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With HD technology and disc formats now on a firmer footing, almost every maker worth its transistors has launched a
range-topping ‘HD’ amplifier. Enter Denon’s AVC-A1HD, goodbye AVC-A1XVA.
   Price-wise, the AVC-A1HD amplifier’s £3800 ticket nestles between Denon’s flagship AVR-4308 receiver (£2000, HFN, Dec ’07) and its new £10,000 A1HD multichannel pre/power combination. But of far more relevance is its position against its only serious competition – Yamaha’s DSP-Z11 (HFN, Apr ’08) and Pioneer’s SC-LX90, both at £5000. The AVC-A1HD is almost identically specified but comes to market with enough latitude in the budget to buy the Denon
DVD-3800BD Blu-ray disc spinner as well. Interesting.

TOYS FOR THE BOYS
Specifications, features and toy-count leave no stone unturned and are directly comparable if not damn near identical to its equally fully-loaded rivals. It is THX Ultra2 specified and built in Japan onto a chassis claimed to afford dramatically shortened signal paths, minimise vibration and isolate audio and video circuits. It offers 4-zone multi-room with all the triggers and IR extenders you could need, and the 4-in 2-simultaneous output HDMI 1.3 ports are going to please those with HDMI displays in two rooms. Moreover, the Realta SXT2 HQV de-interlacing and scaling does a fine job of converting all incoming video signals to HD resolution up to 1080p. Now where did I put that old VHS machine…
   The built-in Wi-Fi connection should eliminate the need to use the machine’s hardwired Ethernet port. It doesn’t, of course, because in the week I tried it Jupiter had moved into the shadow of Uranus and the Denon and my Wi-Fi network refused to speak without a network-engineer to counsel proceedings. Still, the Ethernet hooked-up and established a network easily and there is no denying the ability of 9000 radio stations to find you some new tunes – even if they are largely in low-bitrate MP3.
   At the other end of the audio quality spectrum, the AVC-A1HD has a ‘3rd Edition’ DenonLink port for low-jitter connection to the company’s higher-spec DVD and multichannel audio disc spinners. While this may seem old-hat in a Blu-ray world, don’t go binning the old tech just yet as neither of Denon’s new BD players offers SACD/DVD-A playback or a DenonLink connection.

THREE SUBS AND A BACKACHE
Of interest to those with lots of room and an account at the local hi-fi emporium, the AVC-A1HD flaunts itself as a 9.3 channel design. Unlike Yamaha’s ’Z11, which claims 11.2 with 11 powered channels, the Denon is a 7-channel amp that allows you re-assign two of the rear channel amps to different speakers. Thus you can switch between a 7.1 set-up with effects speakers at sides and rear-back, ideal for movies, and a true 5.1 set-up with effects speakers 30-odd degrees behind the listening position – ideal for multichannel music.
   The three-subwoofer idea proves more of an enigma because the set-up becomes rather challenging. You either do the sub positioning manually (I ended up left front, right front and side of the room) which means several days of moving subs and two-weeks of backache afterwards – or let Denon’s full-specification Audyssey EQ system sort out the room anomalies, standing waves, comb filtering etc. Given the time and effort, the manual mode eventually yielded better results for the prime listening position – but one has to ask whether just spending the cost of three subs on one larger, more competent sub in the first place is not a better idea.
   The whole package is wrapped up with a fabulously straightforward and very pretty GUI interface, a set-up mic, Wi-Fi antenna and two remotes. The main controller is the familiar EL back-lit model and I am still not a big fan. It seems clunky to use, especially as the backlight has to be activated with a press before any  of the touch-screen functions can be used. Still, that saving over the ’Z11 or ’LX90 would buy you a very nice Pronto remote from Philips…

