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Product Review - Denon AVR-4802 Surround Sound Receiver - January, 2002

Michael James


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Specifications

Seven Channels x 125 Watts into 8 Ohms

Inputs: <Audio> 12 Sets Analog, One Set 7.1 Analog, Five Sets Digital Optical, Three Sets Digital Coax <Video> Three Sets Component, Eight Sets Composite, Eight Sets S-Video

Outputs:   <Audio> Eight Channels Pre-Out, Four Rec-Out, One Multizone, Two Sets Digital Optical <Video> One Set Component, Five Sets Composite, Five Sets S-Video

Size:   7" H x 17" W x 19" D

Weight:   45 Pounds

MSRP:   $2,500 USA

 

Denon Electronics: http://www.denon.com

The Fellowship

The search for high-end audio performance can be an intimidating experience, and one need not be an audiophile to realize this. Many apartment dwellers and space conscious consumers are clamoring for high-end performance AV receivers to run their home theater systems. Throw in search parameters like room size confinement and budget boundaries, and the project becomes even more difficult. Buyers ask for units that do not compromise sound for convenience, wanting them to handle music as well as home theater, and to do this at a reasonable cost. Maybe the task of saving the world from absolute evil would be a tad bit easier. Throughout this journey, obstacles lay all about, detouring the inexperienced members of the fellowship. Bothersome audio trolls, or as they are more commonly called, retail sales reps, feed off consumer intimidation. Through their 'Holier than Thou' attitudes, they pride themselves with instant customer evaluation, but only end up furnishing obstacles to those they deem unworthy of their wares. However, one must keep his perspective in focus, because the bottom line in high-end audio is still all about performance and not price levels. It is from this understanding, that your journey can reap wondrous rewards.

The new Denon AVR-4802 is an AV receiver/controller that attempts to take on this daunting task full throttle. This unit is loaded to the gills with every current acoustic format an enthusiast could possibly desire . . . except of course if it's Tuesday, and they have gone and invented still another format! Dolby Digital and DTS seem rather pedestrian, when compared to the more elaborate marketing names of the newer formats. They list as THX Surround EX, DTS-Extended Surround, as well as both DTS Neo: 6 and DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, plus THX Post Processing. And lest we forget, the AVR-4802 also has the new and improved Dolby Pro Logic II format. Now at $2,500 full retail, you will be hard pressed to find this model on the bargain shelves at your local audio video retailer. But, when you take into account all the available features of this unit, and that its most direct competition runs at levels of $3,000 or above, this unit seems to be priced competitively.

The Preparation

The AVR-4802 has an extensive set-up procedure, which is well documented within the users manual and is also adeptly aided for simplicity by on screen monitor graphics. This set-up process will require a monitor connection to calibrate the detailed parameters. The on screen display (OSD) signal is output with a priority to the S-Video monitor output connection. The OSD is not output from the component out jacks. From within this set-up procedure, the end-user exhibits more control over the subwoofer crossover frequency (low-pass), a feature rarely found available to many audio video receiver owners. One can choose either the basic THX crossover frequency of 80 Hz or one of five fixed settings (40, 60, 80, 100, and 120 Hz). Thus, you have more more speaker and subwoofer options. Upon completion of set-up procedures, the user can then turn off the onscreen display from the remote.

Without repeating the specs cited above, is obvious that this model comes with an extensive resume of features and connection possibilities. It is a system that falls just short of controlling the darkness of your morning toast. In addition to the basic composite and S-Video switching, the AVR-4802 provides a bounty of three sets of component video inputs, as well as one set of component video outputs. This number of component video inputs is a rare and much-welcomed sight. This readies the owner for the enjoyment of a higher video resolution connection on three separate input sources. However, 150 MHz bandwidth would be preferred for such connections, and the 4802 has about 50 MHz (but this is better than the average receiver).

