Denon AVR-4800 THX Ultra digital surround receiver Page 2

I learned how important this control was one day when I had inadvertently switched it to PCM. I couldn't get any sound from my DTS 5.1 music or video DVDs, no matter what other switches I tried. After two hours of fiddling, I finally read the manual. Only then did I learn to toggle the deceptively simple Input button on the remote. Voil;ga—the bright red DTS flag appeared on the AVR-4800's display panel, and music played.

If the AVR-4800 is correctly set on Auto, then it independently sends the signals to its THX Surround EX processors when The Haunting DVD is put in the player. The THX EX data flag in the DVD triggers the receiver's EX mode, which sends the additional matrix-derived rear-channel signals to the rear surrounds. Similarly, the AVR-4800 will immediately switch to DTS 6.1 for the Saving Private Ryan DVD.

Finding the best location for the AVR-4800 was not as easy as it sounds. The receiver was too deep and heavy to fit on a shelf. It couldn't go on the floor, because its front panel had to be visible to the infrared remote (and to me). It couldn't go in my equipment stack—the Mirage HSM center-channel speaker had to go on top of that. Besides, my equipment stack didn't allow easy access to the AVR-4800's rear panel, and believe me, I had to get back there often during the review to change inputs and outputs.

My only choice was to place the AVR-4800 on a piano bench next to my equipment stack. In addition, the line sources—the Lexicon MC-1 and the two DVD players—were within the 1m reach of my interconnects.

Then I had to identify the appropriate inputs on the AVR-4800's rear panel. Read the factory manual, you say? Not without my 8x Loupe to decode Denon's microfiche-sized diagram legends. Even when I could make out the lettering, it didn't always help. Obvious, impulsive decisions, such as plugging the yellow interconnect from the DVD-370 into the AVR-4800's corresponding DVD inputs, resulted in dead silence. Denon's David Birch-Jones had the answer: Use one of the AVR-4800's digital coaxial inputs, found at the bottom of its rear panel, but use the setup menu to tell it that the DVD player used that input.

How did I connect the seven pairs of loudspeaker wires? Not carefully enough! I thought it would be easy. But years of hooking up Krell monoblocks—with their very widely separated speaker terminals—hadn't prepared me for the Denon. There was no space! I fussed and fumed, twisted and turned, but the Denon's back panel didn't give me enough room to install the large, thick spade connectors of my audiophile speaker cables.

After 20 minutes of sweat and swearing, checking that no spades were touching, I stepped back and turned on the receiver. Buzzzz! I was greeted with the aroma of freshly toasted printed-circuit board and a front-panel display flashing distress. Attempts to resuscitate the receiver were fruitless, and the true cause of the problem was never identified (footnote 1). A quick call to Birch-Jones, and another AVR-4800 was on the way. He also scheduled a visit to oversee my next installation attempt.

Even express shipping didn't bring the replacement AVR-4800 quite as quickly as I'd hoped. My UPS delivery man—by now a high-end audiophile—refused to leave the equipment boxes at the front door without someone to sign for them. This added some drama—Birch-Jones' visit was planned for that evening. I raced rush-hour traffic to reach the South Bronx UPS terminal before it closed. Later that evening, with the second receiver unpacked and installed, David commented diplomatically that I had discovered the way to "release the magic blue smoke that hides inside every audio component."

Master Class
Setup of the second AVR-4800 went much more smoothly. During his all-too-brief visit, David Birch-Jones instructed me in the joys of virtual A/V receiver setup, how to address digital input sources—and the evils of spade lugs.

It was no fluke that my audiophile lugs wouldn't fit into the AVR-4800's shrouded speaker terminals. Underwriter Laboratories standards, far stricter in some ways than the European Union's consumer-electronics rules, denounce spade lugs as unsafe because they permit electrical shorts—confirmed by my own experience. Rejecting spade lugs allows the AVR-4800 to accept seven pairs of speaker terminals into one corner of its back panel and still get UL certification. On the other hand, single-banana terminations at the amplifier end of speaker cables are acceptable by the UL because they plug into the hole in the end of each speaker terminal with their conducting portions completely covered. Israel Blume, manufacturer of Coincident Speaker Technologies' CST-1 speaker cables, had supplied me with five pairs of his superb-sounding speaker cables with single-banana terminations. For the final two speaker pairs—the Mirage HSM back surrounds—only the Sumiko OCOS speaker cables I had on hand were long enough. Birch-Jones patiently replaced the spade lugs at the cable's amplifier end with single-banana connectors.

How do you set up a surround system for best sound? Well, it doesn't require fastidious speaker positioning to get the widest and deepest soundstage. After all, how can you move eight speakers at once? No, setup was carried out in virtual reality on my Panasonic CTP-1050R TV monitor, using the Denon's handheld remote, its built-in test signals, and a RadioShack SPL meter.

The AVR-4800 Performs
The AVR-4800 did not disappoint, delivering a clean, punchy signal across the frequency spectrum while remaining dynamic at both moderate and high volumes. Background noise was completely absent, even during quiet passages.

I began with a surround DTS 5.1-channel recording of Gustav Holst's The Planets (Telarc CD-80466, footnote 2). After listening to the opening movement in two-channel stereo, I tried 5.1 surround and the Classical Orchestra, Widescreen, and Matrix DSP modes. My favorite combination was DTS 5.1 with Matrix, which yielded the best combination of surround and soundstaging. The qualities I admire so much in two-channel sound—transparency, soundstaging, and imaging—were all there. Wide dynamic range, good instrumental timbre, and freedom from grain were also evident. There was no sign of sonic aberrations, no 10' instruments, no "pumping" during loud passages. Rather, the surround was so natural that the AVR-4800 in Stereo mode sounded flat and one-dimensional in comparison.

