Denon is probably the first name that comes to mind when you think of AV receivers, and with good reason. The brand has been pumping out excellent models with great sound quality for years. Its competitors are slowing their receiver release schedules -- Sony hasn't made a new model since 2017, and Onkyo won't have a follow-up to its 2019 products until mid-2021 -- but not Denon. The AVR-S960H is a recent fresh that brings updated features, including HDMI 2.1 connectivity with eARC and 8K video compatibility, while maintaining the performance Denon is known for.
While Yamaha seemingly went back to the drawing board for its futuristic RX-V6A, the Denon AVR-S960's updates are more incremental. Comparing the two receivers head-to-head, the Denon sounded smoother and yet it also lacked some of the dynamic heft. I found myself reaching for the Yamaha remote more often than the Denon, and it was as much for the sleek new design as for the sound quality. Overall the Yamaha is simply more fun, and that, plus its lower price, make it a better choice overall.
With their new releases, Denon and Yamaha have shown they are dedicated to the category, and both of the products I've tested have been very strong. If you don't care for the Yamaha's whizz-bangery and forward sound, the Denon AVR-S960H is a solid alternative.
What's in the big black box?
The Denon AVR-S960H looks pretty much the same as every other receiver: black color scheme, LED display, selection/volume knobs and a handful of shortcut buttons for the most-used inputs. It's fine, but it pales in comparison to the sleek futurism of the Yamaha RX-V6A.
The Denon is a Dolby Atmos receiver whose main upgrade is the 8K-ready, HDMI 2.1 specification. Given that mainstream 8K TVs are still a few years off, the receiver also adds a bunch of stuff that's actually useful now. The first is eARC, which is the ability to transmit high-quality audio streams (Atmos in particular) from your TV to the receiver. The other HDMI 2.1 features of note are the gaming-related Variable Refresh Rate (to reduce frame tearing) and Auto Low Latency Mode, both useful for gamers who want to get the most out of the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
The receiver has six HDMI inputs (including one with 8K capability) and two outputs (one with eARC). The Denon is able to decode Dolby Atmos and DTS:X in addition to upscaling technologies like Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization Technology and DTS Virtual:X. On the video side it also supports Dolby Vision and HDR Plus video codecs.
Seven channels of amplification are on tap. The official rating is 90 watts per channel (stereo, 20Hz-20KHz) which makes it slightly less powerful than the Yamaha RX-V6A (100 watts per channel) though the difference is indistinguishable in real terms. Doubling the power will only get you an extra 3db of volume, which is barely noticeable. The receiver offers the company's own HEOS multiroom system (but no Chromecast built-in) and a 32-bit AKM DAC. There's also AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth streaming and the receiver can be voice-controlled with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Josh.ai and Apple Siri.
The remote control is more or less identical to the one Marantz and Denon have used for years. It's a jolly little clicker with easy-to-read buttons and handy shortcuts to all of your inputs at the top.
What does it sound like?
Denon and its stablemate Marantz have a "house sound" when it comes to receivers, which tends to be more relaxed than the Yamahas and Pioneers of the world. While this usually means they perform better with music, I found the Yamaha RX-V6A was more readily able to get the pulse racing without tipping into harshness. In comparison the Denon offered a workmanlike approach to whatever I was listening to -- it didn't gloss over some details or hype others. It simply presented me with my music or movie, which would make it a great match for brighter speakers.
I started with the relatively laid-back He Lays In the Reins from Iron and Wine and Calexico. The Denon offered a pleasingly balanced sound, but with the Yamaha I was able to pick up on more hidden details in the song such as the percussive, clicking tongue noises during the bridge. With the more challenging, tambourine-focused You Got Yr Cherry Bomb, the Yamaha again sounded fuller than the Denon, but the Denon arranged the parts in a more logical order -- reining in the thrashiness of the tambourine and toning down the bass to set my toes tapping.
It was with movies that the Denon's knack for setting a scene really came to the fore. Watching Avatar, It presented the jungles of Pandora with plenty of spaciousness -- every bug and breath of wind brought the dense atmosphere alive. The footfalls of the monstrous fauna were felt rather than heard, and the bark of Jake's gun reverberated around the listening space. The Yamaha wasn't as keen with the details, favoring a more bass-heavy mix but it was just as (excuse the pun) impactful. It's harder to separate these two models on movies alone, as both did a sterling job.
Should you buy it?
Yamaha went for something new, leaving Denon as the dependable option. Very little has changed from previous years, but as the saying goes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Denon offers gutsy home theater sound, subtle musicality and chunky, big receiver energy.
In the end, however, that's not enough. The Yamaha is not only cheaper than the Denon, but it offers better specification -- more power and more HDMI inputs -- and sounded more enjoyable as a whole. If you don't have HEOS multiroom or have some other reason to buy Denon, the Yamaha is a better bet for a modern 8K receiver.