On the audio side, the AVR-4802 also includes a wealthy abundance of eight digital audio connects. From within the set-up procedure one can easily set the digital audio input assignment. In other words, you can assign the digital audio input jack to a specific input source (i.e., DVD, CD, etc.) and to be labeled as such. The last two optical digital outputs are equipped with an optical digital output jack for recording digital signals on a DAT unit or other type digital recorder. I have always acoustically preferred coaxial over optical digital audio inputs, and was pleased to see that the AVR-4802 included the comfort of three coax digital audio inputs. This model is also equipped with 7.1 analog audio connections for the analog output of SACD or DVD-Audio players.



The Denon AVR-4802 is specified to handle speakers with an impedance load from 6 to 16 Ohms. This model also includes a high-speed protection circuit. The sole purpose of this circuit is protection of the speakers from the possibilities of power amplifier short circuit, or when the unit is played for a long time at high volume levels when the speakers have impedance lower than the spec recommended load. When the protection circuit is activated, speaker output is cut off, and the power supply indicator LED flashes. Nine speaker connections in total (including an extra B set of Surround Backs) are ergonomically positioned away from all the audio video connections. They are still close enough to each other, however, making connections a bit of a tricky maneuver. This might lean the owner to banana plug speaker wire terminations. One of the bonus benefits of going with separate audio components, as opposed to an all-in-one unit, is plenty of available connection space. But, I guess I should be a bit more realistic with AV controllers. There is only a finite amount of unit backspace and an ever-expanding array of possible connections. I would think that you want full access to the rear when making all your system connections. Awkward body stretching and reaching around the back makes for poor connections and a night full of pained hand and back cramps.

The AVR-4802 comes with a PDA style remote (photo below) that I found a bit more convoluted than need be for effectiveness. Whether you use this remote to run your whole system is up to your adaptability to its particulars. This is one of few systems I have found that actually gives you a separate usage manual just for the remote.



On the amplification side of things, this unit has sufficient power to drive moderately sensitive high-end quality speaker systems. This model utilizes a THX Ultra certified rated 125 watts per seven discrete channels. It's not quite the wattage of its older father, the AVR-5800 at 170 watts. But, this is an insignificant difference when you take into account the exponential relationship between dB and power. The AVR-4802 has a 20.97 dBW rating, compared to the 22.30 dBW rating of the AVR-5800 into an 8 Ohm load. The build quality of the AVR-4802 is above average as compared to other AV control units, but still not at the level of high-end separate audio component manufacturers. Of course, it is also not at the same price level of these separate audio components either. At 19.1 inches deep, I found this unit a bit larger than many of its competitors. So you may want to re-measure your available storage space, to be sure of a good fit. This extra size may result in better airflow and cooling for the unit. I did find that it ran cooler than other competing models. One side note, concerning size and build quality needs to be pointed out. I was extremely disappointed in the amount of packing and protection materials included within the shipping carton. Prospective buyers need be aware from whom they purchase this unit. Be extra clear on the retailer's damage return policies. This packaging seemed woefully deficient, especially in protection from manufacturer to dealer shipment, and stock boy treatment. I have noticed that there are some Internet retailers now authorized for Denon sales. A retailer that double-boxes might be well worth any extra shipping costs. They usually also have liberal damage return policies.



The Journey

My first impulse was to try this unit solely as a preamp and utilize my separate amplifier. I thought this method would better isolate the unit's two basic functions. I feel this would also result in a better test evaluation. First, I looked at this model as an audio/video system control component (as a preamp, using the pre-outs and bypassing its power amplifiers). Then secondly, I tested it as a complete controller/amplification package.

The digital circuitry design of the Denon AVR-4802 is cited, within the manufacturers white pages, as the reason for performance superiority. I found this unit to function as an above average preamp. An above average pre-amp performance level, in comparison to more expensive high-end audio separates. When more appropriately compared to its direct all-in-one competition, the performance level of the AVR-4802 becomes quite distinctive. The musical presentation of this unit exhibited a very moving performance. The AVR-4802 handled sophisticated orchestrations and operatic pieces with the same audio superiority as it did with modern rock ensembles. From Verdi's,"Rigoletto" to Mussorgsky's, "Pictures at an Exhibition", the Denon took very little backseat to its high-end preamp brethren.

