Receivers

Denon AVR-689 7.1 A/V Receiver

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

It amazes me that what passed for a premium feature in A/V receivers two or three years ago can now be found on entry level models.  That is the beauty of progress!  Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Denon AVR-689.  At an MSRP of $399 it is hard to believe that this unit is so jam packed with bells and whistles.  From auto calibration to HDMI switching, the prices are coming down as capabilities are going up.  Having reviewed several Denon units, and having owned several more, I am very familiar with Denon’s receiver philosophy and level of quality, both of which make them a market leader in that space.  I was eager to see how one of their entry level models would fare. This is the first of a series of affordable receiver reviews, for our difficult economic times.

Specifications

  • Design: 7.1 A/V Receiver
  • Codecs: All Dolby and DTS Except Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Power: 80 Watts RMS x 7 into 8 Ohms
  • MFR: Not Specified
  • THD+N: 0.08%
  • Audyssey Processing
  • Inputs: 3 HDMI, Component, S-Video, Composite, Full Set of Pre-Ins
  • Outputs: Monitor for all Input Types, No Pre-Out Set
  • Dimensions: 6.8" H x 17.1" W x 14.9" D
  • Weight: 24.9 Pounds
  • MSRP: $399 USA
  • Denon

 


 

Setup and Calibration

I unpacked the solid 25 pound AVR-689 receiver and took a quick visual inventory of the unit before sliding it into my rack.  This receiver is traditional Denon.  It features a black metal finish, solid construction, a nice blue electroluminescent display, control knobs for both volume and source select, and a few buttons for simple access to the major features and configuration menus.  There is one source input hidden behind a removable tab on the front that features a set of composite video inputs, an S-Video input, and the setup microphone input.  Moving to the rear, I found the usual compliment of speaker terminals and input/output connections.

One thing about an entry-level receiver is that there are fewer inputs on the back, and thus, less clutter.  It was refreshing to see a layout in which the speaker terminals occupied one side (the right), while the audio and video inputs occupied the other (left).  This made for very easy connections without having to worry about crossing speaker and A/V cables.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see three HDMI inputs rather than two as indicated on the A/V Receivers page on Denon’s website (however the actual product page for the receiver does correctly indicate that there are three inputs and one output).   As I have five components that can use HDMI, I had to choose which three made the cut, and the honors went to the Playstation 3, the DirecTV HR21, and the Xbox 360.  I connected the HDMI monitor out, and then connected my Apple Airport Express to the CD input in order to send my music wirelessly to the system.  As for the speakers, the receiver can handle models down to 6 ohms, and does include a protection circuit to cut the power should the system overheat.  I plugged in my speakers using standard banana plugs and was ready to get started.

Once I got everything connected, I fired the receiver up and began configuring my inputs.  You have the ability to assign your HDMI ports to three of four choices: DVD, TV, VCR (if you have a VCR with HDMI out, more power to you!), and Video Aux (which also is the front analog input assignment).  There are then two each of coaxial and optical digital inputs, three component inputs, and five S-Video and composite connections.  All told, five of the nine sources are video-capable in some way, and the remaining four – Sirius, Aux, CD, and CD-R/Tape are audio only.

You can use the remote to run through configuration, but since there is no on-screen display, I chose to use the front panel controls to set everything up.  You press a button to enter the setup menus, and then use a control knob to navigate and select.  By turning the knob, you move through options, and a simple press of the knob makes a selection.  I really liked this control scheme.  The only caveat here is that if you leave one of the inputs assigned to the wrong label for too long, it will automatically bump that label out if it was assigned to a different input.  For example, when I selected HDMI 1 to be assigned to TV, I left it on DVD for too long while scrolling through the choices, and thus, DVD was knocked out of being the HDMI 2 input.  This is mostly a nitpick, but it did throw me for a loop the first time I tried to use the Playstation 3 (which was my DVD input).

I had all of my sources connected, and saw the picture from the satellite feed, but the volume was really low.  I realized it was coming only from the TV.  A quick consultation with the manual, which is fairly comprehensive, drew me to the major bombshell with this unit.

Directly from the manual:
NOTE: The audio signal input to the HDMI input connector cannot be played on the AVR-689.  Input the audio signal to the digital audio input connector or analog audio input connector”

Stunned, I had to re-read that passage a few times to let it sink in.  There are several reasons why this is a deal-breaker.  First of all, one of the promises of HDMI is to cut down on the cable sprawl behind your component rack by sending both audio and video down a single cable.  By eliminating the ability to use the connector for audio input, Denon has removed a huge part of the usefulness of this connector on the AVR-689.  Of course you can pass through digital video to your display, but it doesn’t support audio except to pass that through to your display as well.  For a receiver that supports HDMI 1.3a, and thus things like xvYCC and Deep Color, it is amazing that audio is neglected completely.  This limitation prevents the receiver from being able to receive multi-channel PCM audio, and thus, the wonderful uncompressed audio tracks on Blu-ray discs in pristine digital quality.  There is a set of multi-channel analog inputs, which does allow for players that have the ability to output via these connectors.  Still, the huge number of Sony Playstation 3 owners who use them as Blu-ray players (such as myself) are left out in the cold as there is no way to move those high resolution audio tracks to the AVR-689.  Furthermore, for those with Blu-ray players that do have analog multi-channel outputs, there had better be some bass management features in the player (or your speakers had better be full range all around) because the inputs on the AVR-689 are pass-through only; there is no processing, and thus, no bass management.

