An impressive all-rounder, which is let down by a simplified spec but still delivers with some lively sound
Fabulous balance with HD-audio
Punchy sound with CDs
Not at its best with ProLogic
No dedicated Pure Direct mode
Only 1 HDMI output
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Somewhere deep in the midst of Denon's bulging 10-strong AV receiver catalogue, a new contender has emerged into middle of the mid-range. That's about £600 to you and me.
The Denon AVR-2309 is very much the middle child, too. It lacks its more pricey siblings' power and ultra advanced features, and doesn't have the gleeful 'must buy' price tags of the lower-end of the Denon's range.
So it's pretty dull then? Actually no, because quite a few of the minor tweaks and enhancements here are rather interesting.
First to catch the eye, or indeed ear, is Audyssey Dynamic Volume – a feature not yet present on the company's ﬂagship £5,000 AVP-A1HD pre-amp.
Like the similar-sounding Dolby Volume, it promises to scupper the well-known TV advertising ploy of boosting the volume of commercials relative to the actual programme material; however this new Audyssey package also includes Dynamic EQ, which maintains the dynamic bite of a soundmix even as volumes are lowered.
Turn down the level during a late-night viewing of Battlestar Galactica and you still might hear Tricia Helfer's Six whispering into Baltar's ear but you'll lose the bass effects when Starbuck leads an assault on the Cylon Resurrection ship.
Engage Audyssey Dynamic Volume and all the relative balance of the soundmix will be retained even if you have cranked it down to avoid disturbing the sleeping kids.
Impressive feature set
Audyssey's processing monitors the sound in real time and adjusts the volume to a uniform level without sacriﬁcing balance. This is quite an upgrade over traditional dynamic compression techniques (or 'night modes' as they're often known) and it combines with the original measurements and tweaks wrought by the 2309's Audyssey MultEQ system to ensure the adjustment is relative to the liveness and natural acoustics of your room.
Also on the hot upgrade list is the 4-in/1-out HDMI arrangement with full 1080p scaling of all incoming video by Faroudja. This extends to the otherwise dull black-text onscreen menu, which, if nothing else, is crisp and stable when viewed in 1080p.
You also get Audyssey MultEQ with ADLF (Advanced Low Frequency correction), a compressed music enhancer and an iPod Dock terminal. The HDMI ports will, of course accept bitstream or LPCM input and decode all of the new HD-audio formats from DTS-HD Master Audio to Dolby TrueHD, and pretty much everything in between.
On the downside the remote is no longer an EL backlight version but Denon's ﬂip-flop double sided beast, and the receiver as a whole has shed half a kilo in weight – although, for most standard kit racks, I'm not sure if that's a bad thing.
Despite this successful diet the AVR-2309 is not short of weight, muscle or clout. A romp through my expanding Blu-ray collection had this mid-ranger easily embodying the new Denon 'sound' – weighty and powerful yet fast and crisp all at the same time.
Experienced AV type I may be, but I'll admit I accidentally set the volume to 0dB before hitting play on National Treasure 2, and the opening 'fireworks over Disneyland' clip gave me immediate ﬁrst-hand experience of the Denon's dynamic capabilities.
The fireworks exploded with a sharp-edge percussive crack and resounding boom that was spectacularly realistic – and my dogs agreed, hurtling out of the room and seeking shelter under the kitchen table.
While National Treasure 2 might be all but a verbatim replica of the original movie and is without doubt Cage's most dubious and unbelievable role to date, it does have its sonic merits. Its Dolby TrueHD soundtrack crafts the scene ambience like few other movies to date and the AVR-2309 rises to
the challenge admirably.
The dampened-audiofield of the Borders book shop in Chapter 3 is wonderfully dead and oppressive, while Chapter 5's scenes around Paris have an open, spacious feel rich with tiny little details. Birds sing in the distance, mopeds pootling in far away streets add an edge to the mix, and the gentle rustling of the breeze in the trees is gorgeously authentic.
The little Denon doesn't get close to the sheer Mount Rushmore scale of the company's upmarket models but the ﬁne balance and detail is more than addictive at the price.
The balance lends itself to excellent dialogue integrity, too. Cage's distinctive drawl, albeit hammered to ridiculous levels of excited hysteria in the ﬁlm, is delivered with unmistakable timbre and superb clarity.
Of course, this makes the scripts' seemingly endless repertoire of clichés and ludicrous 'detective' conclusions even more groan-worthy: it is greater testimony to the AVR-2309 that it actually makes the film watchable at all.
The chase scenes thunder along at a fine pace and the sound remains nicely poised throughout, never imposing an overt character on the mix.
Like many Denons of late, the AVR-2309 manages to appeal with a wider genre of material than most, feeling equally at home with fast-paced action or chick-ﬂicks and kids' movies. Ice Age: The Meltdown on Blu-ray is eye-wateringly good to look at in full high deﬁnition, and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack lacks nothing in completely over-the-top effects.
Amid the seismic-scale noises of the ice breaking and waters rising, the character's voices are beautifully presented by the 2309. The sound is clean, and lets the dialogue draw you into the movie... This is the eighth time I've stuck on Ice Age 2 for a quick look and ended up watching it to the end.
It's not quite a complete bed of roses, though. The ﬂip-ﬂop double-sided remote is reticent bordering on recalcitrant, and there is no networking provision at all, so multimedia freaks should look elsewhere.
Another concern is that with matrix surround formats, such as Dolby ProLogic from Freeview, the sound is more lacklustre than usual for a £600 AVR. Coming down from TrueHD always hurts but without Audyssey EQ engaged the 2309 is a touch two-dimensional with a TV source.
To be honest, I rarely feel the need to play movies at low levels, but there's no doubt that the new Audyssey Dynamic EQ tech has an appreciable effect. It's not exactly life-changing though. Where Denon's receivers always score high is when you switch to analogue direct for a bit of stereo music entertainment, and the AVR2309 does not disappoint.
The thrashtastic new Metallica CD, Death Magnetic, is positively punched out into the room with huge swells and fast-paced guitar riffs. Even Neil Diamond's Home Before Dark CD (...its the wife's, honest) is crafted with a warm and very appealing sound.
There is no 'Pure Direct' mode here (where an AVR bypasses unnecessary circuitry to retain the signal quality) but the Denon still cuts a potent yet frisky stance with music that is on par with some of the best budget stereo amps.
Middle of the road marvel
This middle-child Denon is very much an all-rounder, being pretty good with most sources, but really coming into its own with HD-audio and two-channel stereo music.
The absence of a second HDMI output is a kick in the teeth, and some people won't consider an AVR without Ethernet connectivity, but this machine gets a thumbs up from me.