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Denon AVR-790 review: Denon AVR-790

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.

OVR
7.3

Denon AVR-790

The Good

Very good image quality on upconverted analog video sources; four HDMI inputs; onboard Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding; Sirius-ready; automatic speaker calibration.

The Bad

Competing AV receivers sound better; no graphical user interface; annoying back-panel design; lousy remote.

The Bottom Line

The Denon AVR-790 is a fully featured midrange AV receiver with standout upconverted video quality, although it's held back by some subpar design issues and average sound quality.

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.

Design
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.


There's an additional AV input in the lower-right-hand corner.


We appreciate the directional pad on the front panel, so you can navigate menus in the event the remote goes missing.

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.)

Setup
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.


The included autosetup mic makes it easy to set your speaker levels, but it's always a good idea to double-check the results.

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.

Features

Key features
Dolby TrueHD + DTS-HD MA Yes Onscreen display Text-based
Analog upconversion 1080p Source renaming Yes
Selectable output resolution Yes Satellite radio Sirius

The AVR-790 hits nearly all the key features you expect to see in a midrange AV receiver. Most notable is the AVR-790's capability to upconvert analog video signals to 1080p. Many receivers can do this, but the AVR-790 is the only midrange receiver we've tested this year that can do it well--more on this in the performance section. The only misstep, as we mentioned before, is the lack of a graphical user interface.

Connectivity
HDMI inputs 4 Optical audio inputs 2
Component video inputs 2 Coaxial audio inputs 2
Max connected HD devices 6 Stereo analog audio inputs 1
Composite AV inputs 4 Analog multichannel inputs 7.1
Max connected video devices 7 Phono input No

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.

OVR
7.3

Denon AVR-790

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8