Every now and then the audio industry shudders, shakes and evolves. Shedding its old skin like a snake, it emerges with a raft of new products that really shake up the home cinema market.
The result is a new wave of kit (home cinema v2.0?) that pushes the envelope in terms of features and performance and leaves cinephiles with no option but to take once-revered reference kit outside to be shot. Well, okay, put on eBay. 2008 is destined to be the year of next-gen AV; everyone of note is using new technology to raise their game. Not least Denon, with its dramatic new AVR-4308.
For the sake of balance and fairness - as I am about to rave about this receiver - I shall start with some token negatives. The wireless networking on this two-grand grandee is a bitch to setup and the front knobs are disappointingly plasticky. And furthermore... no, actually, that's pretty much it.
In terms of features, Denon's AVR-4308 leaves few boxes unchecked. It's got v1.3 HDMI with twin outputs; video scaling to 1080p; decoding for all the current HD audio formats from DTS and Dolby; and a built-in DAB tuner.
It's fully-networked with both Ethernet and built-in wi-fi; handles everything from MP3s to FLAC-encoded music files; offers Internet Radio V2.0 (giving access to a server with over 7,000 stations); and can stream music from a PC or media server. And then there is four-zone multiroom with two remote controls - a nice backlit device and a none-too-shoddy second zone job with 100 per cent functionality.
Auto-setup goes without saying, of course, and you even get the full-fat Audyssey MultEQ XT room equaliser with full manual tweaking control. One obvious omission is the lack of THX certification - which denies the user a whole heap of superior post processing.
On the plus side, the unit is seriously juicy. In two-channel mode this thing delivers 173W per channel, dropping to just 130W with five channels driven. The power plant consists of three independent power supplies and a host of widgets by famous names such as Faroudja, Sharc and NSV. The internals are solidly put together and well thought out, and the back panel is a regular cornucopia of connectivity.
This heinously-complex beast is tamed by Denon's spanking new graphic user interface, which is gorgeous to behold and über-slick to use. It neatly guides you through every step of setup and function without even a glimpse at the manual - and the unified interface for inputs such as USB/MP3, iPod (via an optional dock) and internet radio make it pretty damn seamless.
What I found not so seamless was getting the wi-fi working. The robust wi-fi module and HDCP-compatible network setup make finding your wi-fi network easy, but the auto-connect feature simply refused to hookup to my system.
Having fiddled with just about every setting in the AVR-4308's network config, I gave up, hooked up an Ethernet bridge to the wired input and connected in seconds. I suspect the issue with the wireless networking may have been some sort of pilot-error but it did highlight that the system is certainly not plug-and-play fool-proof.
There are no such problems with the DAB radio, which proves to have a decent signal pull with the supplied antenna and populates the channel listings with ease. In the duff DAB area of East Sussex, though, there is plenty of drowning and warbling across all but the BBC channels, so clearly a roof-mounted twig will be the best option for critical DAB listening.
With the limited bandwidth of internet radio streaming coming across the bridged Ethernet connection there are no problems with reception - although a bug somewhere means the station listings juddered as I scrolled through them - but issues like this are what the AVR-4308's firmware update over the net will be able to resolve. Moreover, the receiver's 'net radio buffering integrity is the best I have heard to date. Three days of assorted 'net music goodness in the background and not so much as a blip or a hiccup.
And then there is the sound quality of these compressed formats. While most manufacturers are offering some sort of compressed music enhancer and they all put a bit of sparkle back into low-bitrate streams, Denon's Restorer HQ function is magic.
No, really, there is a definite touch of the Harry Potters about this feature, because it can make even the lowliest 64kbps streams sound passable, and really jazzes up 128kbps and above streams to get close to CD sound. This feature turns 'net radio's usually medium-wave sound quality into a genuinely entertaining and enjoyable experience. I am a convert.
Of course all this network music trickery is a mere warm-up to the full home cinema spectacle that the AVR-4308 offers as a main course. The picture processing is top-notch and can turn even the most basic DVD player into a near high-def experience. There is a range of picture tweaking options, although these replicate the settings found on most displays,
and the scaling to 1080i/p is super smooth.
The processing clearly hails from the same stable as Denon's DVD-3930, with a beautifully deep and richly coloured picture that is just a little softer than true HD. But if you are looking to buy a £2,000 receiver you almost certainly own Sky HD, HD DVD or Blu-ray... and that is where the real fun begins.
The main event
The combination of the AVR-4308 and the Dolby True HD soundtrack of 300 on HD DVD is a revelation in home cinema surround audio. The ambience, the atmosphere, the sheer tension and terror from the opening rumble of thunder onwards is a tangible, three-dimensional experience with you positioned smack in the middle of the action.
This Denon is cleaner, more polished, more accurate and better-balanced than any of the previous AVR-430x models - and this audiophile quality is evident with CDs and DVDs as much as the new HD formats.
The up-tempo rock-based soundtrack to Shrek The Third on HD DVD is delivered with plenty of gusto and energy, with dialogue carved precisely out of the centre of the soundstage. The speech articulation is excellent, never blurring into the mix, and the natural rendition of Shrek's Scottish accent and Puss's Spanish tones is perfect.
This poise and clarity does not detract a jot from the impact when the going gets tough. Check out the spectacular scene where Snow White and the forest creatures attack the tree-guardians - to the backing track of Led Zeppelin's classic Immigrant Song. The rush of the animals hurtling past you and the dynamic, screaming lyrics make for a jaw-dropping, goose-bump inducing sound-effect. And all this from an animated children's movie!
The more discs you throw at the AVR-4308 the more impressed you will become. Its internal decoding of Dolby True HD and Dolby Digital Plus are top-notch and standard surround sound formats from good-old DVD have more life and majesty than ever.
When all channels are driven hard, Denon's bigger AVC-A1X VA does sound more robust and potent, and plumbs the depth of bass a little deeper - but then it is over twice the price of the AVR-4308, so no real surprise. And just to complete the AVR-4308's status of top-notch all-rounder, up there with Beefy Botham and Chocolate Hobnobs, its two-channel performance with CDs is worthy of a hi-fi status that few receivers even get close to.
A higher plane
Technically this Denon is nothing less than superb. It's packed with most features a modern cinephile will need and its over-net firmware updates mean it should to be at the cutting-edge of AV technology for sometime to come. Hunt down an audition - but be prepared to put your old reference processor on Ebay. Simply put, the AVR-4308 is a storming new model that will put life back into home cinema hobbydom.