You already knew that home cinema receivers were becoming more flexible, more capable and more complicated, but at the same time ever more Swiss Army Knife-like in their flexibility.
Denon AVR-4306 | $3999 |
For: Unparalleled connectivity; sterling sound; easy setup; video upscaling
Against: Plain styling; not enough pure analogue inputs
Verdict: The definitive one-stop shop for all things audio and video
With the AVR-4306, Denon has taken yet another step into the future with a receiver that in some ways out-Swisses them all. At the very least this is a receiver that points the way to the future of home theatre, a model designed to become the focus of a fully-connected home. Given the thoroughness of the design, it does so at a surprisingly reasonable price.
The AVR-4306 is an entirely new Denon design, which slips somewhere between the AVR-3806 and the AVC-A11XV, though it’s closer in price to the former than the latter. In common with other recent Denon multichannel muscle amps, there has been no attempt to provide a cosmetic retread, and on balance this is perhaps a pity. Not because there is anything much wrong with the way it looks (or so right with it either) but because it’s difficult to notice what sets it apart. It looks rather anonymous – but looks is where it ends.
At its simplest level, the AVR-4306 brings together almost every facet of electronic home entertainment, and packages it in a consistent and usable form.
First and foremost, the AVR-4306 is the first IP-addressable internet-enabled AV receiver, which for the purposes of this test was wired back to a 4-port Belkin router and broadband modem. The Denon can talk to computers on the same network, and the receiver can select from thousands (no exaggeration) of internet radio stations from around the globe using Windows Media Connect and audio-streaming from an application called Radio Denon (www.radiodenon.com) using DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) protocols.
Selection of radio stations is made by country or genre, and additional transmissions that may not be found immediately can be programmed in once their IP address is known.
The Denon also acts as a dock for your iPod or MP3 player, in effect turning itself into a server, with full multiroom audio and video support. iPod connectors are available front and rear, and USB is fitted for other player types, such as the Rio Carbon and the Creative Zen, both of which were used alongside a photo iPod for this evaluation. The 4306 will recharge compatible player batteries, and provide a video output from the player.
Multiroom support includes the ability to work in up to three rooms/zones, two of which can include video as well as audio. Settings can be backed up to a networked PC.
When used with an iPod, the Denon will route display menus and video content (slideshows or full motion video) to your home cinema TV or screen.
To add spice to the party, we were able to connect a USB memory stick with audio coded with DTS 5.1, which was then played in multichannel form through the Denon – an undocumented feature that was discovered more or less accidentally. File formats supported include MP3, WAV (LPCM) and WMA.
Let’s not forget that the AVR-4306 is also a fully-fledged multichannel home cinema amplifier, with extensive facilities, some of which are quite ground breaking. It is a reasonably beefy 7.1 channel amplifier (our AV Tech Labs measured its power output at 140W into 😯 in stereo mode, dropping to 120W into 😯 with five channels driven simultaneously) with HDTV (100MHz bandwidth), component inputs and 1080p-compatible HDMI switching and Faroudja deinterlacing and scaling. All analogue video inputs can be converted to HDMI, allowing single wire connection for all sources to a TV or video display. Amplifier channels six and seven can be reassigned to biamplify the front main speakers, or one of the extra zones – not a new idea, but a good one. Video upsampling from analogue to HDMI digital is another surprisingly powerful addition to the fold.
The AVR-4306 is also the first amp/receiver with a Denon Link 3rd Edition encrypted digital output. This proprietary interface is finally mandated to handle encrypted DSD data from Super Audio CD for external D/A conversion. Some players are already available with Denon Link 3rd Edition, but that was a purely theoretical advantage without a comparably equipped player – and we advocate that in a straight A-B comparison, Denon Link is clearly a better-sounding, more solid and three-dimensional sounding interface than popular alternatives like i.Link.
The Denon also has an Audyssey MultEQ XT microphone-driven auto correction and calibration system.
If the description makes the AVR-4306 sound like a rather daunting box of tricks… well, it is. Its flexibility really is quite astonishing, but this perhaps is where the rather prosaic control system comes to the rescue. Although we can’t pretend to have mastered all of its complexities, and a minor but intractable problem with the host computer network meant that iTunes on the main PC wouldn’t communicate with the Denon, its advanced specification is largely quite accessible.
The main features worked perfectly, and turned out to be easy to understand and use if approached with some familiarity with the grammar of Denon’s multichannel amplifiers.
What is more, it works. There were few glitches, and it was barely necessary to consult the instruction manual, though it is far from being as clearly written or half as digestible as it should be.
More important, the AVR-4306 is a more than decent amplifier, in many ways comparable to other models in the range, but in certain respects better. Raw amplifier quality in stereo, or from a multichannel analogue source (eg DVD-Audio or SACD) driving, in this case, a 5.1 channel Mordaunt-Short Performance speaker system, which would normally be coupled with something a little more ambitious than the AVR-4306, was impressive. The system consistently sounded clean and agile, with plenty of detail and a surprisingly potent sense of drive. It was easy on the ear and an enjoyable performer (though the Performance speakers can give more in the right home).
What helped enormously (more so than we remember from previous exposure) is the Denon’s onboard Audyssey MultEQ XT process, which cleans out the sound, effectively controls the bass and makes it easier to follow individual voices or instruments. Digital inputs were also handled well: there is no A/D conversion stage involved of course, and the Dolby and DTS processing is responsive and accurate, giving a strong sense of a contiguous soundfield, not just a collection of discrete loudspeaker outputs.
On the video side, it is even possible to upscale low-grade analogue video, for example from a cable set-top box, and output the video upscaled to 1080i via HDMI – a perversely novel way of bringing these sources kicking and screaming into the new millennium. Bizarrely, the results more than repaid the effort, though despite the plethora of magic boxes and leads available to do this kind of job, there is only so much than can be done with what in today’s terms is a second-class signal source.
It’s often tempting to proclaim one product or another ‘a revolution’ when it wanders past flaunting one new feature or another – but in the case of the AVR-4306, there’s absolutely no doubt that this product heralds a fundamental change in both the technology and role of the traditional integrated AV amplifier.
In the recent past, comparable products have hinted at this evolution – most notably from Onkyo, but they’ve not carried it off so convincingly.
Of course, its network functionality will be seen as standard fare in a couple of years, and we’ll probably look back at today’s best-of-breed as if they were museum pieces – but seen in the context of today, the AVR-4306 is nothing short of amazing.
Its feature specification is forward thinking and lifestyle changing. And it even sounds good. The future is now.