To re-iterate, the HDMI inputs pass through the video and audio only. They do not provide any audio decoding in the receiver.

 


 

There is also a fairly substantial video limitation, but which is much more understandable given the price of the receiver.  You cannot convert analog signals to digital, and vice versa.  This means that you have to run both an HDMI and component (or other analog format) if you use both digital and analog video signals.  Thankfully, if you run a single set of component cables, you can upconvert any legacy video connection formats, such as S-Video or composite so that they will run over the component connection.

So, after coming to grips with the reality that I would have to dig out some old coaxial and optical digital audio cables and an extra set of component video cables from my closet, I was ready for some calibration.  The AVR-689 has seven amplified channels, two of which can be assigned to one of three choices: a) the main zone as surround rears, b) a second zone as stereo speakers, and c) as a second amplifier to bi-amp your front speakers.  This is some excellent flexibility for a receiver in this category.  In my case, I currently only have a 5.1 setup, so I did not make use of those channels at all.

The Audyssey MultEQ automatic calibration system is another example of the trickle-down effect of which I mentioned earlier that previously advanced features have made their way to entry level equipment.  The AVR-689 includes the microphone, which, as I recall, was a separate purchase when Denon shipped their first receivers that included an auto calibration feature.  The manual recommends that you run the test tones at six listening positions.  As I don’t even have that many in my room, I only ran it three times across the three main seats on the couch.  The system nailed most of the settings.  I really only had to modify the subwoofer level and distance, as all other channels and the system crossover came up correctly.

For those who prefer to use their trusty SPL meters and test tones, you can of course set distance and levels manually; however this will prevent you from being able to use the Audyssey equalization and room correction features.  Crossover settings can be global or per channel, another nice feature.  In addition, these settings are saved in static memory on a per-source basis, meaning that when you return to a source, the last used settings remain.

If you do choose to use the Audyssey automatic setup program, you will then be able to choose from three different types of room equalization/correction.  These include the flat response setting, the Audyssey setting, and a mode in which optimization is performed against all speakers except the front left and right speakers.  Since my room is not acoustically optimized, I chose to use the Audyssey setting to let the system perform its calculated correction and equalization.  I was pleased with the results, as I will expand upon later.

The Audyssey system incorporates a couple of new features as well that I had not seen before.  First, a setting called Dynamic EQ, which works with the MultEQ system to improve sound quality during lower volume listening.  Typically, as you lower the volume of your system, a lot of detail and nuance becomes inaudible.  This system looks to address that issue.  The second feature, which also works in concert with Dynamic EQ is Dynamic Volume.  This would be quite a useful feature for those that watch a lot of television-sourced material.  For example, I like several shows on NBC.  It seems that the program material is always significantly quieter than the commercials.  With this feature, that difference in sound levels is mitigated to a large degree.

This would be even more useful if you do a lot of channel surfing.  Many times different channels have vastly different volume levels, so flipping through them no longer requires you to have a trigger finger on the volume switch.  I say “would be” because in practice, I found that I preferred Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ off.  The Dynamic EQ function worked pretty well when I tested listening at low levels.  It definitely did help to keep the audio rich and dynamic when I couldn’t drive my system full bore.  The Dynamic Volume feature was a different story.  I felt that this really crushed the audio.  The bass always seemed too loud, and the rest of the channels lacked dynamics at all, rendering the audio . . . well . . . boring.

Next, I waded through the various surround options I had available.  The AVR-689 decodes all the major non-high resolution variations of Dolby and DTS, including those featuring the discrete and matrix rear surround channels (Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES).   All of the tunable settings are there for Dolby Pro-Logic II/IIx and DTS Neo:6 as well.  I have always preferred the former and didn’t see any reason to change with this unit.  Of course, the once astounding, now gimmicky DSP modes are present as well, such as Rock Arena, Jazz Club, and 5/7 Channel Stereo.  Perhaps useful to some is the Mono Movie mode, which enhances the viewing experience for monaural classic films.  I do use Stereo mode when I listen to my iTunes collection via my Airport Express or when I pop in a CD.  A majority of the time, I prefer listening to stereo music without the enhancement of surround sound.  With my regular receiver, I have to engage Stereo mode instead of Direct mode if I want the subwoofer active.  This was not the case with the AVR-689, as the subwoofer played in both Stereo and Direct modes.  The reason I preferred Stereo mode to Direct mode, however, was that I was able to maintain the Audyssey equalization settings, which are defeated in Direct mode.

