Denon recently launched a genuine AV receiver into the HEOS line-up. In this review we look at the Denon HEOS AVR.
What is the Denon HEOS AVR?
“You can not just compare the HEOS AVR to an AV receiver like our AVR-X2400“, was still very important to us when Denon handed over the test device. The brand is clearly concerned that the HEOS AVR will score poorly because it is misunderstood. Somewhere it is understandable. The HEOS AVR is a device that you would hardly recognize as an AV receiver, although it is equipped with all necessary HDMI inputs and speaker connections that you need. The housing is very tight, however, and partly because of the design it aims for its own target group. So the HEOS AVR is a rather unique surround solution that you can best compare with the Lifestyle 650 from Bose. But not entirely, because unlike the Bose, it does not come with speakers. You take care of that yourself, something that you have to take into account in terms of budget. In this review we look at how the HEOS AVR turns out to be a very special AV receiver and multiroom solution.
One block of aluminum with all connections
We have now really emphasized that the HEOS AVR is different from the AV receiverswhich are often discussed on this site. You can see that immediately on the photos. The housing consists of beautifully finished, thick brushed aluminum. It almost looks like a unibody design from a single piece of metal, but it is not. However, the solid build quality does reinforce that impression. With a classic AV receiver you can see a big display at the front, lots of buttons and perhaps a lot of stickers. None of this at the HEOS AVR. This device is super tight, which is accentuated by the slanted line that gives the front more profile. The only control that is there is a large volume button. That is it. Not even an on/off button. The sides are angular, just like most HEOS devices. The recently tested HEOS Bar also shares this design language.
If you turn the HEOS AVR around, you will discover an extensive connection panel. This unit is made for 5.1, so we are not surprised to find (otherwise decent) connections for five speakers, plus for an active subwoofer. Now 5.1 is not so spectacular for a 999-euro receiver, but the HEOS AVR still has a few tricks on hand. More about that later.
You can connect four video sources via HDMI, a fifth HDMI port is intended for the cable to your television. You will not find old video connections that you still see on traditional receivers with the HEOS AVR. It is forward-looking and therefore the HDMI ports are also HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 compatible. There is also one analogue cinch input, an analog aux, and two digital audio inputs (optical and coaxial) for audio sources. A port for USB storage and an ethernet connection around the wide range. With a certain dismay we also detect a ventilator grille, but luckily we never heard buzzing during testing. How that after a year in a dusty living room is still to be seen.
The HEOS AVR installation procedure is identical to that of all HEOS products. Although it is somewhat more extensive than normal, which is not illogical. The AVR has more to offer than, say, a HEOS 3-speaker. First you install the HEOS app. It will prompt you to use the supplied cable to establish a connection between the headphone output of your tablet or smartphone and the aux input on the HEOS AVR. Just press the Connect button, quickly enter your WiFi password, and you’re done. The HEOS AVR is now hanging on the network. You can of course also work with an Ethernet cable, then the installation is even easier.
In a next step, the HEOS app will explain to you how to connect the receiver to a TV, how to connect source devices such as a console or TV decoder, and how to connect the speakers. The classic Denon receivers are already masters in visual and clear explaining how to set up an AV receiver, so we are not surprised that this part is also good at the HEOS AVR.
When configuring the speakers, you discover what makes the HEOS AVR special. Instead of a wired subwoofer, you can also work with the wireless HEOS Subwoofer. That is already one cable less. Moreover, it is possible to use two wireless HEOS speakers or two passive speakers hanging on a HEOS Amp for the rear channels. That is another two cables less. In summary: you can build a complete 5.1 set-up, in which you only have to walk to the front speakers (left-center-right) wires. That makes the HEOS AVR much more convenient than a typical receiver.
The connection of HEOS speakers and the HEOS Subwoofer is very easy. So smooth that you can also do it temporarily. So for a movie night, get two speakers from other rooms in the house, add them, and disconnect them after the film has finished. Interesting fact: wireless rear speakers and subwoofer have their own WiFi network connection with the receiver, which is more stable than sending audio data over the existing WiFi network.
Denon does its best to make the HEOS AVR much more user-friendly than a classic AV receiver. At the same time, it can not escape the fact that even a design receiver is a complex product. You notice that when you examine the institutions. You have to do that, because the HEOS AVR does not come with a calibration system that measures your loudspeaker setup. That would be too complex for the average consumer, it says. Only calibration is a necessary thing to really get a surround setup. For the best sound you have to manually enter the distances from the speakers to the listening position in the settings. It is also not a bad idea to select the crossover frequency per speaker, based on the specifications of the speaker manufacturer.
The nice thing about the HEOS app is that you actually have fairly advanced options – to a certain extent at least – but that you only have to deal with an intuitive, simple interface. The downside to this is that you sometimes have to tap a lot before coming to those deeper institutions. The one may not be possible without the other.
We have also thought of very relevant options that are often lacking with cheaper AV receivers. This way you can quickly rename the names of entries to something relevant (‘Blu-ray’ instead of ‘HDMI 1’, for example). There are also six presets that you can define yourself and give a name. This way you can set one preset as ‘watch TV’, and connect the right input and sound mode to it. However, the EQ options are very limited.
Good HEOS app
Given that there are no buttons on the HEOS AVR outside of a volume control, it is clear that you must operate this device via a different route. The HEOS app is the first choice, but there is a small remote in the box. This remote control is compact, but of good quality. If you connect the HEOS AVR to your television via HDMI-ARC, you can of course also use the TV remote to control the sound level. The HEOS remote control offers a little more control, among other things in the form of six preset buttons that you can set yourself via the app.
