Editors' note: The rating of the Denon DHT-FS3 has been changed since publication to better reflect its value compared to competing home theater systems.
After you've heard a few virtual surround speakers, you realize there's not a whole lot of surround sound coming out of these things. Yes, the better ones project sound beyond the width of the speaker and well into the room, but only if you're sitting directly in front of the speaker. Move over to the side and the surround effect disappears. Denon's DHT-FS3 handily avoids that pitfall: we heard a surprisingly wide and deep soundstage sitting to the left, center, or right on the couch of the CNET listening room. Better yet, it's a smaller than average design, and includes a slender standalone subwoofer. Also, the DHT-FS3's elegant piano black finish adds a touch of class that's rare in this category. However, given the price--$1,200 list, as little as $700 online--it would've been nice to see some video connectivity options onboard.
The Denon DHT-FS3 is a "1.1" audio system--the package includes a single speaker designed to sit below the TV, plus a standalone subwoofer. Instead of the usual squared-off box shape, Denon designers gently rounded the speaker's ends to soften the DHT-FS3's look. The front panel is completely covered by a perforated, wraparound grille, with small controls for volume, input, and surround mode selectors, as well as stereo, Dolby and DTS indicators. There's no provision for onscreen display, but a large LCD screen lights up from behind the grille, displaying a basic alphanumeric readout. Considering that the DHT-FS3 is competing at the upper end of the single speaker market, it's surprisingly compact--it's 3.75 inches high by 33.5 inches wide by 4.8 inches deep, and tips the scales at 10.2 pounds.
The matching subwoofer is just as trim: it's a mere 4.25 inches wide by 14.9 inches high by 14.25 deep, and weighs 12.3 pounds. It's also beautifully finished in piano black. Denon includes a 9.8-foot-long cable, but since the connectors are removable, you can shorten it, or if you need a longer cable, reattach the connectors to another cable.
Setup and installation in the CNET listening room was a breeze. True, there's no automatic calibration, but you can get decent results from the Quick Setup. Just choose between the A, B, or C room size/type settings described in the owner's manual. That worked well enough, but we went for the Detailed Settings, and plowed through the multistep procedure that offers adjustments for Front/Rear sound balance; the distance from speaker; and whether you're sitting directly in front of the speaker or over to the side. Bass and treble controls are available as well, so you can tweak the tonal balance to your liking.
The remote is a two-sided affair, with some lesser-used controls on the backside of the remote, behind a flip-open door. It isn't backlit, but since it's a near clone of the remote control Denon uses with its low-end receivers and home-theater-in-a-boxes, we felt right at home. Thanks to its different-size buttons and ergonomic layout, first timers will be up to speed in no time.
The DHT-FS3 includes two brackets for wall mounting, or you can use the included rubber feat to stand it in front of a TV. (However, that latter configuration may block your TV's remote receptor, so plan accordingly.)
The Denon DHT-FS3 speaker features six 3.15-inch midbass drivers, driven by five 22-watt amplifiers (perhaps the sixth driver is driven "passively"). The subwoofer has a 6.25-inch woofer, powered by a 40-watt amplifier located in the speaker (meaning the sub doesn't need its own power cord).
Denon's proprietary X-Space Surround technology works in conjunction with Dolby Digital, and DTS processing. The DHT-FS3 can't decode the more intense Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD soundtracks found on Blu-ray discs, so you'll get the fallback Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks from your Blu-ray player.
Considering the DHT-FS3's upper-end MSRP, audio connectivity is good but not exceptional. There are two stereo analog inputs (red/white RCA jacks), three digital inputs (one coaxial, two optical) and a dock control input for use with Denon's AS-D1R iPod dock (sold separately). There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on the front panel and Dolby Headphone processing that simulates surround sound over stereo headphones.
We were surprised to see that the DHT-FS3 not only lacks HDMI switching, but it also doesn't offer any video switching at all. That means you'll have to run your sources' audio connections to the Denon, and the corresponding video outputs to the TV, and switch both inputs simultaneously (when moving from, say, a Blu-ray player to cable box). That can be accomplished automatically via a universal remote macro, but it's still an annoyance that needs to be accounted for.
The Mission: Impossible III Blu-ray wasted no time demonstrating the DHT-FS3's strengths and weaknesses. This little speaker belts out a big, room-filling sound. Not so much as to put sound behind us, but the sound stretched from wall-to-wall and out into the room. The big soundstage was as available for listeners at either end of the couch as it was from the center of the couch. Only Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors do as well in that regard.
The scene with Tom Cruise and Phillip Seymour Hoffman locked in a battle of wills on a transport jet sounded amazing, especially when Cruise flips Hoffman upside down, dangling him outside the plane. The blast of turbulent air buffeting Hoffman was intense and was projected well into our room.
We next compared the DHT-FS3 with Marantz's ES7001 single speaker surround home theater system. The Marantz is a whole lot bigger and double the weight of the Denon, but doesn't come with its own subwoofer. The first thing we heard from the Denon is that it projected a bigger and more precisely defined surround field than the Marantz. The Denon was tonally thinner and scaled back the impact on battle scene explosions and gunfire in the Black Hawk Down Blu-ray. When the Black Hawk helicopter crashes and its rotor blades are ripped off, the Denon lets you hear each one as a separate sonic event. The Marantz blurs the sounds together, but portrays the same scene with greater visceral force. The Marantz also boasts superior connectivity, including HDMI switching for two sources.
The Legend: Live at Montreux concert Blu-ray starring Eric Clapton, David Sanborn, and Joe Sample sounded hollow and bright when played in Dolby Digital, but switching to Stereo nixed that problem. It wasn't a subtle difference, more like the Denon's processing didn't work with the Blu-ray's surround mix (most Blu-rays and DVDs sounded best in surround, but not all of them). We also felt the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Revisited CD was much better-sounding in stereo than surround.
We tried the Dolby Headphone processing with our Klipsch Image in-ear headphones while watching the Master and Commander Blu-ray. The processing really does work, and we could hear some degree of surround over the headphones. Sound quality was good, but the big naval battle scenes were dynamically lackluster. Perhaps with larger full-size headphones that objection would be overruled.
Overall, the Denon DHT-FS3 delivers relatively impressive sound quality for a single-speaker system. We just wish the company had ratcheted up the feature list given the growing list of competing devices that cost less and deliver more (built-in DVD players, included iPod docks, better video connectivity).