How much are you looking to spend to upgrade your TV sound? If you say $300 to $400 then your money is probably best spent on a sound bar, but if you're spending a little more--about $500 or so--then a receiver and inexpensive 5.1 speaker set is capable of a much bigger sound.
At $250, the Denon AVR-S500BT is about as cheap as receivers get before they become disposable junk. While most models at this price are sorely lacking in features, the Denon offers a couple of things its competitors don't, namely Bluetooth connectivity and 4K compatibility.
The sound quality, meanwhile, is pretty good for the price, and certainly better than some receivers costing more. At the end of the day, the Denon AVR-S500BT offers a feature-rich package and a superb value that can form the backbone of a quality budget home theater system.
While some would commonly equate "budget" with "gaudy" -- especially when it comes to audio devices -- the Denon manages to look more expensive than it is while also adding several ease-of-use features uncommon at any price.
Most receivers feature a flip-down panel to conceal the buttons and ports on the unit's fascia. As an entry-level unit the AVR-S500BT lacks these accouterments but it looks fairly clean and the buttons are useful. In addition to the selector dial and volume control combination as seen on virtually every modern receiver, it also adds four Quick Select buttons for the most used inputs. If you've used the dial even once to scroll through a seemingly random list of inputs you'll know how useful button shortcuts can be.
The menu system is fairly rudimentary, just white text on a black background and a blue highlight, but at least things are relatively easy to find.
The remote control that comes with the Denon is pretty busy as these things go, but at least it's easy to use, with dedicated source buttons. As always, we think it's worth stepping up to a universal remote like the awesome Logitech Harmony Home Control .
The AVR-S500BT is a 5.2 channel receiver which delivers 70W per channel. It decodes most surround formats including DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD. The front-mounted USB port will also decode MP3 and WMA audio tracks (but not FLAC or WAV files).
You won't find any network streaming features on the S500BT -- and we wouldn't expect them at this price -- but it does dangle an attractive carrot in the form of Bluetooth connectivity (albeit without support for aptX encoding). In other words, you can stream any audio service or local files from your smartphone or tablet to the Denon's big speakers.
Given its bare-bones nature, the AVR-S500BT offers a surprising 5 HDMI inputs and promises compatibility with future equipment with the inclusion of HDMI 2.0 (4K at 60 Hz) and 4:4:4 Pure Color video pass-through. Be aware that none of the ports support Audio Return Channel so if you want to hear your TV's sound (say when watching Netflix on your smart TV) then you will need to connect an optical cable.
The other inputs include one optical and two digital coaxial with two stereo RCA jacks and two composite video inputs.
It's worth noting that the receiver features spring clips on its speaker connections rather than the ubiquitous, higher-quality binding posts.
We wasted no time before cranking up the volume to see how the Denon AVR-S500BT fared dishing out home theater muscle. The "Gravity" Blu-ray's ominous low bass rumble was suitably deep and menacing, and the nimble surround mix that pans the astronauts voices as they tumble through space swirled around the CNET listening room. While spacecraft crashes in orbit in real life would be completely silent they get really loud in movies. The AVR-S500BT didn't seem to mind: it played our Pioneer SP-PK52FS speaker system (with an Aperion Bravus 8D subwoofer thrown in) as loud as we could stand. No sound bar or sound base at any price can rock our world like that, or fill a home theater as well as the AVR-S500BT did with those aforementioned speakers and sub. So yes, this receiver can dish out home-theater hijinks, no problem.
Next up, the "Drumline" Blu-ray. This dramatic film depicts marching band competitions that bring together talented student players, and the soundtrack faithfully delivered the sounds of the snare, tenor, and bass drums' wide dynamics. Ah, but when we played the scenes again on the Sony STR-DN850 receiver ($400), the drums sounded fuller and bigger. The pounding bass drum thwacks were more viscerally presented over the STR-DN850. The Pioneer speakers actually sounded a little bigger, so we checked that both receivers had the same subwoofer-to-speaker crossover settings, and they did. We weren't playing either receiver at anywhere close to their maximum output volume levels, the STR-DN850 just had a more substantial sound character. That receiver also produced a smoother meshing of the front and surround speakers than the AVR-S500BT.
Once we stopped comparing the two receivers, the AVR-S500BT's sound kicked butt on The White Stripes' "Under Blackpool Lights" concert DVD from 2004. Jack White's string-screeching guitar flash perfectly complemented Meg White's massive drum sound. Again, no matter how heavy-handed we were with the volume control, the AVR-S500BT never faltered.
If you have a very large room, hard-to-drive speakers, and/or a taste for very loud music or home theater, a significantly more powerful receiver or amplifier would be a wise investment.
That said, for most folks the Denon AVR-S500BT and a decent 5.1 speaker/subwoofer system will provide very satisfying sound for not a lot of money. You're unlikely to find a better overall AV receiver at this price.