Denon S-series DVD Home Entertainment System review: Denon S-series DVD Home Entertainment System
Denon S-series DVD Home Entertainment System
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.
Review summary Let's face it: you wouldn't wear an Armani suit with a Casio watch on your wrist, and most all-in-one home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems look out of place next to upscale flat-screen TVs. And HTIB sound, while impressive for the investment, usually doesn't compare with the picture quality of today's TVs. But there are exceptions. Denon's spiffy S-301 two-channel HTIB sounds equally superb with DVDs and CDs, but the company didn't stop there. In addition to its drop-dead good looks, the system packs in pretty much every home-theater bell and whistle you could possibly want. The deal clinchers are its HDMI digital-video output (which scales DVD video to HDTV-friendly 720p and 1080i resolutions) and its ability to play songs from virtually any connected iPod or MP3 player and choose songs via an onscreen menu system. The $1,599 suggested retail price of the Denon S-301 may be a bit steep, but you're paying a premium for the best combination of style, sound, and features that we've seen from any HTIB to date. 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 S-301 includes a pair of 3-inch-deep satellite speakers designed to look smart when wall-mounted next to a flat-panel TV. Don't want to drill holes in your walls and fish wires through them? Go ahead and use the satellites with the included all-metal table stands. The matching full-size subwoofer measures 9.25 inches wide, 14.5 inches high, and 18 inches deep; its 34-pound weight hints at its serious intentions. We think the sats and the sub look pretty snazzy, but they're hardly exceptional by HTIB standards. The round-form receiver/DVD player is another matter: it's the most elegant component we've seen in a packaged system. Most of the front panel's controls light up and slowly dim when you touch them--a design cue inspired by Apple, perhaps?--and the disc tray opens and closes with unusual grace. At 15 inches wide, 3.75 inches high, and 9.75 inches deep, the receiver/DVD player has ultracompact dimensions that make it easy to place just about anywhere.
The unit's two-sided remote control is equally impressive. One side features 25 large, well-laid-out, easy-to-use buttons that control the most common features. A hinged cover on the back of the remote hides 38 additional keys that control a slew of more advanced and obscure functions. You can also program the remote to control additional TVs and cable or satellite boxes in your equipment rack.
Using the Denon S-301 requires no pesky menu setup or other complicated arrangements. Within minutes of unboxing it, we were up and running. The satellites had the rich tonal balance we associate with larger speakers, and the subwoofer's supple bass seamlessly merged with sound from the sats. All video outputs, including the S-301's HDMI connection, have onscreen setup menus. The S-301 is pretty easy to use, but if you get confused, press the remote's help button; the onscreen display will help you find out what you want to know. It's the sort of common sense ease-of-use feature we've seen--and praised--on TiVo DVRs and Logitech Harmony universal remotes.
Cable connections are similarly simple, with everything running from the subwoofer. A pair of heavy-gauge 18-foot speaker cables fitted with proprietary plug-in connectors run from the sub to each speaker; a third thick control cable connects the subwoofer to the main head unit. Aside from the power cord and a video output to your TV, that's it. The Denon S-301 delivers 70 watts to each speaker and 140 watts to the subwoofer. The speakers are outfitted with twin 3-inch woofers and a 1-inch tweeter; the sub uses a down-firing 7-inch woofer. The universal DVD player offers compatibility with pretty much every disc format under the sun: DVD, CD, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD (SACD), and numerous home-burned disc formats, including MP3, WMA, and JPEG CD-R. In addition to the standard provision of Dolby and DTS surround-processing modes, the S-301 offers Dolby Virtual Speaker processing, which synthesizes surround effects from DVDs and CDs, and Dolby Headphone, which creates surround effects over conventional stereo headphones.
The Denon S-301 has two key features that set it apart from the pack. On the audio front, the receiver can be used with all of Apple's dockable iPods (including the Nano and the fifth-generation video-enabled model) via the specially designed front-panel connector and the supplied plug-and-play Connect iPod cable. But rather than just acting as an amplifier for playing back your iPod over its speakers, the S-301 mimics the player's menu and interface on your TV, letting you navigate your songs, playlists, and photos from the comfort of your sofa with the Denon remote. Don't have an iPod? A front-panel USB connection lets you connect to and browse the contents of virtually any other portable digital music player.
On the video side, the Denon S-301 features an HDMI digital-video output that can upconvert DVD video to 480p, 720p, and 1080i resolutions, which are more amenable to high-definition displays. Other rear-panel connectivity choices include the usual set of composite, S-Video, and component outputs; two A/V inputs with S-Video; one audio-only analog stereo input; three digital-audio inputs (two coaxial, one optical); and one optical digital output. An RS-232 port and a 12-volt trigger are present for specialized home installations.
Just about the only areas where the Denon S-301 disappointed us were its lack of HDMI inputs and its inability to convert from analog video sources. That means you can't route any high-def video source, such as an HD cable or satellite box, through the system. Also, the S-301's HDMI output can't display any analog video source, such as a standard-def set-top box, a video game console, or a VCR, that uses one of the two A/V inputs. You'll need to toggle over to the composite, S-Video, or component connection instead. It's too bad--the inclusion of those features would have elevated the S-301 from merely excellent to spectacular.
Denon also offers a step-down model, the similarly styled S-101 ($999). But the savings will cost you: the speakers and sub are smaller, and the S-101 lacks the S-301's HDMI output and USB connection. It also won't work with DVD-Audio or SACD discs. The ultimate compliment we can pay any HTIB is that it doesn't sound like one. The Denon S-301 is in that rarified group, so we weren't afraid to tackle The Ring Two DVD. The film is loaded with sudden dynamic effects that made us jump out of our seats, but the scene where Naomi Watts and her little boy are threatened by a rampaging herd of deer was especially scary. The synergy between the satellites and the subwoofer was superb, dialogue sounded beautifully balanced, and the score's deep bass rumbles added a visceral quality to the film's ominous atmosphere.
The Denon S-301's virtual surround sound can be awfully convincing as long as you sit centered between the left and right speakers. We sat eight feet away. The surround effects were fully palpable at that distance, but they disappeared when we scooted over to the left or right side of our couch. In other words, the surround can be enjoyed by only one--or possibly two--very close friends huddled together on the center of the couch.
Music rarely satisfies over HTIBs, but the Denon S-301 was just as impressive with CDs as it was with DVDs. Lucinda Williams sounds like she's been listening to a lot of Rolling Stones CDs of late, especially on her raunchy Live @ the Fillmore CD. The girl rocked and rolled with true abandon. The gutsy S-301 can fill even fairly large rooms with full-bodied sound.
We saved the most challenging test of the Denon S-301's musicality for last: classical music. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's new Telarc SACD of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 was stunning. The orchestra's strings and woodwinds sounded remarkably natural, and the stereo soundstage was big enough to fool some of our friends into thinking they were listening in multichannel surround. Fact is, a first-rate A/V receiver and a bona fide 5.1-speaker system would sound even better, but that would be more expensive and grab a lot more floor space than the S-301. It's the best-sounding virtual-surround HTIB we've heard to date.
The Denon S-301's iPod and MP3-player compatibility worked like a charm. The menu on our TV screen instantly mimicked that of any connected iPod, and we were able to browse our digital music library with ease using the Denon's comfortable remote. With non-iPod devices, the interface was far less elegant--think Windows file tree--but navigation in and out of folders was straightforward enough. The S-301 had no trouble playing back songs from a Samsung YP-U1 and a Sony PSP. In fact, the S-301 played MP3s without a hitch off both a standard Lexar USB thumb drive and a Memory Stick connected via a USB flash-memory reader.