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Denon AVR-3808CI review: Denon AVR-3808CI

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The Good Feature-packed AV receiver; visually appealing graphical user interface; four HDMI 1.3 inputs; can upconvert all analog signals to HDMI and upscale HDMI signals to 1080p; excellent standard-definition video upconversion; onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding; XM-ready; automatic speaker calibration; Ethernet port enables digital music streaming, firmware updates, and remote custom installer logins.

The Bad Main remote isn't intuitive, although included simpler remote can be used; user interface could use some tweaks; graphical user interface crashed a few times; poor 1080i deinterlacing; not Sirius-ready.

The Bottom Line The Denon AVR-3808CI AV receiver is absolutely packed with functionality and sounds great, but you'll need to be an AV geek to unlock all its potential.

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8.2 Overall

This has been a landmark year for AV receivers. Traditionally, receivers have just been the muscle of a home theater, but now there's no denying that they're the brain, as well, as they contain more functionality than nearly any other piece of home-theater equipment. The Denon AVR-3808CI is the epitome of this new breed of receivers, with a high-def graphical user interface, built-in digital music player, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, and extensive video conversion options to accommodate low-resolution signals on your HDTV. It's not skimpy on connectivity, either, with 4 HDMI 1.3 inputs, seven digital audio inputs, an Ethernet port, and a USB port. Of course, all these features are going to cost you--the AVR-3808CI retails for $1,600. But you can take comfort that it's not a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, as its standard-def video processing is top notch and the sound quality lives up to Denon reputation. Our biggest quibbles with the AVR-3808CI are related to its design and usability: Denon's new graphical user interface looks great, but there are some control issues that can be frustrating. The sheer complexity of the unit may also frustrate buyers--the copious features and tweaking options will delight AV enthusiasts, but the average buyer will likely be overwhelmed. Even with these drawbacks, though, the AVR-3808CI is sure to satisfy enthusiasts looking for a massively featured AV receiver that should serve them well for years to come.

Let us start off by saying that pictures don't do the AVR-3808CI justice. When we first saw the images for the AVR-3808CI, we weren't sold on the design, but it looks very stylish in person. The front faceplate is artistically designed, with subtle curves and rounded edges that make it stand out from standard boxy receivers. In the center of the receiver is the LED display, which was readable from a seating distance of about 7 feet. The LED display is flanked by two large knobs--to the right is the Volume knob and to the left is the Source-selection knob. Under the LED display is a flip-down panel, revealing some extra connectivity along with many front panel buttons including a directional pad so you can still navigate the menu systems if the remote goes missing.

The AVR-3808CI hides most of its front panel buttons under a flip-down panel.

The design of Denon's main remote is sure to be divisive. You'll probably either love it or hate it, and we're guessing more will fall on the hate side. The top half of the remote is occupied by a gel-like touch screen, similar to the design on the old One For All Kameleon 8. When you first pick up the remote, the screen is completely dark so you'll need to give it a press for it to light up. Then you either control the receiver or press another device to control it. When you select another device, the buttons on the touch screen change to suit that particular device--so you'll get Play and Stop buttons for a DVD player, which is a nice touch. The fact that the touch screen is backlit is also a plus for using in a darkened home theater.

Despite these pluses, we'd rather have a standard clicker. By omitting so many buttons, controlling simple functions can become completely unintuitive. For example, when listening to Internet radio, the only way to stop it from playing is to hold down the Select button for a couple seconds. Old-school receiver fans will also complain that by including so few buttons and instead putting the functionality in the onscreen graphical user interface (GUI), it takes more button presses to get simple actions done. We heard this same complaint with Sony's GUI-enabled receivers, but it applies more to the Denon because at least the Sony remote also included tons of hard buttons if you wanted to jump straight to a command.

Thankfully, if you can't stand the main remote, Denon includes a smaller, more traditional remote. While the second remote is intended to be used in secondary and tertiary zones, it will work just fine as a main remote, as well (although it can't control other devices). Instead of a touch screen, the smaller remote offers dedicated buttons to switch inputs. Along the bottom, it has dedicated Stop, Play, and Skip Forward/Backward buttons for streaming music. The major omission is a Page Up/Down rocker button, but you can enable this functionality by pressing several more buttons (we'll get to this later).

Denon packs in a microphone to help you set up your home theater.

The AVR-3808CI offers Audyssey MultEQ XT speaker calibration, which uses an included microphone to automatically adjust your speaker levels to the vagaries of your room. Unfortunately, the system locked up the receiver during our initial tests. We've since downloaded a firmware upgrade and will update this review with the results of the speaker calibration in the near future.

