There are a lot of people out there who want great home cinema performance that combines convenience with style. They probably don't read this magazine and will shop at a Bose store or a B&O retailer for their next system. They most likely wear Jimmy Choos, only drink premium-priced wine and most likely have friends called Tarquin and Jemima, too.
The average HCC reader, however, is an enthusiast in pursuit of home cinema perfection, who's happy to put up with multiple AV boxes, a matted mess of spaghetti cabling, huge speakers and multi-user interfaces that look like the flight deck of Branson's space ship.
Mind you, there are probably a lot more that fit profile A, in fact. So you can see Denon's thinking with the Cara S-5BD system. Why not bundle together a lot of its enthusiast level home cinema technology in a sleek and convenient, one-box Blu-ray/receiver?
So, on paper at least, the Cara offers Denon's premium performance along with B&O's looks and the simplicity of Bose. Open the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rodney. I feel a touch of class coming on.
The Cara is at the top of Denon's more mass market S-series and puts a fully specified Profile 2.0 Blu-ray mechanism at the heart of a new five-channel digital amplifier. Using some clever electronics, when this is run in two-channel or 2.1 mode, it doubles the available current supply to the main left/right channels, affording greater headroom with stereo music or when using its built-in Dolby Virtual Speaker mode.
There is Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA on-board, of course, plus a suite of Audyssey EQ options, including Dynamic Volume, to reduce the volume level of those pesky loud adverts. Unlike competing B&O products, no loudspeakers are supplied with the Cara.
As Denon is very much a global brand, this affords the greatest flexibility of speaker choice, particularly as the amp can drive speakers of down to 4Ω. Of course, if forced to recommend a loudspeaker, Denon might suggest something from Boston Acoustics – also part of the D&M empire.
Lovely, like latex
The Cara's case is super-sleek, curvy and finished in the sort of shiny black that reminds me of oiled rubber, but that's just me.
There are only six control buttons on the fascia's upper edge, a single volume knob, a subtle blue display and a lip at the back of the case to hide the cables. This is understated sexy.
In practise, though, it's not quite as polished. I was damned if I could read the small, dim display in a lit room from more than a few feet away. The stag-beetle side doors, covering additional connectivity, also require the fingers of a 10-year-old pianist to open. My chubby digits simply wedged between the unit and the shelf it was sitting on.
Technically, Denon has lifted several technologies and features from its separates ranges to elicit class-leading performance. The disc mechanism is a fully damped system with metal gear trays, and is fitted low and central for the best vibration resistance and lowest centre of gravity.
The workings are divided into shielded sections to avoid crosstalk between the disc mechanism, DSP, digital amplifier and analogue stages, and the circuit boards are created with the shortest possible signal paths. You get Denon's proprietary AL24 processing, hot 32-bit DSPs and latest onscreen user interface.
Interestingly, this is almost a complete import from Denon's top-spec Blu-ray machines and receivers, to the extent that the two menus for disc and amp control are completely separate. So much for ultimate simplicity and convenience; you have to come out of one menu and then go back into the other.
The back panel is suitably adorned with gold plated connections, including v1.4 compliant HDMI output (although the inputs are v1.3a), 12v triggers, an RS232 interface and a light sprinkling of analogue and digital inputs.
Denon's proprietary iPod dock port has been upgraded on the Cara and will now automatically switch to the correct input, fire up the last track the device was playing and push the music through its excellent compressed music enhancer.
One fundamental pain is that the switching between 2.1 and 5.1-channel output. The manual states this is automatic, but somehow I managed to set it up that this could only be achieved manually – and the instructions didn't say why. I assume that is something to do with the extra switching required to push more current to the front channels in two-channel mode, but it seems like a huge faux pas to me.
Setup is handled by Audyssey, using the supplied microphone, and the system casually detected that I had managed to wire a surround speaker out of phase while in a Monday morning fug.
The remote control is one of Denon's two-sided affairs with lesser-used functions hidden behind a flap on the underside. The GUIs are suitably gorgeous, although the Blu-ray one runs far slower than the amp menus.
While the hard-wired networking over Ethernet sets itself up easily, on kit like this I'm prompted to ask where they put the Wi-Fi. I can't say I was really excited to be slipping in the first disc, as 40W amps (75W into 4Ω claims Denon) don't impress me much.
Thankfully, the eye-wateringly good HD picture lets you forget the vagaries of the spec sheet with an image that's comparable with what some of the best Blu-ray decks have to offer. Flipping heck, it is really good.
Fast action sequences in Avatar (Blu-ray) pan across the screen as if they are on rails and the colour is supremely well balanced. There isn't quite the chromatic punch or inky black depths of my reference Denon DVD-A1UD, but it gets frighteningly close.
A romp through Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring on DVD also revealed a very pleasant surprise – the 1080p scaling is excellent. The image is crisp and dynamic with good edge definition and a real HD feel, particularly on close-up shots of character's faces.
Frodo's huge eyes and Gandalf's wayward grey hair seem to gain a whole level of texture and detail and the overall picture balance is right down the middle. There is a slight lack of impact in the picture, serving to flatten the perspective somewhat, but it's a minor gripe.
The Legends of Jazz Blu-ray proved a trickier feast for the Cara to digest, not least because the downright sluggish disc menu handling serves to make track selection rather cumbersome. Skipping to Marcus Miller's The Panther the sound gains more body. It is rich and warm with fulsome bass and a top end that airs very much on the safer side of neutral.
Bass is quite heavy going when attached to a big set of floorstanding loudspeakers, but it is doubtful that will happen in most homes that buy a Cara. The system would be ideally suited to a modern compact 5.1 sub sat system and that partnership would certainly clean up the bass congestion.
Switching back to Avatar, dialogue is good with accurate placement and smooth upper frequencies. Certainly no one is going to get any added sibilance, although I ended up manually setting the centre channel to 'small' (sending sub-100Hz output to the sub) to eliminate a chesty thickening in voices.
The explosions as the Tree Home is destroyed are conveyed with convincing excitement and presence, but this is not a system to worry your foundations. The ultimate power is limited and the sound hardens quickly if you get enthused with the volume knob.
I do 'get' the Cara and its positioning, right down to the fact that it has a name rather than just a number. It's neat, simple to use and stylish, while performance-wise it dismisses the last B&O DVD system I tried a while back. So all in all it's a five-star winner.
B&O would probably do it with greater panache, such as using motorised gizmos and a more innovative design. But for HCC readers, spend your two grand on Denon's own AVR-4310 receiver and DBP-2010 Blu-ray player and you would have video and particularly audio performance that comprehensively knocks the Cara into a cocked Jimmy Choo brogue.
You pays your money and takes your choice and mine would be the separates every time.
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