Denon S-81DAB review: Denon S-81DAB

The Good Easy setup; good finish; confident sound.

The Bad Bring on wireless speakers -- the cables on the Denon are easy to set up, but as with all speaker wire, can look unsightly.

The Bottom Line Denon has proven themselves again with a good quality system that delivers audio with verve and drama. As small-speakered mini systems go, it's a winner

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8.3 Overall

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Capitalising on the recent surge in popularity of audiophile-grade mini systems, the S-81 is Denon's competition for the more expensive Arcam Solo. It's a CD player and radio with integrated amplifier and an iPod dock. While mini systems are traditionally frowned at by the audio purist, recent improvements mean that a 'bungalow' system, like the S-81, has the potential to generate good sound despite its low-rise chassis and small speakers.

There is a saying among sound engineers that goes, "there is no replacement for displacement". What they're getting at is that large speakers and a strong amplifier stage can never truly be replaced by smaller speakers. The laws of physics dictate that for a 'big' sound, your speakers must be displacing a large amount of air. Despite this, the Arcam Solo we previously auditioned subjectively sounded very good, despite its unassuming looks. So, will the Denon S-81 leave you similarly impressed, or are mini systems still the monkey to the organ grinder that is full-size separates?

The first thing that struck us about the S-81 is its reassuring build quality. It's probably unfair to draw a direct relationship between this and the internal components, but it's always a good sign when the amplifier stage feels somewhat like a tank chassis.

The bundled speakers are similarly weighty. In theory this improves stability and reduces unwanted vibrations. A good solid speaker cabinet ensures that the cones are doing the talking, not the chassis. The cabinets look like little trolls with one massive foot each, and the speaker grille is removable (not recommended if you have children who may put their fingers in the vulnerable cones beneath).

Denon has finally seen the light and the speaker wires are pre-fitted with proprietary clip bindings. This means there's no fiddling about with frayed speaker wire -- the speaker cables just clip straight into the rear of the main unit and then to the rear of the speakers. The front of the unit is wire-brushed and metal-blacked. This gives it an extremely modern look, but it's by no means original. The overall effect is quite masculine and steers away from the more neutral finish popularised by Apple, commonly known as white.

The S-81 plays conventional audio CDs and MP3, and WMA CD-R/RW CDs burnt by your computer. The deck supports ID tag information, so it will display things like track name and album title if your MP3s have this data attached. The LCD is a two line organic LED-style display with a blue backlight.

iPod connectivity on the S-81 is good. The unit includes an AK-P100 dock which lets you plug your iPod straight into the Denon for complete playback control and the highest quality of audio transfer this side of an optical cable. Interestingly, the unit has a 'SKP Optimise' function, which attempts to match the amplifier output stage to the behaviour of your speakers -- this isn't something we've seen before and we can't really vouch for it yet.

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