Receivers

Denon AVR-4308CI 7.1 Receiver

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

Over a year ago at the 2007 CES, I was quite excited to have a chance to visit Denon's suite in the hopes of seeing their new line of A/V receivers.  At the time, no company had yet released receivers that supported all the new HD audio codecs from Dolby and DTS, HDMI 1.3a, and other highly anticipated updates.  Unfortunately, Denon's display only showed prototypes, and not actually any production models.

The prototypes did pique my interest, however.  They did, in fact, include the aforementioned features.  As the year went on, and summer approached, Home Theater enthusiasts throughout the Internet were abuzz with speculation on release dates and final product specs.  Delays did push the release of many of these receivers back until late summer and early fall, but clearly, it was worth the wait.  Such is the case with Denon's excellent AVR-4308CI receiver.

The 4308CI is the second iteration of a new entry in the Denon AVR family.  The preceding 4306 was introduced a couple of years ago to fill the large gap between the 380x and 480x series.  This line  included many of the more advanced home theater and custom installation features found in the 480x series, but kept the price closer to the 380x series, necessarily filling that void.

So, it was with great enthusiasm on the day my review unit arrived that I unpacked the 42 pound receiver and put it in my rack.  Denon did a nice job with the product design this year.  They added some attractive curves to the front bezel, making it look more modern.  As with all of Denon's high end receivers, most of the controls found on the front of the unit are hidden behind a drop down door just under the display.  I connected all of my gear to the unit easily, as the back panel is well laid out.  I was happy to see the gold-plated A/V connections, and that there were not one, but two HDMI outputs.  As a unit designed for custom installers, the multi-zone capabilities of the 4308CI are quite appealing.  You have the ability to configure up to four separate zones, three of which can make use of the receiver's own amplifiers.  This is why I was excited to see a second HDMI output.  Having the ability to distribute two different sources via HDMI is a boon for this market.  Some other connectors of note are those for HD Radio, Ethernet, a WiFi antenna, Denon Link, RS232C, USB, iPod dock, and XM Radio, thus showing that the 4308CI is as feature rich as any receiver out there.

Specifications

  • Codecs: Everything, Including High Definition Movie Soundtrack Codecs
  • Amplifier: 140 Watts x 7 into 8 Ohms
  • HDMI Connections: Four 1.3 Inputs; Two Outputs (There Are Also Plenty of the Other Standard Inputs and Outputs)
  • DACs: Burr-Brown PCM-1791; 24/192
  • 1080p Upscaling
  • Wi-Fi and Ethernet Connectivity
  • Audyssey MultEq XT Room Eq with up to Eight Position Setup
  • Accepts 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p60, 1080p24
  • Dimensions: 7.7" H x 17.1" W x 17.9" D
  • Weight: 42 Pounds
  • MSRP: $2,499 USA
  • Denon

The GUI

I fired the 4308 up and was greeted by the highly acclaimed new graphical user interface (GUI).  This is one area that Denon has made a revolutionary leap.  Gone are the days of the simple white text on black background that inhabited the Denon receivers of old, giving way to a stylish new GUI.  Upon hitting the menu button on the remote, you are greeted with a colorful, graphic filled display.  At the top of the screen lies the title bar, telling you the current location in the menu system.  To the left, there is a bar with icons signifying their menu function (for example, there are a set of tools for the setup menu).  The remainder of the screen is devoted to the selectable options or sub-menus that are associated with the current heading.  The menu system is hierarchical, so each time you select an option, the menu shifts to the right, making the sidebar then scroll through the sub-options of the previous selection.  It is a rather elegant menu tree, with nearly all the options categorized as you would expect.

Your main options are for manual and automatic setup, source select, surround parameters, information about the current receiver settings, and general adjustments for the audio and video outputs of the receiver.  I used the excellent Audyssey MultiEQ XT setup program to tune the speaker settings.  This tool, coupled with the Denon GUI is easy to use, yet powerful.  It will provide a visual representation of the speaker layout as you turn speakers on and off.  You can run the level calibration for up to eight different listening positions; and the more you do, the more accurate the outcome should be.  I have used this application on other receivers in the past, and have always been quite impressed with the results, including in this instance.  The only thing I needed to adjust was the speaker size, as it set my front speakers to “Large”, and the crossover settings (I wanted all of my speakers set to the 80 Hz standard crossover level)  Other than that, the distances and levels were spot on.