One of the many goals of a quality musical performance is an acute awareness of instrument individuality, one that still retains the ability to form a seamless integration within the whole. This achievement results in a more complete and satisfying musical presentation. Each instrument should play with its own distinctiveness of sound, but still not be so forward as to overpower the total musical compilation. Within the area of rock ensembles, I found the 1999 Bif Naked hit entitled "Lucky" an excellent example of this acoustic theory. It is a piece that begins with acoustic guitar and moody vocals, then slowly builds to a finale of rhythmic percussion and the full rock ensemble of drums, bass, keyboards, and electric guitar. The rhythm and pace of the percussion never overpowers or muddies the passion-full notes of the acoustic guitar. As the song becomes more and more complex, the listener never seems overloaded with an excess of instruments. Poor integration of instruments can diminish the final musical presentation. Rather, we are witness to the warm comfort of the musical assemblage.

"Rigoletto" is an opera that stirs the moral passion of its audience. The sheer genius of Giuseppe Verdi has allowed this work to cross many a musical demographic. One need not be an opera connoisseur to be familiar with the melodic arias of this piece. In Act III, when the Duke of Mantua gives voice to his guiding rule: 'La donna e mobile' (Woman is Fickle), the listener is taken to a very familiar acoustic place. The Denon plays this well-known aria with a sense of novel originality. The soundstage presentation is recreated with such a level of detail and clarity, that it likens itself to that of a live performance. The music and vocals never thicken to sound like a late night commercial for the top 100 greatest opera hits on CD.

Instrumental compositions like Mussorgsky's, "Pictures at an Exhibition" can also envision the satisfaction of a live concert hall performance. The midrange and treble on "The Heroes' Gate at Kiev" come across with a keen perception of musical transparency. Instruments seem to hang in a three-dimensional space. Lower quality units can easily perform this piece as way too forward and bright sounding. Usually, they have levels of treble that can expose a metallic harshness, which can give one the false impression of more musical detail. Previous experience with this type of poor performance, exhibits a sensation of fatigue to the listening ear. The Denon was found to provide hours upon hours of comfortable quality music listening, with a natural comfort of precision. Kudos to Denon for focusing equal attention to this important aspect of the complete audio video presentation. Some manufacturers seem to easily defer the importance of musical performance, without realizing that a quality musical presentation also makes for a quality home theater experience.

Home theater presentation was quite pleasurable. I was expecting some audio degradation to be evident, as compared to my older Sunfire preamp, but this was not the case. The newly released DVD, "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider", exhibited an extensive soundtrack. The bungee ballet scene, where our heroine is attacked by a commando squad for possession of the key, proves an interesting audio challenge. This scene displays a sophisticated orchestration of sound effects and musical background. They range acoustically from the delicate gentle prologue, to the full bore smashing action sequence. The AVR-4802 handles this chore with a sense of ease. Poor performers seem to easily lump acoustics together, and get very unfocused in the mist of all this mayhem. The Denon handled this Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack with a detailed sense of reality. Gunshots, glass breakage, trampoline and bungee equipment, to even Angelina Jolie's out of breath gasps of air were never lost or mashed into a single fuzzy soundstage. The exactness of this compilation played out like a finely orchestrated symphony. I could not detect any acoustic degradation between the high-end Sunfire and the Denon AVR-4802. With the high-end models taking some time in embracing the new sound formats and additions, this might give one reason to rethink his preamp choices.

