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Denon DHT-FS5 review: Denon DHT-FS5

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Denon's DHT-FS5 is an unusually compact single speaker surround system with an unusually compact list price: just $500. That means it sells for less than half the asking price of its big brother, Denon's up market DHT-FS3. Even so, the two units have a lot in common: they're almost the same size, and they share a similar design aesthetic and sound. The pricier model is finished to a much higher quality, has slightly better connectivity, and comes with a subwoofer. However, thanks to its more affordable price tag, the DHT-FS5 is easier to recommend for buyers who intend to use the speaker in small bedrooms, dorm rooms, or dens.

7.2

Denon DHT-FS5

The Good

Compact sound-bar speaker system; one analog and three digital inputs; can be used without a subwoofer; bass lovers will appreciate the subwoofer output; easy setup; on-wall, on, or under TV mounting options.

The Bad

Dearth of HDMI or other video connectivity means your TV will need to handle video switching duties; sounds better with movie or TV soundtracks than on music.

The Bottom Line

Denon's compact and affordable DHT-FS5 soundbar is a worthwhile improvement over standard TV speakers.

While Denon's not claiming the DHT-FS5 can replace a bona fide 5.1-channel speaker/subwoofer system, it does sound substantially better than the speakers built into any TV. Blu-rays and DVDs sounded spacious in the CNET listening room, though we were less impressed with its sound while playing CDs. Still, those looking for a quick and easy sound solution will appreciate that the DHT-FS5 is self-powered, obviating the need to buy an AV receiver.

Design
While the rather basic-looking DHT-FS5 won't be easily confused with its higher-end sibling, it's tastefully understated. The cabinet's front panel is covered by a black cloth grille, and there's a power/standby button, along with Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS indicators. The dearth of video connections obviates the inclusion of an onscreen display, but it makes up for that with a large, easy-to-read LCD screen that lights up from behind the grille. The DHT-FS5 is smaller than average for sound bar speakers: it's 4.75 inches high by 29.5 inches wide by 5.5 deep and weighs 11.25 pounds.

While there's no autocalibration mode, speaker setup couldn't be much easier. Just use the remote to choose one of three room sizes, and the system engages a corresponding preset mode. We had the setup squared away in less than a minute.

Thanks to the DHT-FS5's minimalist features set, the remote control isn't cluttered with a forest of buttons. Sure, there's volume and input selector buttons, plus mode buttons to choose among four sound options: Stereo, Movie, Music, and News. The last three produce different types of surround, which we experimented with whenever we swapped Blu-ray, DVD, and CD discs.

The remote also has Mute, Night Mode, Setup, and SDB buttons. That last one is "Super Dynamic Bass," a single-step bass boost that we found it highly effective, adding neither too much nor too little bass to movies and music. Alas, it would've been nice to see dedicated bass and treble controls as well, but the SDB button is the closest you'll get.

Features
The DHT-FS5 speaker features six 3.15-inch mid-bass drivers, driven by 4x25-watt amplifiers, plus a 1x50-watt amplifier (presumably, the sixth driver is driven "passively"). Denon's X-Space Surround technology works with Dolby and DTS encoded discs to produce remarkably spacious surround sound.

Connectivity options are limited to one stereo analog and three digital inputs (one coaxial, two optical). The subwoofer output can be used to feed a powered subwoofer (hooking up a sub automatically limits the amount of bass coming from the speaker, which improves overall sound quality).

As mentioned, the DHT-FS5 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. It's an annoyance, to be sure, but it's less of an issue on this more affordable model than it is on the more expensive DHT-FS3.

Like most single-speaker audio systems, just plopping the Denon DHT-FS5 in front of your TV will likely block the TV's remote IR receiver. You'll instead want to mount it in a cabinet underneath, or wall-mount the Denon with the included metal wall brackets.

Performance
Robert Rodriguez' Sin City DVD didn't pull any punches over the DHT-FS5. The film's unrelenting gore and bloodletting was surprisingly visceral, and the macho narrations from Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke were big and full sounding.

In movie mode, the sound was projected well out to the sides of the front wall of the CNET listening room. Surround effects, such as police sirens and helicopters flying overhead, appeared far forward of the DHT-FS5. That was true as long as we sat directly inline with the speaker, but if we moved over to the left or right sides of the couch the sound was far less spacious. (The pricier Denon DHT-FS3 was more consistent in this regard, and the surround effects were almost as good on the sides of the couch as they were from the center.)

Switching over to Stereo we felt the sound quality improved a bit, sounding less "processed" and tonally richer, though substantially less spacious.

Next, we played Lou Reed's newly released Berlin concert DVD. The music's dynamics felt lackluster, so we borrowed the ESW-CS8 subwoofer from the Energy RC-Micro speaker system. Wow, that made a huge difference, not just because it added bass, but because it also improved the sound of the DHT-FS5 overall. In some ways--like bass definition and oomph--this combination surpassed the more expensive DHT-FS3's overall sound quality. Bass definition and dynamics were closer to what you'd hear from a budget 5.1 satellite subwoofer package.

We next tried the DHT-FS5's Night Mode feature while watching some DVDs and found it mildly effective in reducing the films' dynamic range for late night listening.

CD sound, with or without the subwoofer, was only acceptable for background listening. In stereo or music modes, the sound felt cramped and small. The DHT-FS5's sound was more or less on par with a table radio.

We finished up with a shoot-out between the Denon DHT-FS5 soundbar and the identically priced Zvox Z-Base 550, using the Mission Impossible III Blu-ray to sort out the differences. The Denon had greater overall clarity and produced a much larger, room-filling soundfield than the Zvox. That said, the Zvox had a richer, bigger sound, and dialog was more naturally balanced. With the Denon voices sounded a little thin. We liked both units for different reasons, but we'd give the nod to the Denon.

Editor's Note: Following the original publication of this review, subsequent testing with competing products has improved our initial impression of this product. As a result, we have raised the rating from a 6.8 to a 7.2.

7.2

Denon DHT-FS5

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7