I then tried some of my favorite two-channel CDs, starting with Keith Johnson's recording of John Rutter's Requiem, recorded in Dallas' Morton H. Myerson Symphony Center, and especially "Lord, Make me an Instrument of Thy Peace." In Matrix mode, the AVR-4800 reproduced the acoustic space occupied by the members of the chorus. Individual voices were clearly delineated, and I could easily follow the choral line as well as the pipe-organ underpinnings, and understand each word sung. Overall, I heard some of the spatial effect, but not the seamless integration and delicacy, of the best two-channel systems.

I then listened to a DTS-ES (6.1-channel) version of Don Henley's The End of Innocence (DTS Entertainment/Geffen 01062-2-2). There was more information coming from the surround in DTS 5.1 ES simulation than in standard DTS 5.1, which buried Henley's soft tenor voice in the music rather than opening up the sound.

Staying in DTS 5.1 mode, I put on a DVD movie sampler featuring digital DTS 5.1 surround soundtracks (Demonstration DVD #4, DTS-DVD-99121). What I experienced was revelatory. With discrete DTS processing, the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack generated a you-are-there, in-your-face impact I had never experienced in my listening room. Battle sounds piled in from all sides—pinging bullets, rumbling tank treads, sliding gravel as the German soldiers raced by, the yelling and chaos from all directions. Tank-cannon blasts ripped through my listening room. I experienced total sonic immersion with no sign of overload, clipping, or distortion.

I experienced another type of immediacy with a live concert video featuring Sheryl Crowe from the same demo DVD—the feeling of being immersed in the musical event. The deep, throbbing, bass-guitar notes, set against the audience and the rustling, string basses, and drums, all highlighted Crowe's thin, dramatic, plaintive voice as she sang "Am I Getting Through."

Then I put on the DVD of The Bone Collector (Universal DVD 20716), which is encoded with THX-Surround EX 6.1 (footnote 3). When policewoman Amelia Donahue (Angelina Jolie) stopped the diesel train to protect the evidence lying on the tracks, the train rumbled in from behind me. Later, when Donahue entered the tunnel where the murderer's second victim lies, poached by a deliberately broken steam pipe, the water seemed to drip from all four walls. Even when the camera took me into the apartment of Lincoln Ryan (Denzel Washington), I became aware of synth music and thunder in the back surrounds that I'd never heard before. And when the special police unit detonated an underground wall to gain access to the crime scene, Mama mia!—the walls of my listening room threatened to come tumbling down.

The Denon AVR-4800's clean sound and muscular amplifiers brought out the very best in DVD-Video and DTS 5.1 surround musical sources. Its ability to decode all manner of DVD, CD, and HDCD sources was just short of miraculous. Its dynamic range, raw punch, and low-frequency power—abetted by the gutsy Velodyne HG-18 subwoofer—provided movie effects I've experienced only in the best theaters. Its digital processing, memory, computing, and control functions have enough bells and whistles to start a marching band. More than any other piece of audio equipment, the AVR-4800 has convinced me of the addictive impact surround sound can offer. I now prefer using the AVR-4800 to play a good DVD—like Run, Lola, Run—and save my Levinson-Revel system to listen to two-channel music.

Compared to A/V receivers priced at twice its $1995, the AVR-4800 is a solid value. While these flagship receivers may offer more features, all the processing needed for today's surround-sound modes can be found in the AVR-4800.

As you read, the AVR-4800's installation hardly proved to be a snap. Finding "the magic blue smoke" convinced me that I'd rather have my dealer uncrate, install, configure, and wire an A/V receiver. Don't get me wrong—I'd rather set up a new audio component than just about anything else. However, installing one of these multichannel digital-processing puppies is no job for someone who'd rather not read the manual.

But using the AVR-4800's automatic switching to match each source to its proper internal processor prevents the owner from having to untangle the Babel of surround formats. Your learning curve will not be so steep if you concentrate on enjoying this new home-entertainment medium. Just put on one of the new THX EX 6.1 surround DVDs, sit back, and be swept into the action.

Footnote 1: The first AVR-4800 probably was not a victim of a shorted speaker terminal, because the replacement AVR-4800 recovered easily from just such a short, merely shutting down when a spade lug came loose on the left rear surround speaker and touched the other terminal. To resume play, I had to turn the receiver off, then on. This shutdown was repeated once before I could locate the fault, but thereafter the AVR-4800 worked flawlessly.

Footnote 2: My thanks to Robert Margouleff of Mi Casa Studio, a major recording studio, for his help in finding where to buy DTS-encoded 5.1 surround recordings of classical music on CD.

Footnote 3: See Ken C. Pohlmann's "Eye on EX" in Sound & Vision (September 2000, p.121). Other THX Surround EX DVDs include: Fight Club (Fox Home Entertainment 200035); The Haunting (DreamWorks 2420405W); The Astronaut's Wife (2428902); The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (Columbia TriStar 2452308); and The World is Not Enough (MGM 2466902). Eventually, we all hope to see the film that started it all on DVD: Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace.

Denon Electronics
222 New Road
Parsippany, NJ 07054
(973) 396-0810