD-Audio/Super Audio CD players. The 7.1 pre-amp outputs provide an upgrade path for those owners who would like to add a separate power amplifier. All that's lacking is a front-mounted set of A/V inputs.
The AVR-2803 stands in the middle of Denon's receiver line, which starts with the $299 AVR-1403 and graduates to the $4,300 flagship, the mighty AVR-5803. We commenced our auditions with the Catch Me If You Can DVD, which proves that Spielberg's longtime collaborator, John Williams, still has some new ideas. His jazzy orchestration is punctuated with a chorus of crisp finger snaps and a sexy saxophone--the sound was wonderfully rich and vibrant. Better yet, some of the early scenes were filmed in downtown Brooklyn, just steps away from our listening room. So we know just how real and natural-sounding the street noises actually are.
Next up, the U-571 DVD served up an extremely active surround mix. This World War II submarine drama has more than its share of really big explosions and thundering low-frequency effects. Those sounds made heavy demands on the 2803's power amplifiers, which delivered the goods without strain. The 90-watt-per-channel rating seems rather conservative.
After we finished the home-theater trials, we couldn't wait to test the 2803's musical abilities. Bob Belden's Black Dahlia SACD was first up. This big-band jazz is wonderfully dark and moody, in a film noir kind of way, and the layered brass sections twist and turn; we find this complex music sounds right on only the best systems. The 2803 positively reveled in the horns' rich harmonics, and the recording's soundstage was deep and spacious.
The Denon coaxed great sound from our Energy Take 5s, the NHT Super Audio ensemble and our reference Dynaudio Contour speaker systems. The sound was so weighty and full that we thought the bass level had been accidentally bumped up a notch or two. It was flat, but it proved that the AVR-2803 is just richer-sounding than most receivers. This is an audiophile-grade receiver, and we love it.