 


 

Next I moved to the source configuration.  The 4308CI's sources are all pre-labeled, but you can rename any or all of them.  I went through this process so that my gear would be easily identified.  I must say, one of my only complaints about the receiver is the text input.  As has become par for the course with consumer electronics gear not made by a computer company, it took scrolling through upper and lower case alphabets as well as special characters to type out the names of each of my sources.  Two words came to mind here: painfully slow.  Actually, there is a great workaround for this that I will go into shortly, but I didn't realize it before configuring the sources' names.  Next, I assigned the sources their proper audio and video inputs.  The tricky part here was that if you assign a port by accident that is already assigned to another source, you have wiped that configuration out and will need to go back and fix it.  This came to light when I plugged in my HDMI cables and was unsure of which one was going to which piece of gear (let's just say I have less than perfect cable management behind my rack).  What I really liked about the source assignment functions was that you can independently assign HDMI, component, and digital audio ports.  So, if you have a component such as a Blu-ray player and you want to assign both an HDMI port and a component port to it, that is no problem.

The other wonderful option that is defined on a per-source basis is the video conversion option.  If you have a source that has an excellent scaling/de-interlacing chip in it, for example, the Samsung BDP-1200 with the Silicon Optix HQV Reon chip, and you prefer to take advantage of this instead of the Denon's Faroudja chip, you don't have to change a setting every time you switch to the source.  Instead, you can actually tell the Denon to pass the signal through to the monitor unmolested for that specific source.  This may sound like a trivial matter, but having used some of the other receivers out there that do 1080p upscaling, but don't allow you to do it on a per-source basis, I can honestly say this is a huge convenience benefit.  However, if you do wish to make use of the Faroudja de-interlacing and scaling chipsets in the Denon, you may not be disappointed.  I can't say it is as good as all the standalone video processors out there, but it definitely looked very good with both HD and SD source material.  It is likely better than many of the HDTVs on the market.  At the same time, I must throw out there that when compared with my receiver that sports the Silicon Optix HQV Reon upscaling solution, my own eyes tell me the Denon is not quite as good.  This is perhaps the only negative thing I can say about the video portion of the receiver, but again, that's my personal opinion.

Convergence isn't just a buzzword anymore.

While the Denon AVR-4308CI is not the first receiver to integrate TCP/IP into its design, it has made some of the best use of network features in a traditional A/V device that I have used.  From control functions to media server-type features, Denon has really added some value by allowing you to put this unit on your home network.  Next to overall performance, this set of features is what sets the AVR-4308CI apart from the competition.

The standard on-screen interface (OSI) by itself is impressive, however, that is only the half of it.  There is a fully featured web interface as well, which includes just about everything found in the standard cmputer GUI.  Now, this is not the prettiest web interface I have seen (it borrows its design from something out of 1995), but it works very well.  The 4308CI has both wired and wireless capabilities.  You can give it a fixed IP address (preferable for accessing the web interface), or let it obtain one automatically from your DHCP server (usually your home router).  Once set, you simply browse to the receiver's IP address from your computer and are greeted with the main screen.  From there you have the option to control or rename any of the four available zones, access the setup menu, or access the PDA menu.  You did read that right: you can control this thing with a networked PDA or even a smartphone that has WiFi!

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For each of the first three zones, you get a basic page that allows you to control the volume, select the source, mute the sound, and power the receiver on/off.  The biggest drawback to the web interface is also found on these zone pages, which is that here is no direct link back to the main page.  This is quite inconvenient because, in order to get back there, you either need to type in the URL again, or hit your back button in the browser until you return there.  It shouldn't be difficult for Denon to address this issue by simply adding a link to the main page on each of the sub-pages.

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What makes this is so inconvenient is that if you need to change anything except for the settings mentioned above, you have to be in the setup menus.  That is where you configure things like surround modes and parameters.

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Remember when I had mentioned a workaround for having to do text entry with the remote control?  Apart from actually setting up the network configuration, you can make all the entries with your keyboard right from this web interface.  As I mentioned, however, I wish I had known this before setting everything up.

One further benefit from having web-enabled configuration, is the ability to back up and restore various configurations as files.  This is a great idea, and one that is sure to be greeted with enthusiasm from custom installers.  By having a one-click ability to back up a saved configuration, a custom installer can store all of their customers' configurations in case of events like a replacement unit is needed or someone messes with their settings.  Also, those enthusiasts that like to tinker with various configurations and settings can quickly back up their receivers before attempting different things.  Restoring the configuration is just as easy.

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Who says radio is dead?

Denon has taken the concept of radio and updated it for the current crop of technologies under the category. They didn't just throw in a “tuner” source for old time's sake.  In addition to the standard AM/FM tuner, there is also an XM tuner port, a built-in HD Radio tuner, an Internet Radio tuner that includes the vTuner service from vtuner.com, and a streaming media tuner that pulls in media from your Windows-based PC.  While there are supposedly several HD Radio stations in my area, for whatever reason, I could not get them to come in on the receiver.  This could have been due to lack of signal strength, or the fact that all I had available was the stock antenna that comes with the receiver.  So, while I can't report on actual HD Radio, I can tell you that the overall tuner interface is pretty good.  Again, it is much more quickly controlled with a web interface, but the on-screen GUI is not bad either.  You can store up to 56 broadcast stations on all the OTA tuner sources, making for quick access to all of your favorites.

