Denon has historically set the pace in AVR development, swapping its position on top of the technology mound with Yamaha and Pioneer every so often.
But 2007 has been a year of profound change, with Onkyo moving into pole position both in terms of feature-count and units sold. So can this new flagship from the 3800 range redress the balance?
A time for change
Possibly. The AVR-3808 has grabbed nearly all of the goodies from the range-topping AVR-4308 for itself. The groundbreaking GUI, the networking functionality and HDMI 1.3a switching are all here, making this 3800 look like the best deal of the year from the Japanese brand.
If you judge receivers by size, the Denon won't impress, as it's actually one of the smallest in its class. Significantly though, it is conspicuously heavier than its larger rivals. That's because Denon has quite radically remixed the entire 3800 series, redesigning it from the ground up to give it an even more robust chassis, reinforced by the so-called 'wave' industrial design of the aluminium face plate. Rather than being mass-produced in China, the 08 ranges are manufactured in Denon's high-end plant in Shirakawa, Japan.
The build quality can be considered suitably above average.
Set in the middle of the silver fascia (black is also available) is a big, clear display. Below that is a drop-down flap that reveals the main controls, a set of front AV inputs and a USB port that can be used to play back MP3 files on a USB device.
The 3808 also has an eye on the network future, courtesy of its Ethernet LAN port, which is used to stream internet radio as well as access music files on a PC. If the idea of hooking up your home cinema to a network and streaming music from your PC or Mac sounds compelling, this could be an attractive feature.
Link to your PC
Like so many convergence products though, the reality of trying to introduce a PC to your main entertainment system is often painfully long-winded and unreliable, and the results are rarely worth it. To my mind, the worlds of PC and CE are still just too far apart.
Still, if you manage to join a network, the Denon will seek out all of the music files on your PC and show them to you in the onscreen menu. It also scrolls track information if you've remembered to label the MP3 files. The AVR even has a 'Compressed Audio Restorer', an algorithm that makes crummy MP3 and WMA files sound slightly more acceptable. But not that much more.
The latest version of Denon link is built-in, but it's only of interest if you have another Denon link product.
There is, of course, provision for an optional iPod dock. Nearly every AV receiver on the planet now has some facility for connecting the ubiquitous Apple device. With the 3808, you can either jack into the line inputs as usual, or splash out on a dedicated dock. Do the latter and you get total control of your tunes via the receiver's OSD.
The dock comes in black or white, takes any iPod, except the Shuffle, and charges it too.
Beneath the hood of the AVR-3808 are seven discrete amplifiers rated at 130W into 8 Ohms, with nine sets of speaker terminals allowing you to bi-wire the front pair. The rear surround speakers, if you are not running a 6.1 or 7.1 system, can be configured to drive speakers in another zone.
A Faroudja Genesis video chipset takes care of all the scaling and de-interlacing duties, while Analogue Devices' third-generation SHARC processor decodes the new breed
of HD audio formats.
The right connection
More important still are the four HDMI v1.3a inputs; these are what place the 3808 on the cutting-edge of HD AV. With the latest iteration, a single HDMI cable can deliver 1080p video, Dolby True HD and DTS HD audio - plus even six channels of uncompressed Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio. Such economy of tech can significantly tidy up your cabling. What's more, the Denon's onboard Faroudja scaler means that any video source you put in - analogue or digital - can be squirted out through the HDMI output in any resolution you choose, up to 1080p.
My favourite update for the new receiver is the GUI. I don't usually get excited about an interface, but this one isn't just a bit better than the old block-type menus that Denon used to force us to contend with - it's revolutionary. With full-colour pages, helpful symbols and the speedy response time, I actually enjoyed setting this box up!
The new six-button remote control, with its simple approach and touch-screen, seals the 3808's success in terms of ease-of-use.
The ongoing rumble between Blu-ray and HD DVD has ushered in a raft of new audio codecs, some of which the players themselves cannot decode. Thoughtfully, the 3808 can unravel them all, including Dolby Digital True HD and DTS HD Master Audio (the latter if you have an HD player offering DTS Advanced Out).
When it comes to Blu-ray, the de facto high-resolution sound format is Linear PCM. And the very best LPCM tracks blow away standard Dolby Digital 5.1. That's certainly true of the Bond smash Casino Royale. While the DD5.1 track is fun, the LPCM track is knock-'em-dead brilliant. And the 3808 delights in its dynamics. The receiver has masses of power on tap. Even with all five channels driven, it doesn't raise a sweat, delivering 140W per channel.
The opening scene, in evocative (grainy) black-and-white, opens with murmured dialogue in the atmospheric office; Bond is about to makes his second kill to attain
00 status. Ignore the bit where the baddie reaches for his gun, which just happens to be next to his Sony Walkman (a terrible piece of product placement by the studio bosses!), and focus on ensuing smashing porcelain and gunshot. This demonstrates excellent dynamic range and hair-raising directional effects.
The title theme also highlights the difference between this model and its predecessors. The 3808 is sooo much more musical. The orchestral portion of David Arnold's composition soars in huge arcs, sweeping effortlessly from tight, controlled bass to delicious treble nuances.
The Dolby True HD soundtrack on the HD DVD release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is another triumph of sonic design that the 3808 showcases. It adds a lot of low-frequency weight to the action in a way that doesn't drown dialogue, and the surround effects of young wizards zipping around on broomsticks are all very precisely placed.
The 60GB edition of Sony's PS3, with its HDMI v1.3 output, has been waiting for a partner that can handle the uncompressed Super Audio CD audio stream. With the Denon, it has met its match.
There's not much available on this format, sadly, but Groove Armada's Vertigo album sounds ethereal in the way it fills the room with floating rhythm and bass.
This receiver has a truly open and expressive midrange, lending vocals the presence and breathy realism that really puts the singer in the room.
Two-channel stereo is rewarding too, certainly good enough to reawaken interest in well-produced CDs like Massive Attack's Mezzanine album. There's an epic sense of power, with over 170W of amplification on tap. But it's rhythmic and in-proportion, instead of swampy. Karma Coma is ideal as a test track if you think your system might be a bit bass-clumsy by the way, but here it is played out to perfection.
From a feature-laden perspective, this Denon receiver ticks most of the boxes a modern enthusiast might want.
It's HDMI v1.3 connectivity is generous, there are ample codecs onboard and the interface is much improved over previous editions.
It's regrettable that the 3808 lacks any kind of THX post-processing, and we're still denied a DAB tuner, but at least there's some sweetening of the pill courtesy of its network abilities. If you're looking to pass some time online by searching for thousands of obscure internet radio stations, or want to scan your computer for music files, this AVR is more than willing to help. Generally the AVR-3808 manages to balance exotic features with the more essential ones like HDMI switching and HD audio decoding, and still
has time to get the audio performance about right.
Denon's design is about right, too. A big amp is a big amp whatever you do to it, but the 'wave' fascia is a welcome embellishment to AVR style