On the surface, Denon's DHT- 550SD home cinema package seems to have everything you could ask for from a mainstream all-inone entertainment system.
Its credibility seems guaranteed by the two separate components used for DVD playback and amplification, while Denon's uncanny knack for melting hearts and opening wallets with its design aesthetics is confirmed by the svelte dimensions and matching metallic silver finishes of the DVD player and AV receiver. Surely a Denon product with so much instant appeal simply has to be a winner, doesn't it?
The 'SYS-550SD' speaker set that completes the 550SD package is as easy on the eye as the main components. For the small but perfectly formed satellites, the combination of its extruded aluminium chassis and cherry wood panel finish is delightful - especially with their grilles removed. It's also nice to find too that the 550SD speakers boast impressively robust screw-down cable connections.
Even the subwoofer shipped with the 550SD doesn't let the aesthetics down, with its roughly triangular shape looking rather more attractive than the standard rectangular box. It's usefully featured, too, in that it carries manual crossover frequency and has phase adjustments that are variable between 40/60/80/100/120/150 and 250 Hz.
Put some socketry in it
Good first impressions continue with the 550SD's connectivity. The DVD deck sports component video outputs through which you can deliver progressive scan, and an RGB-enabled Scart. On the receiver, every spare millimetre of rearend space is filled with socketry, including, two optical inputs and one for coaxial digital audio; FM tuner connections; the subwoofer pre-out; stereo audio inputs for multiple external sources; line ins for six-channel feeds from, say, an external Super Audio CD/DVD-Audio deck; and perhaps most impressive of all, two sets of component video, three S-video and three composite video inputs so that you can use the receiver as an AV switchbox.
It should be pointed out that there's a connection for a 'Surround Back' speaker. No such speaker is included in the package, but the DVD deck can handle both the Dolby Digital EX and DTS Neo:6 6.1 channel audio formats.
Other niceties include Dolby Virtual Speaker compatibility if you'd rather use just two speakers than the 5.1 system provided, and Dolby Headphone support (which offers a surround sound experience from any regular stereophonic headset).
This all adds up to a welcome level of flexibility - one that shames almost every other all-in-one system around at the moment. Including Sony's twice-asexpensive DAV-LF1 system that was recently reviewed in Home Cinema Choice Issue 118...
Closer inspection, however, does reveal some limitations. It's regrettable that the deck itself does not offer support for SACD or DVD-Audio playback, given that many other ultra-budget systems support at least one of these two high-resolution audio formats. As most of Denon's standalone DVD players handle both formats perfectly happily, I'd have thought here that compatibility was a given.
It's perhaps also surprising to find no gamma/ brightness/ colour saturation etc tweaks at the DVD player stage. It's even becoming quite common for all-inone systems at the £700 (or less) mark, to sport DVD recording - but once again, the 550SD does not oblige with this increasingly must-have feature.
Regular readers will be aware of Denon's enviable reputation in the DVD arena. At the higher end of the market, the brand has virtually re-defined DVD picture quality. So it's a shame to report that the DVD section here doesn't live up to this reputation, probably because the DVD section itself is a bought-in OEM solution rather than a genuine Denon DVD transport.
The problem is MPEG decoding artefacts; the backgrounds to an alarming number of my favourite test discs, such as Se7en and Magnolia, appeared rife with macroblocking. Nearly all DVD players will exhibit these artefacts to some degree, but few budget decks look as distractingly messy as this Denon.
It's worth saying that this blocking noise isn't quite as obvious with progressive scan viewing as it is with an RGB Scart feed - but it's still noticeable. My advice would be to only watch DVDs on this system via a component connection. Other aspects of the picture are more appealing, to be fair - but I feel that the MPEG noise is so severe that there's really not much point going into these strengths in any detail. Video jitter is poor at 31ns.
Sonically, the 550SD system was much more in line with my expectations, particularly in multichannel home cinema mode. Particularly pleasing is the amount of detail the speakers deliver, helping the soundstage appear exceptionally agile and dynamic. In stereo mode, the unit pumps out 65W into 8ohms. In multichannel mode this drops to 40W per channel. Its fidelity firewall figure (high-quality usable power) is 35W (0.05% THD). The treble is well-rounded and the mid-range smooth; the bass is nicely integrated.
Although large in scale and wide in frequency response, the 550SD's speakers never lose their grip on the coherency of the sound mix, creating a nice, round sound with no bagginess.
Two-channel stereo playback is less exciting as I found the tone rather dry and clinical, but it does go louder.
At first glance, the Denon 550SD looks an inviting system proposition. Amplification and speaker choice is fine and the aesthetics are truly first-rate. However, I do feel that these elements are somewhat undermined by the poor picture performance of the DVD player.