The network-based tuners are again where Denon is breaking new ground for a receiver.  The 4308CI makes use of Microsoft's Windows Media Connect technology.  This is a free add-on in Windows XP, and built in to Windows Vista (via Windows Media Player 11).  Basically, on the Windows machine, you indicate the folders you want to share, and the devices that you want to be able to access those shares.  The nice thing about this is there is no 3rd party software to install.  Once configured, you will be able to see all of your MP3 and WMA encoded digital music right in the Denon GUI.  You can make use of your pre-built playlists, or simply browse your library as it is organized on your PC.

Not only can you access your networked music content, but the 4308CI will also display your photos.  I will admit, there are far better photo viewers out there, but it is nice to have the capability in a single interface.  Playing your networked music is much better, although it still is no replacement for something like a Sonos.  Again, the value here is having the functionality already built into your receiver, thereby eliminating the need for yet another source.  The fact that you can control the playlist from the web interface makes this a very usable solution.

Now, I know some of you are wondering how Denon could leave the Mac users out in the cold here, but this is simply not the case. Like many other receiver manufacturers, Denon is well aware of the number of iPod owners out there, and thus included iPod integration with the use of an external dock.  Yes, this isn't a networked solution, but think about how easy it is to pop your iPod into the dock and have instant access to all your music without the need for configuring networking.  And, like the aforementioned Windows sharing, you can also display your photos stored on the iPod.

The one additional benefit for iPod users?  If you have a 5th or newer generation iPod, you can also show your videos!  Rounding out the digital media offerings for the 4308CI, there is also the ability to play music or view photos off of a standard USB storage device.

The Internet radio tuner is also very compelling.  There is a preconfigured list of stations, but again, using the web interface makes it easy to customize the list to your own tastes.  Also included is the ability to access internet radio stations via the vTuner website.  This site is basically a directory service for Internet broadcasting.  This is a nice feature, but you can create your own directory just as well.  One thing I found especially useful was that Denon included the ability to stream podcasts.  For those of you still living in 2003 (hey..I guess that's not that long ago!), podcasts are basically pre-recorded Internet radio shows that can be anything from a music show, to a political talk show, to old time radio dramas.  There are literally tens of thousands of different podcasts out there on just about any subject you could want.  You just input the podcast's “feed”, which is basically a special URL, and the list of available shows is populated.  Many podcasts keep their entire archive of episodes up in their feed, so you can always go back and listen to episodes you missed or wish to hear again.

A Note About the Remote

This being a custom installation unit, most people who are interested in the 4308 will likely be using either an advanced control system or universal remote control.  However, for those who don't, the 4308CI comes with two remotes.  The main remote control implements both an electro-luminescent touch display and hard buttons.  Like the remotes included in some of the previous models, the fluorescent blue buttons change, based on the device being controlled.  For some devices, such as the receiver itself, you can cycle through several pages of buttons to get to the various functions.  For non-Denon gear, you can teach the remote the basic commands from the component's native remote.

Denon has improved the feel of the remote, as I found the previous version to be too heavily weighted towards the front.  This remote control's bulk is towards the back, which, along with the curved bottom, makes it much more comfortable in the hand.  The hard buttons are laid out alright, but are not back lit.  That may or may not be a concern, as most people could probably learn the remote well enough to know where they are by the feel of the keys.  Also included with the receiver is a secondary “sub remote”.  This can be used for basic operation in the main zone, or as a separate controller for a secondary zone.

Conclusions

Personally, there are two major things I associate with a receiver bearing the Denon brand name: feature-richness and quality performance.  The AVR-4308CI exemplifies both of these characteristics to a tee.  As you can tell from the body of this review, the 4308CI is not wanting for any feature.  Basically if it is out there, this unit has it.  From the network functions, to the audio codecs, to the video processing, you won't be left wishing there were something else this receiver could do (at least not until some super new 10 channel super surround audio codec is released!).  As for performance, this is what I would expect in something from Denon, that is to say this receiver sounded nothing short of magnificent.  No matter what movie, album, or format I tested, the 4308CI was simply outstanding.  The amplifiers, capable of an advertised 140 watts per channel, never got tired, even as I played source material at reference levels.  I think our own Brian Florian said it best that nowadays we are after the “True Sound”, meaning the receiver's reproduction of the source material is so true to the original that it doesn't call attention to itself as “bright”, “warm”, or any other adjective.  The Denon fits that bill.  It takes anything you throw at it and lets your speakers shine.

The bottom line here, as you have probably already guessed, is that the AVR-4308CI what I had hoped it would be over a year ago.  At an MSRP of $2,499, this is definitely on the higher end of the receiver spectrum.  However, when you consider what it brings to the table and how much separate components that do all of these things would cost, it may actually be a bargain.  Kudos to Denon for putting out a product that is an excellent achievement in the audio/video receiver category.