Even the most die-hard home theater buffs will admit that setting up an AV receiver can be a chore, and that goes double for those who don't know what they're doing. Denon's AVR-E400 ($600 street) is at the top of the company's midrange AV receiver line, for which the company has focused on ease of use in 2013. There are worthwhile improvements: an onscreen setup guide, a simpler remote, and push-in speaker connectors that are more convenient with bare speaker wire.
But in other ways, the AVR-E400 misses the mark. It's hard to truly herald the AVR-E400 as simple when it lacks convenient wireless technology like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, both of which are available on the cheaper Onkyo TX-NR626 ($500 street). Like most AV receivers, it's also a massive, unwieldy box, which is harder to justify when Marantz's sleek NR1403 ($400 street) also includes six HDMI inputs in a handsome design that's nearly half the size. And if you're sold on Denon's new "easy setup" features, the AVR-E300 ($400) is likely the better value; it has all the features most buyers need, and Denon's usability improvements, for much less.
The Denon AVR-E400 is a solid receiver when taken on its own, but most buyers will be better served by the alternatives.
Design: Big, bulky box with a great remote
Like nearly every other mainstream AV receiver, the Denon AVR-E400 is a huge metal box. It looks a little more pedestrian than some older Denon models, which had subtly curved front panels, but its relatively uncluttered front panel is more tasteful than most. While I'd say the aesthetics of the AVR-E400 are better than those of the brutish Onkyo TX-NR626, it's really splitting hairs between what would both ultimately be unsightly additions to your living room. If you want something that looks nicer, look at Marantz's NR1403 or a compact integrated amplifier.
Denon uses the same redesigned remote from last year and it's the best clicker we've seen included with an AV receiver. Instead of an indecipherable mass of buttons, the remote is logically laid out: source buttons at the top, big volume buttons, a directional pad, and not much else. That last part is the most important; the remote doesn't try to control other TVs or offer one-button access to every setting, which makes it much simpler to use. I'm not sure any AV receiver remote will be easy enough for guests to pick up and use right away -- you'll need to spring for a universal remote for that -- but the AVR-E400's is a darn good effort.
Denon also makes it possible to control the receiver via a smartphone app (available for iOS and Android) if it's connected to your home network. The app is useful particularly if you're using network functions; it's a lot easier to navigate and search on your phone rather than use an onscreen keyboard and the AVR-E400's sluggish interface.
Features: Plenty of ports, but no wireless
Considering its price, the Denon AVR-E400 feels light on features.
It's well-appointed with six HDMI inputs, but you can get the same number of ports from the Onkyo TX-NR525 ($400 street) or Marantz NR1403. It lacks an MHL-compatible HDMI input, which is a neat feature on a few new receivers that enables them to work with the Roku Streaming Stick, among other devices. It doesn't have many other inputs, which is fine by us since the vast majority of devices use HDMI these days.
The most glaring omissions are the lack of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, both of which are included on the Onkyo TX-NR626. Bluetooth is the easiest way to stream music from nearly any smartphone or tablet, so it feels like a major oversight when so many people's digital music collection revolves around mobile devices. Instead, you'll need to pony up for a separate Bluetooth adapter.
The lack of Wi-Fi is more understandable, but it still means you need to have Ethernet in your living room (or use a work-around) to take advantage of the AVR-E400's networking features, such as AirPlay, DLNA, smartphone control, firmware updates, and streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, Flickr, and Internet radio. We toyed around with the AVR-E400's streaming features a bit, and while they'll suffice for basic use, anyone who does a lot of streaming will want a dedicated device, mostly for faster navigation.
The rest of the step-ups are less important. The AVR-E400 is a 7.1-channel receiver, but most buyers won't need the extra functionality that makes possible: surround back channels, powered second-zone audio, and Dolby Pro Logic IIz "height" channels. It also has analog video upconversion, but you won't need it if all your devices use HDMI. Built-in AirPlay is nice (and the AVR-E400 can play AirPlay in a second zone), but in many ways it's better to get AirPlay via the Apple TV.
If you're looking for more detailed feature comparisons, check out our giant AV receiver spreadsheet, which will compare the Denon AVR-E400 with other 2013 models as we review them.
Setup: A gentler AV receiver, but still an AV receiver
Denon's big pitch for its 2013 AV receivers is that it's making them easier to use. That's a laudable goal and with the AVR-E400 Denon takes some steps in the right direction, although we'd say it's not enough to make receiver setup truly "easy."