The new extensive home theater surround format modes on this unit further that same acoustic accuracy found within the Dolby Digital 5.1 format. They extend this clarity to an even more enjoyable level. When an increase of source component detail is furnished to the Denon, the more this model fills the listening area with a bounty of sonic rewards. From the basic surround mode of the DTS edition of "Die Hard" to the 6.1 DTS-ES surround sound of "Gladiator", all present quite an impressive and full transparent soundstage. I was particularly enamored by my old Christmas favorite, Die Hard Numero Uno. Maybe it was because the last time I viewed this picture was in the laserdisc format, but the DTS sound effects really brought this film to a new life. I could actually acoustically feel the pain of walking barefoot through all that broken glass of the Nakatomi Plaza. The 6.1 DTS-ES mode on "Gladiator" increased the auditory sensory level with the addition of the extra rear surround speaker set-up. The title of chapter two, "Hell Unleashed", goes a long way in describing the auditory experience. The addition of back speakers seems to yield better integration between the rear surrounds. I have always noticed somewhat of an acoustic gap between the normal 5.1 rear surround channels. The extra back rear surrounds better link the total rear presentation. This directly results in a more complete three-dimensional soundstage around the listener. I am trying not to be an advocate of the buy more attitude, but the extra rear back speakers do payoff in performance.

Is it cost effective to add the purchase of one or two more speakers (rear EX and ES) to your audio budget? Well that bottom line still remains to be answered by the budget constraints and audio sensitivity of each individual enthusiast. This is especially so, when software in this audio format is not in abundant availability. But, Denon does offer an interesting original surround mode compromise, which may forgo the limitation of available software. The 4802 includes a mode called Widescreen, for 7.1-channel sound from 5.1-channel sources. I found the soundstage presentation of this mode to be an entertaining home theater listening experience, although still not quite the detail level as software sources that are specifically encoded for the 6.1 and 7.1 sound format. This feature might alleviate some justification of cost for extra speaker purchases, until more directly encoded software is available. As digital sound fields go, the AVR-4802 includes all the usual (i.e., Super Stadium, Rock Arena, Jazz Club, and Classic Concert Hall) suspects. I personally have never been a big fan of these false sounding digital surround fields. They have always seemed to add phoniness to the original acoustic presentation. These modes are more about playing with the levels of echo, rather than creating a pseudo-concert environment. I did, however, find myself enjoying the Widescreen 7.1-channel mode with a number of older DVD sources.

Dolby Pro Logic II (DPL-II) is the new format for getting multi-channel audio out of two-channel originals, which offers significant improvements over conventional Dolby Pro Logic systems. I had been looking forward to test-drive this new audio surround mode. With great anticipation, I wanted to evaluate the improved performance levels, especially with older broadcast television programs and movies on satellite. In retrospect, maybe my expectations were aimed a bit too high. Audio visions of Dolby Surround television broadcasts sounding equal to Dolby Digital-5.1 DVD might have been an unrealistic expectation. DPL-II is certainly a significant improvement over straight Dolby Pro Logic, but still not the precision and wide soundstage of DD 5.1. I am not sure, however, if my audio disappointment should be directed at the technology, or at the actual audio sources. There is an old computer saying, "Garbage In, Garbage Out". I probably worded that wrongly, but you get the point. Despite being labeled Dolby Surround, a good number of television broadcasts still seem to do little to widen their audio presentation to include front and rear surround speakers. I did notice that this year's newer programs do sound better in the DPL-II surround mode. They have more channel separation than the older reruns of only a year ago. Specifically, NBC's new drama, "Crossing Jordan", seems to have a much broader soundstage than say the older "Buffy TVS" 1998-2000 reruns on the FX Network.

Significant acoustic improvements were better witnessed for stereo music CDs than that of television programming. I would say that Trisha Yearwood's DTS-CD, called "Where Your Road Leads", is just about acoustically equal to her new album, "InsideOut", played within the DPL-II format. Let me be clear in this statement. This DTS-CD is an older 20-bit/5.1 channel encoded mix, and in no way is as good as one of the newer DVD-Audio discs. But, I still enjoyed both multi-channel audio presentations with equal gratification. If it not for my familiarity with the songs on each CD, I would be hard pressed to differentiate between the two recordings.

