Denon HEOS HomeCinema review: Multiroom features and good sound, but tough to use
After a decade in the industry Sonos is still the king of multiroom music systems, but companies like Denon are finally putting forth products that try to dethrone it. The HEOS HomeCinema sound bar makes a valiant effort, but ultimately falls short.
Sonos excels with its slick interface, universal search capability and generally high sound quality. The HEOS Home Cinema is solid but it lacks pizzazz, and the app is a little unwieldy for home cinema use, especially when you want to do simple things like change inputs.
Denon's multiroom sound bar is also expensive, ringing up at $799 in the US, AU$1,499 in Australia and £599 in the UK. In this price range, there is plenty of competition, not only from the Sonos PlayBar but also from the Sony HT-ST5 and the Klipsch R20-B. While the Denon offers decent sound quality, there are some foibles in the product's execution that can make it not so pleasurable to use. This is a shame, especially when there are sound bars available for half the money that might offer less features (and no multiroom functionality) but also sound great.
The HEOS looks like many other sound bars: a black cloth-covered rectangle with a logo on the front, and yet there are a couple of design flourishes that keep it interesting. There is a small glowing LED "power" strip at the bottom of the device, which is defeatable if you wish. It's 40 inches wide and should suit TVs 42 inches and up.
The wireless subwoofer that accompanies the sound bar is relatively small by industry standards at 12.3 inches high by 6.8 inches wide by 14.37 inches deep.
Unlike most competing sound bars, the Denon HEOS lacks an actual remote control along with any sort of onscreen menu. All of the control is conducted on your smartphone, but the 'bar does offer the option of programming your TV remote.
The main feature is Denon's HEOS multi-room music service. Like Sonos and other systems, it can allow you to control audio throughout your home from a smartphone app, for example piping the same song everywhere simultaneously ("party mode"). You'll need a HEOS-compatible device, for example the HEOS 1 or HEOS 3 speaker, in every room where you want to hear music.
The HomeCinema speaker itself features stereo 5-inch oval drivers in addition to twin 20mm dome tweeters, while the subwoofer features dual 5.25-inch woofers working in tandem.
While most sound bars only include optical inputs, the HEOS includes an HDMI input and output (with TV audio return channel) as well as Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS decoders. The company hasn't forgotten other digital connectivity though, with both optical and coaxial digital audio inputs included.
What it did forget, however, is Bluetooth, and while there is an optional USB adapter (available as part of the HEOS Go Pack for $100) it seems like a misstep, even on a sound bar designed for Wi-Fi music. Most competitors include Bluetooth options these days.
Unusually, the speaker can also distribute your TV audio around the house, which could be useful for bathroom breaks during the big game.
While the sound bar offers support for DLNA playback via the app and most digital files types (MP3, WAV, FLAC, AAC etc.) audiophiles should be aware that, like Sonos, it won't support DSD or hi-res files.
Update, Dec 4 2015: Denon has updated the app since the review was published and it now includes limited Amazon Music functionality and a new look, but the control and setup mechanisms appear to be unchanged.
If you're using Android to set up the system, it can initially be a little annoying. That's because you need to connect the supplied three-pin cable to your phone and the sound bar. No other competing system needs to do this, and if you lose the Denon cable you'll need to buy another one. Once you connect the two and then hit the Connect button on the unit, the setup can continue. Enter your Wi-Fi details and the app does the rest.
The HEOS app, which is used to control the HomeCinema, is reasonably full-featured, and there are a decent number of apps included. At present it supports most of the big ones, including Pandora, Spotify Connect, iHeartRadio and Soundcloud.
It's mostly easy to use for music streaming and supports on-the-fly playlists from different services, which is handy. However, it's not great as your only control for a home cinema system, and we really missed having a separate remote. Getting to the inputs is irritating, especially if you're already playing music; There's no "Home" button, so you'll need to swipe back up six pages to hit the TV or inputs button. While there is a facility to use your TV remote to change the volume, it would be handy to be able to change inputs and settings without using the phone app.
While Denon announced HEOS' support for Google Cast back at CES 2015, it's still not available and our requests for a status update have yet to be answered.
We found the HEOS Home Cinema is capable of a very natural midrange, with crisp dialogue during movies and a wonderful ease with acoustic music. The HEOS has no problem in filling a room with sound and is capable of a wide dynamic range, more so than many competitors.
But the limited size of the sub did show itself during high-impact scenes, for example the Thanator Chase scene from "Avatar." We could hear every bug and spittle-filled word of dialogue, but the chase sequence featuring the enraged Thanator missed some of the thump we're used to from dedicated home theaters. However, this is a problem with smaller sound bar systems in general.
The lack of oomph didn't affect music too much, and compared against similar systems from Polk and Definitive Technology it had one of the best voices for a wide range of music styles. It was similar in tone to the Def Tech, which was mellow yet tightly focused, while the Polk SB1 and its ultrawide soundstage sounded a little disjointed with music.
The speaker was able to get deep with the bassline in The Beta Band's "Life" while maintaining clarity in the vocals and other instruments, which was impressive. However a lack of warmth meant that bright or "ethereal" recordings could become a little brittle. Julia Holter's excellent "Feel You" was unpleasant to listen to, especially at a volume where her vocals actually started to distort.
While our search continues for a heartily recommendable sound bar for the money, the Denon HEOS HomeCinema is one of the better examples. It's sleek-looking, and its sonic performance is very good. But without a dedicated remote and with a slightly convoluted app in its place, it's not the first product that springs to mind when thinking of a home cinema-focused sound bar. With a little streamlining of the app and the setup process, it would be a better option for music lovers who want to play movies, too.