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Denon DRA-685 review: Denon DRA-685

Denon DRA-685

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
4 min read
Review summary
Denon makes some of our favorite multichannel A/V receivers, so we were more than a little curious about its two-channel stereo models. We went for the top model, the Denon DRA-685 ($499 list). It offers extensive multiroom capability, although piping a second source into a second room via the 685 requires some serious expertise and extra equipment. If you don't need to cover two rooms from your 2.0-channel rig, check out the less-expensive Harman Kardon HK 3480, which also sounded a bit sweeter to our ears.
Editors' note:
Denon Electronics will not honor the warranty on Denon components purchased from unauthorized dealers or if the original factory serial number has been removed, defaced, or replaced. If in doubt about a particular online or brick-and-mortar retailer, call Denon at 973-396-0810. The Denon DRA-685's bland styling recalls Denon's previous generation of A/V receivers, and despite having only two internal amplifiers, it's no smaller than most midline 5.1-channel receivers. The chassis measures 17.1 inches wide, 6.6 inches high, and 16.4 inches deep, and it weighs 22 pounds. The LED display is informative, but the front panel's printed gold-on-black labeling is nearly illegible under low-light conditions.
Denon equipped the DRA-685 with two remotes; the second one controls the second zone. The main remote is so jam-packed with tiny buttons--even the volume controls are minuscule--that it's not a lot of fun to use. And thanks to the remote's indifferent design, half of the time when we picked it up, we found ourselves holding it upside-down, with the business end facing us.
Setup chores, at least if you only want to outfit one room, are as friendly as can be: hook up your CD and or DVD player, a turntable, a cassette deck, and just a pair of speakers, and you'll be ready to rock. Multiroom setup, on the other hand, makes the tax code look simple (see Features for more).
Denon also offers two other stereo receivers, the 80-watt-per-channel DRA-395 ($349 list) and the 50-watt DRA-295 ($249). The Denon DRA-685's standout feature is dual-zone, multiroom capability. It allows you to enjoy different sources--say, CD in your main room and an FM radio in a second room with that second remote control. You can also control the volume independently in each room, but setting up this feature is convoluted, to say the least.
First, you need to install a separate stereo power amplifier and speakers in the second room and run stereo interconnect cables back to the main room. Then you'll need to purchase an RC-617 infrared sensor for the second room ($45 list, or $40 for a wall-mount version) and an RC-616 infrared retransmitter for the main room ($140) and run another set of wires between them. Whew! We'd rather stick with the DRA-685's A/B speaker switching and put sound in a second room without the assistance of a custom installer.
The front panel's bass, treble, balance, and loudness controls remind us of the good old days; power is specified at 100 watts per channel.
Connectivity is straightforward, with a total of six stereo inputs labeled Turntable, Tape Recorder, CD Player, DVD Player, VCR, and Video Aux (the three video-enabled inputs are composite only). Two stereo outputs plus monitor and VCR video outputs are available. Pre-out and main-in connectors permit the use of a separate, higher-powered amplifier, although subwoofer outputs, present on Harman Kardon's HK 3480, go missing. Speaker wire hookup is a breeze, thanks to the DRA-685's banana plug-compatible connectors. Since we were on a channel-reduction diet, we wanted to try the Super Size Me DVD for the home-theater portion of this review. The documentary made a convincing case that eating a steady diet of McDonalds' food can be hazardous to your health, but since the DVD didn't have any weighty bass or massive dynamic challenges, it couldn't demonstrate the Denon DRA-685's affinity for home-theater duty. We needed something a little more demanding, so we popped in the Panic Room DVD. This taut thriller, about a mother and daughter holed up inside a special vaultlike room as bad guys try to get inside, kept us on the edge of our seats. Director David Fincher skillfully used sound to keep the tension up, and the panicked sounds of the victims' voices in the claustrophobic room, along with the visceral poundings of the baddies trying to get in, were frightfully realistic. The suspense came across with such vivid clarity that we never once thought about the fact that we were listening through just a pair of speakers.
A brief shoot-out with Sony's similarly priced STR-DE997 7-channel receiver demonstrated the advantages of losing 5.1 channels if sound quality, rather than quantity, is your goal. The DRA-685's firmer bass and superior clarity/transparency might be enough to cinch the deal for music-oriented buyers.
DVDs passed muster all right, but music is this stereo receiver's real forte. Holly Cole's Temptation CD sounded immediate and very alive. Cole's sultry pipes had just the right amount of presence, and David Piltch's stand-up bass was richly presented. The DRA-685 took us inside the music, with an intimacy that made us feel like we were in the room with Cole and her tight, little band. The DRA-685 sounds sweet, but its stereo soundstage wasn't as deep and expansive as that of Harman Kardon's HK 3480 stereo receiver. The HK's tonal balance was also richer and weightier--we judged its sound to be slightly superior overall.

Denon DRA-685

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 7Performance 7