DENON’S NEW HOUSE
If I had auditioned the AVC-A1HD ‘blind’ I could have named it, put a price tag on it and damn near guessed the colour too. This amp could not sit any more squarely between Denon’s AVR-4308 receiver and the top-end A1HD pre/power combo without the aid of a tape measure. Denon’s invigorated house sound is immediately evident: clean, punchy and imbued with a crisp and superbly well-balanced top-end dynamic.
   As is the norm for AV-centric amps, the Pure Direct mode is pure gold for stereo. By shutting down all but the essential circuits there is marked increase in separation and dynamic range, largely due to the perceived noise floor going from very low to
sub-basement. With the title track to Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust CD her voice has a fine sense of presence in the room with her complex, often vibrato, vocal tones really laid bare. The strings swell out of the mix with grace and authority and there is an amazing cleanliness to the whole sound that utterly belies the disc’s 1975 roots. The sentiment and emotion of the track simply shines through, leaving the listener in little doubt that when Baez and Dylan (the muse of the track) next meet, he can expect a prompt knee in the groin.
  It is this extra presence, and a sense that the amp is never working too hard for its dinner, that elevates the AVC-A1HD above the already impressive AVR-4308 by a good margin. There is more headroom, more space in the mix and an even greater sense of solidity underpinning every genre of music you throw at it. Where this integrated slips into the wake of the stupendously more affluent A1HD pre-power is in the resolution of the finest detail. This is not immediately evident in the oh-so precise top end, but in the middle and lower registers the bigger brother ekes out more character in woodwind instruments and more tonal shades of drum and pipe instruments. Not that the ’A1HD is short of bass; with a high-volume session of the Frankfurt Orchestra’s rendition of the Egmont overture there is crushing drive in the LF range and the finale is a superb, arm-waving, trouser-flapping experience.

DENONLINK THE THIRD
   I have been a big fan of DenonLink since its inception and the 3rd edition connection between a DVD-3930 and the AVC-A1HD does not disappoint. The improvement over the analogue audio connection from this multi-format player seems to build further on the amp’s strengths – gaining yet more separation in individual instruments and further sweetening the excellent top end. Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road SACD is a testament to what the format should have been in terms of resolution and production values, and the AVC-A1HD dives into the music with an integrity and grace that the competition can’t touch.
   The flowing ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ puts you right there on a 1970’s beach watching the side-shows and the punchy ‘Bennie and the Jets’ comes across with a pace and depth that can shame most popular music recordings from this century! If you don’t have a Denon DVD player the DenonLink feature is a moot point but, for me, its ability to maximise SACD/DVD-A recordings makes it a real plus-point.
   Using an assortment of multichannel movie formats simply elevates my rising opinion of the AVC-A1HD – two weeks in and I am struggling to find anything about its performance to criticise. There is never a hint of congestion or sluggishness and even when the going gets tough with multichannel mayhem the Denon remains amazingly poised. Even with a trio of £1000 subs engaged the Denon never gets bogged down or drowned by its own LFE. The dynamic benefits of well-tuned multiple subs are obvious (particularly around the spleen area) but after extended listening I still ended up preferring to use just two – perversely in the same room  position as had succeeded with Yamaha’s 11.2 channel set-up back in the April issue.

THE AV TARDIS
With any movie soundtrack the slick top-end again works its magic, allowing you to move the volume into ASBO-inducing levels without getting shouty or acerbic. The sheer presence with a cleanly cut soundtrack is quite eerie even if the Denon doesn’t quite manage the mammoth scale and room-dimension defying soundstage of the DSP-Z11. But the AVC-A1HD feels more fleet-of-foot across the range; a little tighter, a little crisper and graced with bass taut enough to have edges. Even DVDs that sound dull by HD-audio standards are invigorated by the Denon’s pace and balance and a move up the surround-sound format quality ladder reaps benefits with every step.
   The Dolby True HD soundtrack on I Am Legend (Warner Blu-ray) is an excellent example of Hollywood audio-craft at its finest and the Denon reproduces the score and effects to create atmosphere with rare precision. The spooky scene where our hero has been trapped by nightwalkers and he and Sam the dog are on the streets approaching darkness is craft with pure breath-holding, pillow-chewing tension. The subsequent attack crashes from the front of the room towards you as the rabid dogs charge in, punctuated by growls, howls and gunfire that pierces through the chaos. The Denon’s separation and balance are spot-on, there is power to back up the sound at very high SPLs and its ability to do atmosphere is stunning. Sam the dog died, I cried. ’Nuff said. 

VERDICT
The AVC-A1HD is the sort of thing that gives me a tingly feeling in the gentlemen’s area. It does a class-leading job of two-channel audio in Pure Direct mode, its balance and stunning presence with movies is a revelation and the feature-count is exhaustive. If you needed a clincher, it’s also £1200 worth of CDs and BDs cheaper than the competition. Brilliant.

 

 

Originally published in the July 2008 issue