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Impressive Features at a Bargain Price
on August 28, 2014
I'll admit it. I was skeptical. Yes, it carried the Denon name, but $249 for a feature-laden receiver? They had to cut corners SOMEWHERE, right? Nope, not really.
First, a bit of a disclosure here. I am what most would consider an audiophile. My stereo system has consisted of Klipsch K-Horn speakers as my mains, A Belle Klipsch center channel speaker, and a pair of Klipsch Heresys as my rear (surround) speakers. For electronics, I have used the flagship receiver models of Yamaha, Denon, and Onkyo. I still own (and use) Apt Holman and Conrad Johnson separates with my pure audio setup.
As for home theater, that's a separate listening space. For that, I use a Sharp 60" LCD/LED display, original (unmodified) Klipsch La Scala main speakers, A Klipsch Cornwall center channel, and Klipsch Heresy ll rear speakers. I am running an NXG Nx-Bas-50 powered subwoofer for extra extra bass kick.(If you are unfamiliar with these Klipsch Legacy speakers, look them up here on Amazon. They are VERY efficient, providing live concert level (115db) at one meter with one watt of power. Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock.)
What am I using as my home theater receiver? This Denon AVR-S500BT. A $249 receiver.
My system will show the weaknesses of any component with glaring clarity. If a receiver is a bit harsh, it is magnified by the speakers. Same thing for a CD or Blu ray components. I plugged in an inexpensive JVC cd player and popped in a reference digitally recorded performance of the 1812 Overture, and the output hurt my ears. Distortion from the JVC.
OK, back to the Denon. First off, this receiver has a Bluetooth feature that allows you to play the music collection you have stored on your iPhone or Android device, or in the cloud. This is a very good thing. If you want the same feature in a low priced Yamaha receiver, you need to purchase a Bluetooth adapter.
Now, a word of caution is in order here. You are going to have to crank the gain way up on the receiver to get acceptable volume levels when using a Bluetooth connection. For me, that means about 80%. With less efficient speakers, you may or may not get the volume level high enough to please you. The first music l played through this receiver came from my phone. I have to say, I was disappointed with the volume level achieved. Then I thought, "I'll bet a device wired directly into the receiver will give me better volume output." After all, with 56 watts in, I should not have been able to stay in the room with those speakers.
Now, here is the caution: do NOT switch from Bluetooth mode to CD or DVD mode without first lowering the volume! I made that "One D ten T" error (1D1OT). In the split second between the time I hit "Play" and when the sound started, I had an "Oh crap" moment. Before I could react, the explosion of sound from my speakers caused a window to shatter and two fluorescent light tubes to explode. I know my wife was yelling at me, but I couldn't hear a thing. I DO know I was grinning from ear to ear.
The lesson here is that streaming music via Bluetooth will not give you nearly the volume levels that you get from a wired connection. Not even close. This was my first experience using my phone as wireless music source. I won't forget it any time soon!
The receiver provides 140 Watts/channel peak output. That should be sufficient to power almost any home theater setups. And please note that there are 5 discreet amps, with 70W continuous output per channel in this unit, to power your main speakers, center channel, surrounds (rear speakers), and subwoofer. This doesn't mean you cannot use a powered subwoofer with this system, because you can (and I do).
There is an AV pass-through, so you can just watch your television without turning on the receiver. And there are 5 HDMI inputs, allowing you to hook up more HDMI devices than you likely own (including game consoles). There are also dual subwoofer inputs, allowing the use of two subs, and supporting LFE. There is a single HDMI output for connecting one display.
Do you have a 3D display? This receiver fully supports 3D. I am beginning to think that the list of what it cannot do is shorter than the list of things it can. Worrying about obsolescence? Don't. Ultra HD 4K 60 Hz video pass-through, along with 4:4:4 Pure Color highest resolution sub-sampling, by way of the HDMI and gaming inputs.
Initial setup is a breeze, but again, a caution. To do the initial receiver evaluation, I hooked up my mains and center channel speaker only. There is an onscreen setup assistant that makes setup a breeze. Except when that 1D10T error recurs. After telling the Denon I had 2 front speakers and a center channel speaker, and no rear channel and no subwoofer, I began listening to the output of this receiver in earnest. I was pretty certain I was going to turn the receiver on, listen to a few audio tracks and part of a DVD, and then box the unit up and return it. I mean, seriously, how good could a $249 receiver actually be?
Well, VERY good. I liked what I was listening to, and spent the remainder of the afternoon viewing the Blu Ray version of "Top Gun" and "Black Hawk Down." Then I shut the system down.
Two days later, I came back to the system, plugged in an NXG NX-BAS-500 subwoofer, and and the Klipsch Heresy ll rear speakers, completing the setup. I fired up the system, and was totally underwhelmed. I couldn't get any power to the subwoofer. I spent an hour checking connections, reading the sub's manual, and talking to the vendor. No joy. I swapped out the subwoofer cable, eliminating that as a cause. I was about to go out and buy a 3.5mm to RCA cord so I could plug my smartphone directly into the subwoofer to see if the sub was dead, when I decided just to sit back and think about the problem. I put a CD in the player, sat on the sofa, and realized that there was no sound coming from my rear speakers either. Hmmm. Was the receiver faulty?
It was not. When I did the initial setup, I told the Denon I had 2 front speakers and a center channel. No subwoofer. No rear speakers.
I went back into setup (there is a setup button on the remote), told he Denon I had a subwoofer and rear speakers, and everything worked just fine. The receiver had shut off the amps that were not being used. So be aware, if you set up the system as, say, a 2.1, you will need to go back into setup if you decide to add additional speakers or a subwoofer. If you don't, the additional speakers won't work.
You can also use an included microphone (it has a long cable) to set the sound levels of each speaker. The best way to do this is to turn off all florescent lighting, air conditioners, and anything else that might be picked up by the mic. Put the mic on a tripod at your normal listening position, and let the receiver do its thing while you wait quietly in another room. Your speakers will be emitting sounds which the mic picks up and delivers to the receiver, which in turn sets appropriate volume levels for each speaker. This is going to get you pretty close, but you will still need to tweak the levels to suit your tastes.
Here's another great feature: if you use different settings for different sources, the receiver will remember those settings, so you don't have to make adjustments every time you change input sources. This is a big time saver and convenience feature.
Sonically, the receiver is very pleasant sounding, and easy to operate. The tuner section is more sensitive than a Yahama RX-V475 I borrowed from a friend for comparison purposes. This receiver will tune LOTS of stations (about 3 times as many as the Yamaha against which I measured it).
As previously mentioned, the Klipsch speakers will quickly showcase any weak link in your system (including cable quality). I can detect no IM distortion, no harshness, and indeed, no "color." You hear what was recorded. Visually, the images on the display are true, with no added "noise." I have not tried the AVR-S500BT with an Ultra Hi-Def monitor, but I have every reason to believe the results will be stunning.
If you have speakers that are highly inefficient, this might not be the best receiver choice. But barring that, you can spend double the money and not get much more power, or nearly as many features. Denon has a real winner here. I am not certain how long they will hold this price point. Normally the name "Denon" is not used in the same sentence with the term "low cost." In this case, you get all the quality, features 95% of buyers will never use, and an affordable package. That, in my book, is not just a home run, it's a grand slam.
Well done, Denon. Well done indeed.