The number of wireless multiroom systems on the market has exploded in the last 18 months, and it can be daunting wading through all the different ecosystems. While many designs are more or less clones of market leader Sonos, Denon is one of the first to offer something different with a portable wireless speaker, the HEOS 1.
It takes the company's HEOS multiroom music streaming system to more parts of the house than before, and it can even be taken with you. On its own at $199 (£199 in the UK; price unavailable for Australia) the base HEOS offers Wi-Fi streaming of your own music library and over a dozen music services, but pay an extra $99 (£79 in the UK), for the HEOS 1 Go Pack and the device really comes into its own. Not only do you get a splashproof guard for the ports but you also get a six-hour portable battery and the all-important Bluetooth capability.
Its build quality is superb, and sound quality is pretty consistent with other devices at the price, including the Sonos Play:1. If you're looking for a versatile streaming in a rugged package the Denon offers a good deal, but I'd personally like to see a simplified setup routine, and perhaps support for high-res music files as well.
Editor's note Sep 26, 2017: Since the review was written, the Denon Heos 1 has been updated to version HS2 which adds both Bluetooth and hi-res support.
Part Bluetooth speaker, part kitchen counter buddy, the Denon is a compact, 8-inch-tall speaker with superb build quality. It comes in a choice of white or black, and is more stylish than most competitors with its angular speaker grille.
On the top of the device are just three controls - volume up, volume down, and mute -- and so if you just want to play music you'll need to use a separate device as a controller. This is a little disappointing as even the Sonos devices have a play button.
It's got surprising heft at 3.13 lbs (1.42 kg) and its dimensions fill out at 7.44 inches by 5.08 inches by 5.04 inches (189 by 129 by 128 mm). If you add the optional Go Pack it adds a further inch to the height and 0.71lbs (320g) to the weight.
Without the Go Pack, pictured above, the $199 HEOS 1 isn't very compelling when compared with the Sonos:1 with its significantly more capable ecosystem. But the ability to go portable and splashproof, not to mention stream Bluetooth, is worth the extra $99 and takes the speaker to places Sonos has never gone.
The last time we saw a portable Wi-Fi speaker was the Logitech UE Smart Radio , but there are some significant differences between that device and the HEOS. While the Logitech device lacked waterproofing and Bluetooth, it was more like a traditional radio with a screen and a full set of controls; the HEOS can't be used without a smartphone or another source.
At the back of the device are an Ethernet input, an aux input and a USB port. The USB has dual uses: It can be used to power and play back from a phone or to connect the optional Bluetooth adapter.
Like the Sonos ecosystem, be aware that the HEOS will not play anything that's higher than CD quality, so audiophiles may need to keep looking.
The HEOS app offers a three-tab layout with rooms, music and now playing. It's a little clunky adding music to your mix compared with the slick Sonos control with its universal search, but the Denon still appears to work well.
The main apps on offer are Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn (Internet radio), SiriusXM, SoundCloud, Tidal and Rdio.
I did encounter some strange behavior when streaming from a local PC. The app keeps a playlist of all the music you play unless you manually delete it. Clicking on old items could sometimes play the wrong song.
For a wireless device I find it is kind of ridiculous that the Denon HEOS 1 needs a wire -- and a proprietary one at that -- to set up. It uses a three-pole 3.5mm connector to attach to your phone and the aux input of the speaker. It then asks you to press the connect button and input your wireless password. Lose the cable and you won't be able to set up your speaker. Other companies, and especially Sonos, do this in a much slicker way. Be aware that if you connect your speaker to your buddy's wi-fi then take it home again you'll need the cable to connect once more -- annoyingly it doesn't remember the connection.
Setting up Bluetooth is a little easier -- insert the Bluetooth dongle into the USB port and hold down the setup button. Your phone should then find the speaker, and you're connected.
If you were comparing the Denon's performance against its biggest competitor, Sonos, you would say that the HEOS 1 is to Simon and Garfunkel what the Sonos Play:1 is to Steely Dan. Neither rocks terribly hard but the Sonos Play:1 opts for more polish and drive while the Denon HEOS 1 is a little more folksy and open-sounding.
In other words, if you want to set your toes a-tappin', the Denon HEOS 1 isn't the first speaker we'd go to. Fed a diet of "This Is Why We Fight" by The Decemberists and stacked against both the Play:1 and the Raumfeld One S, the Denon lacked the drama of its competitors, with the weakest bass response of the three.
Though there's more bass on the Sonos, it lacks the midrange warmth of the Denon, which means that Sonos' male voices sound a little cupped. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" sounded a little more natural on the HEOS though it wasn't as danceable.
On the same track via HEOS' Bluetooth connection, Pharell lost even more of his mojo, with some graininess on the chorused voices, while bass was even more muted than before.
With jazz the Denon came into its own. Though we listened to the Sonos Play:1 Blue Note Edition, ironically the Denon HEOS 1 is the better swinger. Miles Davis' "So What" had more space around the instruments and they all sat naturally together, whereas the Sonos piled them all on top of each other.
Given the HEOS' more open nature I thought it would be a good match for confessional acoustic folk, but The Mountain Goats proved me wrong. The guitar of "Pale Green Things" sounded too boomy coming out of the Denon, whereas the Sonos had a nice balance between the vocals and the guitar.
If you're buying this device, it's well worth paying the extra 100 bucks for the Go Pack as it makes the device so much more flexible than before. In a pure sound quality battle, the Sonos and the Denon duked it out point for point, but with the Sonos slightly on top for its better handling of rock tracks. Sonos is also the winner for its universal search and for the overwhelming number of services it supports.
While this device is intriguing in its own right it might be worth waiting to see further innovation in the HEOS range -- not just aping the Sonos format as its competitors have done -- before committing to the ecosystem.