User interface
The AVR-3808CI is part of the first line of Denon receivers to feature its new GUI. Receivers have long been stuck with ugly white text on a black background, but that changed with the Sony STR-DA5200ES and now Denon is taking its shot. Even though Sony beat Denon to the punch by a full product generation, Denon's GUI certainly looks good. It features high-def graphics and text, and the incorporation of more color than Sony's menu makes it feel more accessible. Another plus is that it's capable of overlaying over high-def video, so you you're not totally missing out on the action if you're changing a setting (the STR-DA5300ES can't do this with HDMI inputs).

Denon's graphical user interface looks slick.

While the high-def graphics look great, the actual navigation scheme could use some tweaking. For example, when you want to select a source, you put the cursor over the Source Select button and to the right you can see a list of sources. Next you click to the right, but instead of moving the cursor into that list of sources, the row of icons you were browsing changes into the list of sources, and you lack the ability to see multiple source names at once. What you can see are some icons representing the sources, but those are not customizable and most likely don't represent the actual attached source after you've done some assigning. In reality, you'll actually need to highlight a specific source to know which device it represents--unless you memorize them all.

The AVR-3808CI can play digital music files and Internet radio, but sometimes the interface is a pain to use.

The AVR3808CI's user interface also extends to its media-playing abilities. This is a significant step up from the Sony STR-DA5300ES, which lacks media streaming capabilities. While the interface looks good, overall sluggishness is a drawback. One of the reasons the interface feels so slow is that the remote lacks a dedicated Page Up/Down button. It is actually possible to scroll page by page, but first you need to switch the remote into NET mode, then hit the search command, then use the right and left directional pad buttons to go up and down--not something you're likely to figure out without studying the manual. We're guessing most people won't read that section of the manual or will forget, and just normal scrolling through a healthy selection of artists takes forever.

A final note regarding the GUI is that we were disappointed to have the AVR-3808CI crash on us a couple of times. We're guessing that's because the AVR-3808CI--more than any other receiver we've tested--feels like a computer. We love the advanced features like its streaming capabilities, infinite tweakability, remote programming, and GUI, but each of these features introduce something else that can go wrong.

Key features at a glance:

Connectivity Audio soundtrack capabilities
HDMI inputs 4 Passes Dolby Digital and DTS via HDMI Yes
Component video inputs 3 Passes LPCM via HDMI Yes
AV inputs w/S-Video 7 (6 rear, 1 front) Decodes Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Yes
Optical inputs 4 (3 rear, 1 front) Video capabilities
Coaxial inputs 3 HDMI version 1.3
Selectable HD sources 7 1080p via HDMI Yes
Satellite radio XM ready 1080p via component* Yes
Network audio Yes Upconverts analog sources Yes
Phono input Yes Deinterlaces 480i via HDMI Yes
Analog multichannel inputs Yes Selectable output resolution Yes
*Note: The AVR-3808CI can only output 1080p component video signals over the component video output. It cannot upconvert 1080p component video signals to the HDMI output.

The AVR-3808CI is a 7.1-channel receiver, which Denon rates at 130 watts per channel. Like essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. In addition, the AVR-3808CI also offers decoding for the new high-resolution formats: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

The logos speak for themselves: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding.

Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks can be found on both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, and employ lossless compression schemes--meaning there is no audio information thrown away as there is with lossy formats, such the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks found on standard DVDs. The AVR-3808CI is capable of playing these formats two ways: either accepting the decoded PCM signal from a high-def disc player with onboard decoding, or accepting an encoded bit stream signal from a high-def disc player. As of the time of this review, high-def disc players' ability to output these soundtracks vary widely, so the fact that the AVR-3808CI can handle both types of audio signals is a great plus.

As you'd expect in this price range, the AVR-3808CI is packed with connectivity. There are four HDMI inputs, each capable of accepting both 1080p high-def video and high-resolution audio. That's not quite as many as the six available on the competing Sony STR-DA5300ES, but you can always pick up an HDMI switcher if you need more HDMI ports. For analog high-def video, there are also three component video inputs capable of receiving 1080p signals. The rest of the analog video connectivity suite is rounded out by seven AV inputs with S-Video (one on the front panel). Audio connections are also well covered, with seven total digital audio inputs (three optical and two coaxial on the rear panel, plus an additional optical up front). Analog audio is supported by two audio-only stereo RCA inputs, including a phono jack, plus a 7.1 multichannel analog input. Rounding out the rest of the features are XM-ready support (just add a Mini-Tuner, a docking kit, and a subscription), a Denon link port, a USB port (for music and photos), an RS-232 port (for home automation systems), and pre-outs (for those with dedicated external amps). Unlike competing Pioneer and Onkyo models, the Denon does not include native support for a Sirius satellite radio hookup.

Denon includes plenty of bonus connectivity, enabling digital music streaming, satellite radio hookup, and easy connection to other Denon link gear.

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.

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