This is the best DAB radio we've heard to date. Its beautiful design is no bad thing either, but more impressive is the versatility and ease of use. The S-81DAB is part of the brand's Smart Life (read idiot proof) range, and the brief is certainly met.
A function button toggles between all sources with a pleasing click. The CD player's large tray is retro in a reassuring way. Our Nick Drake CD is treated with some reverence, with the delicate orchestral track's right channel bias and the left channel's percussion separated while retaining a balanced sound. The clarity of the vocals is also impressive for a unit of this size.
Perhaps the reason lies with the S-81DAB's cutting-edge digital-to-analogue converters, which are tailored to extract extra detail from CDs - even those containing MP3 or WMA files. During our test that proved true, although of course the level of success depends on how good quality the original files are.
Thankfully the system is compatible with ID tag, so it will display album, artist and song title details in blue on the two-line display on the front screen of the main unit.
Talking of MP3s, the S-81DAB has a dedicated iPod cable (the AK-P100) and input, and a minijack input to connect almost all audio devices. There's also a headphone output on the front, while rear connectivity provides more possibilities.
There is a port for connecting Denon's ASD-1R iDock (available separately), a couple of left/right phono inputs for other devices (laptop, PC etc) and an optical output, as well as speaker connections. The speakers are connected to the main system via colour-coded proprietary speaker cable, doing away with the need for any fiddling about.
The antenna ports prove crucial for picking-up DAB radio, although the S-81DAB scans in all stations very quickly and keeps the signal. Switching between stations does involve an audio delay or a second or two, though. There's also no pause and rewind, no access to a seven-day electronic programme guide and no SD card slot for recording DAB radio.
Stroke of genius
A snippet of The Strokes' Last Night from BBC Radio 2 sounds surprisingly clear despite the relatively low bitrate (at least compared with CD and higher quality MP3s), but it's enough to convince us that the S-81 is best suited to acoustic and classical music, and voice radio.
More robust rock music can sound harsh, although the bass levels can be easily tinkered with very simply via the remote control. Also, there are plenty of other audio presets to experiment with and most serious radio heads will head to the FM tuner for higher-grade sound.
The absence of any advanced DAB radio functions is pretty much our only complaint here. In short, Denon has produced an impressively well-built and versatile mini hi-fi in the distinctive shape of the S-81DAB.