The big addition is Setup Assistant, which is an onscreen guide intended to make the initial setup easier. Setup Assistant launches the first time you connect the receiver and walks you with step-by-step onscreen instructions through the installation process, including connecting all the speaker wires and AV cables. It's a welcome addition, especially for those new to receivers, although having the instructions on your TV isn't always helpful when you're crouched behind your TV cabinet.
Other changes have more mixed results. Denon has swapped out binding posts for spring-loaded, push-in speaker connectors on the back. The push-in connectors are more convenient if you're using bare wires, but less so with banana plugs. In fact, when we initially connected the AVR-E400 with banana plugs, the AVR-E400 kept shutting itself down. Turns out you can't fit a banana plug in the front right channel without it pressing against the analog CD input and short-circuiting the receiver. You'd think Denon would have tested that (and rearranged the analog inputs) before shipping the product.
As part of the setup, we ran the AVR-E400's Audyssey MultEQ automatic speaker calibration. The AVR-E400 comes with a small calibration microphone that should be placed at the height of a seated listener's ears when the Audyssey test tones are run through the speakers and subwoofer. You can stop after the first series of tones, but the system works best when you repeat the routine six times, moving the mic to six different locations in or near the main listening area. That took about 10 minutes and the results were accurate.
Sound quality: Solid, not exceptional
Sound quality evaluations of AV receivers (and other amplifiers) are controversial. Some say all AV receivers sound the same, others disagree, and we're not likely to settle that argument anytime soon.
What we can say is that AV receiver sound quality has much, much less effect on overall sound quality than speakers or room acoustics, so you're better off spending your home theater budget there. CNET's sound quality evaluations are strictly subjective, with resident golden ear Steve Guttenberg comparing similarly priced models in an identical listening environment using the same speakers.
Once we started listening to movies and CDs we were pleased to find the AVR-E400 had the same richly balanced sound we've come to expect from Denon receivers over the years. With the volume turned down to late-night listening levels, we switched on the Audyssey Volume and Dynamic EQ processors, and they maintained a more consistent volume level, so movies with loud dynamics were automatically compressed. We felt the sound was slightly less clear with Audyssey Volume and Dynamic EQ turned on, but that's the compromise you have to make for late-night listening.
Our usual home theater demo discs, "Black Hawk Down" and "Avatar," never overtaxed the AVR-E400's power reserves with our Aperion Intimus 4T Hybrid SD reference speaker system and Hsu Research VTF-2 subwoofer. As Ben Affleck's "Argo" jumped from one location to the next, from cramped offices to busy city streets, the AVR-E400 made us feel like we were in those spaces, and the roar of the jet plane racing the Iranian police cars near the end of the film flexed the speakers and sub's home theater muscles to the max.
We also listened to a couple of high-resolution Blu-ray music discs, namely The Banda Brothers' "Primavera" and the Rolling Stones' "Live in Texas '78." With those and other discs we felt that the Audyssey MultEQ had set the subwoofer volume slightly higher than what we heard from the Pioneer VSX-823-K receiver. The Pioneer and Yamaha RX-V475 receivers both had leaner tonal balances, which made them seem a little more transparent and livelier than the AVR-E400. Those receivers also produced a more cohesive surround-sound environment, whereas the AVR-E400 was weighted toward the front channels. That said, the AVR-E400 is still a great-sounding receiver, as we've come to expect from Denon.
What are the alternatives?
One receiver looms large once you get into comparisons: the Onkyo TX-NR626. For less money, you get the same number of HDMI inputs, plus built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. We're all for receivers with fewer unnecessary features, but Wi-Fi and Bluetooth offer real-world convenience that's worth getting. And if you don't need Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Onkyo's step-down TX-NR525 offers the same amount of HDMI connectivity for even less.
Finally, it's worth considering whether you even need an full-fledged AV receiver in the first place. If you're willing to downsize your home audio system to stereo, you might be able to use a compact integrated amplifier. They sound great, take up a lot less room, and can make your home theater much simpler.
Conclusion: Take a long look at the alternatives
The AVR-E400 doesn't offer the best value, the nicest design, or the best sound quality, so most buyers will be better off with one of the alternatives.
But Denon has made some worthwhile strides toward making an AV receiver that's easier to use, especially on the initial setup front. If you want those features, look at the step-down AVR-E300 first. It's "only" a 5.1 receiver and is limited to four back-panel HDMI inputs (plus one on the front), but for most people it will offer a better overall value. If you do need all that the AVR-E400 offers, however, it is a solid overall receiver -- it just doesn't provide the most bang for your buck.