Sunday, September 16, 2007

Denon AVR-3806 Review

A few months ago I was finally able to upgrade my audio system to something more worthy of my excellent Samsung DLP display. I had muddled through for about 2 years with *gasp* a Home Theater in a Box from Sony. This system wasn't total crap but since installing the new gear, it's now gracing a landfill. For years I read the advice on various websites saying you should spend at least as much or more on audio as you do on video. OK but that's really hard to do. Of course you want the rockin' display with the most pixels, the biggest screen, you know the drill. It's what guys do. Well after installing this receiver and a 5.1 speaker setup from Axiom Audio, I can see the importance of this advice. Speaking of Axiom, I'll review the speakers and sub (M60s, VP150, QS8 and EP350) next week.

I purchased the receiver as well as a Denon DVD 2930CI from Crutchfield. You can read my review of the DVD player here. I highly recommend Crutchfield as a dealer. Their customer service is outstanding. The electronics arrived in a few days double boxed with generous amounts of peanuts. There was absolutely no damage to the Denon cartons. Crutchfield has a generous return policy and excellent support.

Setting up the unit was fairly straightforward. I'll tell you right now, the manual is terrible. The important information is there but you have to look for it. My advice with any Denon product: read the manual thoroughly before you install. This receiver like most modern multi-channel AVRs has many many options and features. You owe it to yourself to explore everything beforehand so you can get maximum performance from your gear. My main tower speakers are bi-amp capable so I wired them up as such, making sure to remove the jumper between the 2 pairs of binding posts. It doesn't matter which amp powers which drivers. Enter the setup menu and set the surround back amps to power the mains. After setting delays for the various speaker distances, I pulled out my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter to set levels. Using the test tones, I set levels for all channels to a reference volume of 80dB. I set the bass management as follows: front speakers set to small, 60hz crossover, center set to small, 100hz crossover, surrounds set to small, 110hz crossover. This gave the flattest frequency response when measuring frequency sweeps from the Digital Video Essentials audio tests. The only change I made after the fact was dropping the sub 3db. The Radio Shack meter is less accurate at low frequencies so this was as expected. Convenience features are all there such as auto-detect of audio track types, renaming of inputs and assignment of digital inputs. You might notice I've said nothing about the Audyssey auto calibration feature of this receiver. I actually bought this particular unit because of that function. I have every intention of at least trying the room correction in the future. I've just been so amazed and pleased with the sound the way it is, I haven't actually tried it out yet! My room is a bit challenging as well. I live on a fairly busy road. It would be nearly impossible to run the auto setup without a car driving by during the process. Perhaps if I did it late at night... If at some point I engage the Audyssey function, I will post an article about it.

Once all options were set, I checked my Denon Link connection from the DVD2930CI and fired up Casino Royale. Unfortunately, I heard nothing. OK, check connections, check setup, check DVD player (which I had already been using with my old audio setup). There was no light for Denon link evident on the player's front panel, hmm. I pulled out a generic CAT5 cable I had in my office and replaced the Denon cable that had shipped with my DVD player. Guess what? It worked just fine. Swell, Denon's supplied cable (which costs $45 by the way) was a dud and my free CAT5 cable that a friend made up for me worked perfectly. I had wondered if Denon Link was standard CAT5 and now I had my answer. If you want to install your player more than 6 feet from your receiver, you can with regular CAT5 for a few cents a foot. You do want the Denon Link by the way because it will support Direct Stream Digital transmission from SACDs. There is no other player in this price range that will do this. I believe the Oppo players will output PCM over HDMI from SACDs but not DSD. (was that a geeky sentence or what?) All other SACD players require you to use the multi-channel analog outputs. I also recommend using the IR in/out jacks if you have either IR blasters or some type of RF receiver for your remote. It beats sticking those pesky IR emitters to the front of your gear. In fact, I discovered the IR jack on my Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable DVR actually works! I now have an IR emitter only on my TV. This is a much cleaner-looking and reliable way to control your components.

Sound quality? Let's just say... holy $@#&! The opening scene in Casino Royale starts with a guy riding up an elevator. The LFE effects are simply amazing. Then as he is confronted by James Bond, the scene flashes back to a fight in a bathroom. The bodies slamming through toilet stalls and other high-impact effects are simply breathtaking. Later during the now-famous chase scene, Bond drives a front-loader through a fence and a pile of iron pipe. The slam of this effect simply knocked my socks off! This is only the first day mind you. I have had this system in place for almost 3 months now and I can say I've never enjoyed movies and TV more. Even broadcast content is hugely improved. By default, this receiver will use Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo6 to pipe all soundtracks into 5.1. This is done very well as you don't really notice the extra channels unless you switch back to straight 2 channel listening. My advice, let the DSPs do their thing, they work really well.

Music listening is equally amazing. For this, I engage the Denon's PureDirect mode. Even though the manual says this is only for analog sources, it still works with anything coming over the Denon Link connection. There was a small but noticeable improvement in the sound stage and the overall transparency of the music. (if you play Redbook CDs, they will play 2-channel whether you use PureDirect or not) I am strictly a classical buff so it's really easy to hear even the subtlest changes when you're trying new gear. I used SACDs of the San Francisco Symphony playing Mahler's 5th Symphony and the Kirov Orchestra playing Shostakovich's 5th and 9th Symphonies. I love multi-channel music and this setup really shone in this capacity. I'll expand on that more in next week's Axiom speaker review.

I believe this model is now being replaced by the AVR3808CI. From my research, it seems to the be the same receiver with the addition of HDMI 1.3a and decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. If these formats are not a factor, the 3806 is $300 cheaper so grab one while you can. I can tell you I am extremely happy with this unit and plan to use it for the forseeable future.

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