However, most functionality requires the HEOS app. This has since been thoroughly developed and is very stable. It works very intuitively and is divided into three main parts: Rooms, Music and Current audio. In ‘Rooms’ you choose the device you want to operate and connect your HEOS devices. You can create groups of speakers through the house or set speakers as the back channels for the receiver. If you put a speaker on the HEOS AVR, you will actually get that choice. An error message will appear here if, for example, you want to send the sound from an HDMI source to another speaker.
At ‘Music’ you get an overview of all sources, both streaming and physical connections. The term ‘Music’ does not cover the whole charge, because you will find many other things, such as a USB input. If you tap ‘inputs’ here, you will not only see the inputs on the HEOS AVR – but also the inputs on other HEOS devices. We visited the HEOS AVR at the same time as the HEOS Bar and a set of HEOS 3 speakers. Since the Bar also has its own HDMI inputs and the speakers have aux-inputs, the list of options was very long. Fortunately, you can deactivate the unused inputs, another handy option that you discover when digging in the app. You can hide streaming services that you do not use. This way you keep the Music screen in the app clear.
At ‘Current’ you can see the cover of the track being listened to while listening to music. If a video source has been selected, a lot of extra options will appear here. Six adjustable presets, for example, as well as a sound mode button (Direct is the best choice) and a list of the physical inputs on the HEOS AVR. You can not activate the sound modes when listening to music, and that is a shame. So you can not put the HEOS AVR in pure stereo mode when listening to music. Denon lets us know that this will be possible in a future update.
An important element of the app is of course access to streaming via HEOS. Sonos has more services, but HEOS covers the most important ones. Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Soundcloud and internet radio via TuneIn are already making many people happy. Only Qobuz and Google Play Music are missing. That lack could have been resolved with Google Cast support, something that Denon had planned to do, but which was once again removed. A recent presentation indicated that Google Cast was back on the schedule, but it is unclear whether the HEOS AVR would ever get that feature. We hope so, but do not think so.
Yet a real AV receiver
The HEOS AVR is a true receiver in terms of surround format support. Both Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio are processed, as well as the underlying codecs. Dolby Atmos or DTS: X is not, but it is not really relevant if you listen via a 5.1 set-up. It is not a problem either: if you play a Dolby Atmos soundtrack from an Ultra HD Blu-ray, the HEOS AVR will simply play the ‘core’ 5.1. So you do not experience playback problems. It is also useful that you can check through the app which type of stream you receive via HDMI, because that way you can be sure that a Blu-ray player in terms of audio output is well set.
Even when you listen to your own music files, you experience few problems. The HEOS platform lends a lot of formats, including hi-res music . You can listen to MP3, AAC, FLAC, Apple Lossless or ALAC, WMA and WAV, up to 192 kHz / 24 bit. An asset that major competitor Sonos does not possess, although hi-res audio is not really something that the general public is working on. DSD files are also working, though we would recommend a wired network connection.
But how does the HEOS AVR sound?
For our test we connect the HEOS AVR to the Dali Spektor 5.1 set that is still in our test room. The total cost of this set consisting of a pair of Spektor 6 floor stands, two Dali Spektor 1 bookshelf speakers, a Dali Spektor Vokal center and a Dali E-9F is approximately 1,000 euros, a good match with the HEOS AVR. These are all speakers that you have to connect with cables. During testing, however, we also replaced the Dali Spektor 1’s with the set of HEOS 3 speakers, so we have wireless speakers in the back of the room. The E-9F was replaced by the HEOS Subwoofer. Linking this to other HEOS components is particularly easy. And that’s the big advantage of this receiver: you have 5.1 without a lot of cables. The quality difference between quality wired speakers and HEOS 3 speakers was not really noticeable.
When looking at the usual line-up of test fragments (including the 2013-2016 DTS test disks, Gravity, House of the Flying Daggers and some content from Netflix), we do not immediately find what we had expected. Namely, that this HEOS AVR in terms of performance and power would be inferior to a classic AV receiver. Pure in terms of amplification does not seem to be a real problem, even if we turn up the volume with the Dali setup. The HEOS AVR also has the advantage that it is ‘only’ 5.1, so that 7, 9 or more channels should not be controlled.
When it comes to transmitting that surround feeling, we ourselves did feel that the HEOS AVR cold out of the box did not show its full potential. It does come through our surround tests flawlessly, but we still had to adjust a bit here and there. Perhaps also because our test device was apparently already used for demos. We say it again: we would have liked a pre-calibration, even a minimalistic one. That being said, those who take some time to experiment with the institutions can fine-tune.
The HEOS AVR is a courageous attempt by Denon to do something else. It is a gamble, but one that has a serious chance of success. The combination of good streaming possibilities plus the possibility to work with wireless rear speakers and subwoofer is a smart marriage. It makes the HEOS AVR ideal for people who want true surround but do not like technical hassle and cables through the living room. The separate design also makes it less ‘technical’, although we do wonder if this is a design that will look fresh for years. In any case, it is well finished.
Do you take into account the more lifestyle-oriented concept and you just ignore the price tag of 999 euros, then you can not help but judge the HEOS AVR well. It sounds great and is just a good product with a lot of attention to details. But now that Denon is also bringing HEOS to its cheap receivers, you have to ask whether such a conventional receiver with HEOS built in would not be a better choice. No, if you like to keep the living room clean and work with wireless speakers and subwoofer. Yes, if you want to work wired and want to use the extra features of a similar Denon receiver. Difficult choices are that!