 


 

Remote Control and Miscellaneous Features

The remote control included with the AVR-689 has a unique, but somewhat puzzling design.  It has the main features on the front, including source selection, volume, and tuning controls.  It also has the ability to control source components with the standard transport controls.  In addition, you can manipulate the Audyssey settings and speaker levels.  But where are the surround mode options?  Flipping the remote over, I found a large door that swings open to the side, revealing more source selection controls, as well as the surround controls.  I find it very odd that Denon would choose to put these controls on the back of the remote hidden behind a door, while the speaker level and Audyssey settings remain easily accessible on the front.  You are much more likely to make adjustments to the surround parameters during normal every day use than to mess with your calibration settings.  Still, there are things to like about the remote.  The volume buttons are large, and the Volume Up is convex, while the Volume Down button is concave, making it easy to distinguish one from the other in the dark.  Similarly, the other buttons are different enough that it would be rather easy to learn your way around the remote by touch.  The overall size and weight are comfortable, but I just wasn’t thrilled with having to open a door on the bottom of the remote to access some of the basic functions. (When you click on the small photo to see the larger version, depending on the dimensions of your computer monitor, there may be a small square in the bottom right corner that you then have to click to see it full size.)

The Denon AVR-689 does include some other useful features which some people may find interesting.  There is Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility with the purchase of an external tuner/antenna.  Also available for separate purchase is an iPod dock which allows you to control and listen to your iPod through the AVR-689.  Along those lines, the receiver includes a Restorer function that is intended to improve the audio quality of your compressed MP3 collection.  The benefits of this are debatable, but it’s there if you want to try.  I did test it out with my iPhone connected through a standard 1/8” to RCA style adapter, but really didn’t sense much difference between the various restorer modes of which there are three.  The differences in those modes are based on the weaknesses inherent to the compressed audio files being played.

 


 

Performance

Of course, as with any receiver review, the real important question is “how does it sound?”  The overall performance of the AVR-689 was quite good.  I pulled out the Pixar classic A Bug’s Life from my DVD collection as it has some wonderful surround channel activity.  This receiver did not disappoint.  The beautiful score played with strength and clarity from the opening credits.  The scenes in the Bug “City” put you right in the action with the crowds buzzing in your ears from behind (pun intended).  The climactic scene with the rain storm sounded fantastic as well.

For two channel music, the AVR-689 was also an admirable performer.  I played several of my favorite albums, both in MP3 format and a couple of CDs, and was fairly impressed.  I was able to drive my speakers as loud as I would ever want to listen to them without any signs the receiver was reaching its limits.  My only complaint here was that without anything playing there is definitely some audible noise.  I use a balanced power conditioner, and do not have this problem with my everyday receiver.  It wasn’t distracting though, as I really only heard it if the volume was set very high with nothing playing, or I was really close to a speaker.  It isn’t anything significant enough on which to base your decision whether this receiver is right for you, but I must note it in my review.  To summarize, my overall opinion of the audio quality of this unit is very good, provided that you test out all your options and choose what sounds best for you.  As I mentioned previously, I really played around with all the available Audyssey modes, surround modes, and the combination thereof, testing with my favorite music and film passages.  Once I made my choices I was quite happy with the results.

 


 

On the Bench (JEJ)

All the bench tests were with two channels driven.

At 50 watts into 8 ohms, IMD was 0.043%.

Measured frequency response was the same at 5 volts and 20 volts into either 8 ohms or 4 ohms: 10 Hz - 50 kHz, - 1 dB.

THD+N vs. Frequency for both 8 ohms and 4 ohms is shown below. The relatively high distortion at 20 volts and 4 ohms (100 watts) across the entire frequency range suggests that you should not use 4 ohm speakers with this receiver. At $399, the manufacturer simply cannot put a big enough power supply inside to handle low impedance loads.

At 8 ohms, the AVR-689 delivered 85 watts RMS into 8 ohms (two channels) before a rapid rise to clipping (1% THD+N) at 110 volts. At 4 ohms, the output was 110 watts, then a rise to clipping at 140 watts. Notice that at 4 ohms, distortion begins to rise rapidly at 20 watts, whereas at 8 ohms, it begins the rapid rise at 85 watts. This is another indication that you should not use the AVR-689 receiver to drive 4 ohm speakers.

 


 

Conclusions

So how does the AVR 689 stack up? On the one hand, I am happy to report that the Denon quality is still there.  It may not sound as good as the AVR-4308, but we are talking a completely different class of device!  For the market segment it plays in, the AVR-689 is one heck of a bargain.  It offers more features and quality than I would expect at this price point.  On the other hand, I think I made it pretty clear early on that the lack of audio capability over HDMI makes this a deal-breaker for me.  So, here’s what I would say.  If HDMI audio is not important to you, then by all means, make it a point to give this receiver a spin when weighing your options.  Otherwise, and unfortunately, this receiver is not the right choice.  Hopefully in the future we will see every receiver that incorporates HDMI include both video and audio capability.  It just makes sense as we move further into the era of Blu-ray and digital audio/video.