In the past few years, the addition of an iPod dock or a CD player has constituted a major upgrade to the tabletop radio category. Polk Audio upped the ante in 2006 with the I-Sonic, which included HD Radio, XM satellite radio compatibility, and even a DVD player in one compact frame. Now Denon has answered the call with the S-52, which also offers a slew of unconventional features. In addition to all the usual components you would expect from a tabletop radio--AM/FM tuner, CD player, and an iPod dock--the S-52 adds HD Radio, XM satellite compatibility, and the ability to stream digital audio files, Internet radio, and Rhapsody's premium subscription service via your wired or wireless home network. It's among the most full-featured tabletop audio product we've seen to date, but there's one big problem: the sound quality of the built-in stereo speakers isn't great. Given the product's whopping $700 price tag, it's a major black mark on an otherwise impressive all-in-one unit.
The Denon S-52 is on the larger side of tabletops we've seen--not surprising, given how much that Denon managed to cram into one box. It also happens to be one of the heaviest--almost 15 pounds. The outer cabinet is designed with black and gray hard plastic with top-mounted perforated air vents on the left and right of the unit. You'll find all of the functions are accessible from the buttons on top of the device. This is also where the jog wheel is located, which you'll use for volume control, character input, and function selection. On the front of the device you'll find the display, CD loading slot, auxiliary in, headphone jack, and USB port.
In terms of ease of use, the S-52 performed well. We were able to cycle through and use functions relatively painlessly. Our only complaint arose when dealing with character input. Unfortunately, there were a handful of times where we needed to enter text--Rhapsody and wireless network setup to name a few--which dampened the overall experience.
The included remote control is laid out well and provides easy access to all of the features on the S-52. We just wish it labeled the iPod control features as well. You'll have to consult the manual for a key explaining the various commands available on the remote.
As mentioned previously, the Denon S-52 is chock-full of features that deliver an almost comprehensive list of audio options: AM/FM and HD Radio; CD player; XM satellite radio (with the purchase of an add-on XM Mini-Tuner and valid subscription); an iPod dock; USB port (for playing back MP3 and WMA audio files); and a wired and Wi-Fi network connection for streaming digital audio files on a networked PC, from an Internet radio station, or accessing Rhapsody's premium online service.
The S-52 supports all iPods with a dock connection and comes with iPod dock adapters to fit the various sizes. What's even better is that unlike most iPod compatible tabletops we've seen in the past, the S-52 will actually let you navigate and control your music with the remote control using the unit's display. (Of course, you still have to be close enough to see the tiny front-panel display, so it's kind of a wash.) However, if you have hundreds of artists on your iPod, be prepared to spend some time scrolling as there isn't a way to skip ahead in your library, (the equivalent of spinning the click wheel faster on your iPod). Unfortunately, there is no video out on the rear of the device, so playing any videos from your iPod isn't an option. The S-52 will also charge your iPod whenever it is docked in the device.
As far as digital audio is concerned, the S-52's compatibility is fairly good: it'll play MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC, and FLAC over the network, from a USB drive, or burned to a CD. WMA- and MP3-based Internet radio stations are supported and managed via the RadioDenon.com Web site. The S-52 also supports the premium Rhapsody online music service.
In addition to standard AM/FM, the S-52 also supports tuning in all-digital HD stations--though, to date, we've found the sound quality and selections on HD Radio in our area to not be worthy of the hype.
The S-52 has two alarm clocks, each separately customizable. You can set them to go off using almost any source the S-52 can play (excluding USB). In addition, you can also set the volume at which each alarm goes off.
The unit includes detachable Wi-Fi, AM, and FM antennas. As we'd expect with a networked entertainment device, the firmware is upgradeable.
The S-52's step-down model, the Denon S-32, loses the USB port, CD player, HD radio, and XM satellite support found on its big brother. It retails for a still hefty $500.
Using the S-52 wireless network feature (you have the option of using the Ethernet port on the back of the radio as well), we were able to connect to our WPA-encrypted Belkin router with no issues. Once connected, we fired up the Rhapsody music service. This was one of our favorite features as it allowed us to call for music "on demand" completely via the included remote control. Getting the S-52 to connect to our music server was a bit more of a headache as it took a few restarts on our Windows Vista PC before the S-52 would recognize our Windows Media Player 11 software (which needs to be running). However, once the S-52 made the initial connection, it never required a restart on subsequent attempts. We found this to be the easiest way to play music remotely; however you can avoid using Windows Media Player by setting up your own music server with a program such as Twonky Media Server.
USB playback was a bit slower than we would have liked as changing tracks caused a noticeable lag. However, the Denon was able to read all ID3 tag artist and track information in addition to displaying it.
Yes, the Denon S-52's features lineup is impressive, but what does it sound like? In a word, it sounds "fine"--but for a product at this price, we expected exceptional sound and didn't get it.
We used the best possible sound source for our first listening tests--CDs--and immediately noted the sound was bright and aggressively detailed. True, the bass was deep enough to shake the table the S-52 was sitting on, but the midrange between the bass and treble was recessed to the point it made vocals sound thin and anemic. Bruce Springsteen's Magic CD sounded harsh and grating, so we played the CD over a Polk I-Sonic table radio, which was much more to our liking. Springsteen's voice sounded more human and the treble range was smoother.
The Springsteen CD isn't the best of recordings, so next we tried Harry Connick Jr.'s Chanson du Vieux Carre CD that features a swinging New Orleans big band. That sounded much better on the S-52, but the i-Sonic's richer sound was still way better. Backing away from the S-52 to around 3 or 4 feet was where it sounded best--much further than that and it started to sound small. Stereo imaging, never a strong point with table radios, wasn't in the cards with the S-52.
Listening to our iPod, Rhapsody, and Internet radio didn't change our opinion of the S-52's sound. If it was much less expensive, we'd be less hard on its sonic deficiencies, but for this kind of money you could buy a really nice home theater in a box, or for even a bit less, Polk Audio's i-Sonic.
While the S-52 does offer an impressive amount of features, its mediocre sound quality and high price point is enough to deter potential buyers. While the Polk Audio I-Sonic lacks the iPod dock and network audio functions of the S-52, it sounds notably better.