My hopes for DPL-II weighed more on the side of television and older movies. I really wanted to give a CPR shock to the lifeless sound of some television programs. So, my zeal that DPL-II was going to be the end-all cure-all for the entire aging audio library was a bit dashed. Still, improvement was evident, just not to my desired level. It can be said that I want my cake and to eat it also, so take this opinion with a grain of salt. Production companies are not always quick to release all the minute details of their programming sound practices. I guess the Networks can roll out the same old Catch-22 argument they use for High Definition broadcasts. It works just as well for audio. "We will produce more HD programming when we are convinced more people have purchased HD-capable sets and receiving equipment." "Our acoustic presentation will expand, when we are convinced more people have purchased 5.1 audio systems." Technology expansion can get more than a little frustrating at times. Also remember, this personal thesis is balanced on the evaluation through my own ears. For a more detailed understanding, I defer any knowledge on this topic to Brian Florian and Stacey Spears, and their DPL-II technology review. This report and review can be found by clicking HERE.

When using the Denon AVR-4802 as a complete system, you now become keenly cognizant of the acoustical differences between high-end separate amplification and the amp section of the AVR-4802. The Denon seemed strained in pushing my full-range speakers to the same clean and precise sound level as my separate amplifier. Bass performance also lacked that same punch witnessed earlier when using this piece solely as a preamp. Home theater effects were not quite as clear and crisp, when viewed for a second time. When comparing it to its more direct receiver competition, the Denon amplification did seem at a lofty altitude in performance level. But once again, the listener is still very aware, that there has been a significant step down from that signature high-end audio performance.

The amp section seems to be a common Achilles Heel found in many surround receiver units. Whether it is for reasons of cost effectiveness, or enclosure restrictions, it always seems like this section gets the short end of the R&D stick. Denon white pages describe their design organization and THX certified power rating so as to differentiate them from their competition. As viewed from the interior photo (shown above), the power transformer is positioned near the center of the unit to minimize unwanted vibration. But, I am not witness to the substance of these statements when taken within the reality of actual use. However, to reiterate, the Denon power amp is clearly within the upper echelon of similar model power performance, but also evidently still retains the power deficiency faults of surround receivers. They are faults that are observed in a lack of pure, clean power, with little interaction between channels, so as to run the more extensive speaker setups with higher levels of punch, precision, and accuracy. Whereas I witnessed the preamp performance of this unit to a grade clearly above its peers, the typical average all-in-one receiver amp power performance brought things back down to an earthly atmosphere. This step down in performance can be somewhat offset by modifying other acoustic variables. Moving to a smaller to average size listening area, and mating the unit with a smaller, more sensitive speaker set-up did return performance to a very enjoyable level. One has definitely returned to mainstream Middle-Earth, but within these acoustical parameters, it has a performance level certainly among the cream of the crop. A smaller speaker setup, which I was testing at a similar time to this review, proved to be an excellent match with this receiver for average to apartment size listening areas. I can highly recommend this pairing, as an excellent marriage of technologies. Please see my subsequent review of the B&W 300 series 5.1 speaker system. Also, keep in mind that using sensitive speakers (94 dB or higher) is always beneficial with mass market receivers.

The Outcome

So in summary, would the AVR-4802 entice me to leave the land of high-end audio separates? In a single word . . . no. But then, audio separates are not always the acoustic nirvana for all home theater and music enthusiasts. Plus, you need not sell your old classic Buick to afford them. Certainly factors of space allocation and budget limitations come into play in any setup blueprint. But, if I ever were to return to the land of Middle-Earth and all-in-one AV receivers, the Denon AVR-4802 would most certainly be near the top on a short shopping list. In overall performance and design, there seemed to be only one other AV unit, that I would consider giving this Denon a good run for its performance level, which is the B&K AVR-307. The basic economic fact that the B&K is almost $1,000 more in price, and still also does not include all the same sound modes, makes the Denon AVR-4802 the clear choice decision. But, you need not be a wise old sage to come to this conclusion!



- Michael James - 

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