Denon AVR-5800 Digital Surround Receiver Review

 

At some future date, someone, somewhere, will come up with a bigger, heavier, more powerful, and more fully featured A/V receiver than the one reviewed here. But until then we’ll just have to make do with Denon’s AVR-5800 all 62 pounds, 1,190 watts, and seven THX Ultra-certified channels of it.

You read that right seven channels. The AVR-5800 incorporates THX Surround EX decoding and includes outputs for two back surround speakers, as THX recommends for reproducing the matrix-encoded sixth channel in Dolby Digital Surround EX soundtracks. Consequently, there are seven discrete power-amplifier channels, each rated at 170 watts, making it the first receiver I’ve seen that can deliver more than 1,000 watts in all.

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In the Lab
This is also the first A/V receiver to decode DTS ES-Discrete, a 6.1-channel system in which the sixth channel is individually encoded rather than matrixed onto the regular left/right surround channels. And it’s the first receiver with DTS Neo:6 processing, an all-purpose decoding algorithm that derives 6.1-channel surround sound from any two-channel source, including plain stereo and matrixed Dolby Surround.

The AVR-5800 is deeper (19 1/8 inches front to back) than it is wide, which could make placement tricky. When you include clearance for back-panel wires and front-panel knobs, it might not fit on A/V furniture designed for less expansive components. Otherwise, it presented no special installation challenges. The thicket of connectors in back provides both composite- and S-video jacks for all video paths, and three of these (DVD, TV, and DBS/SAT) are equipped with component-video jacks.

The rear panel also includes 10 (count ’em!) digital audio inputs, which is plenty even for me. The three coaxial and six optical jacks are freely assignable among 11 inputs, while the one AC-3/RF jack is assigned to a laserdisc player. Optical inputs Nos. 5 and 6 have optical outputs as well, making them usable as digital recording loops. And there are not one but two sets of eight external multichannel analog input jacks one could be used for a DVD-Audio player and the other for an external decoder.

Given the Hatfield-and-McCoy history of Dolby and DTS, having dual sets of multichannel analog inputs might not be wretched excess after all. Denon also gives you two independent-source, preamp-level multiroom outputs, making the AVR-5800 receiver a plausible controller for a three-zone whole-house system.

You’re Surrounded

The rear panel also has two sets of side (not back) surround speaker outputs. After connecting different pairs of surround speakers to each set of outputs, you can use the setup menu to designate which pair will be the default for each surround mode. Why? Because Lucasfilm’s THX Ultra program specifies dipole, side-located surround speakers for optimum film-sound playback, while DTS recommends listening to its multichannel music recordings with direct-radiating surround speakers identical to your front pair and located in line with them at the rear of the room.

I connected the AVR-5800 to my usual home theater system. Since Denon advises using identical pairs of dipole speakers for the side and (centered) back surrounds, I supplemented my usual dipole surrounds, which are mounted high on the side walls, with a nearly identical pair from the same maker. I didn’t have a second pair of the Platinum Solos that I use as my left/right front speakers, so I deployed a pair of similar-sounding NHT SuperOnes as the direct-radiating left/right rear surrounds.

The Denon receiver’s channel-balance and setup onscreen menus are among the clearest and easiest to use I’ve encountered. The nifty Aktis touchscreen remote control helped, too (more on that below). While the setup and bass-management functions all worked correctly, I was slightly disappointed that the receiver has only the THX-standard 80-Hz subwoofer crossover-frequency setting.

nd so we come, finally, to the AVR-5800’s front panel, which is attractively simple just two knobs, three buttons, and a businesslike blue display. Everything else is hidden behind a hinge-down door. Denon’s usual gold-on-black lettering scores poor for readability, but you’ll be using the remote to operate everything anyway.

This receiver is fairly awash in interesting technical details. It uses 24-bit/192-kHz digital-to-analog (D/A) converters for all channels, even the LFE (low-frequency-effects) output yikes! There are dual Analog Devices SHARC 32-bit floating-point digital signal processing (DSP) chips for all the important audio processing and decoding. These are leading-edge, extremely high-dynamic-range devices.

How does all this sophistication work where the silicon meets the road? Well, the AVR-5800’s FM reception from moderately weak and distant stations was no better than that of most decent receivers. Its AM reception was a step above average, however, and the FM quality from strong/local signals was fine. Otherwise, I was unable to find any important mode or function where its performance wasn’t excellent.

Breath Taker

Power output was more than ample even for my very low-sensitivity front L/R speakers. The DTS CD of Every Breath You Take, a collection of hits by the Police my current ear-bleeder test played as loud as I could stand it with no hint of distress from the receiver or speakers. Not once did I sense any shortage of dynamic headroom.

Conventional 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS decoding was outstanding, as was the digital-domain Pro Logic decoding. At no point did I hear anything to tip me off that I wasn’t listening to my usual separate processor/preamp and five-channel power amp high praise indeed. All of the officially encoded 6.1-channel Dolby Surround EX DVDs that I played (there aren’t many yet) sounded great.

Denon’s additional DSP ambience modes include the usual Classic Concert, Jazz Club, Rock Arena, and so on. Most of these rely too much on front-channel reverberation, but you can adjust the room size and the effect level to create a reasonably pleasing result with most types of music.

The one ambience mode I did like was DTS’s new Neo:6, which has separate Cinema and Music settings. Cinema “steers” center-type material to the (front) center speaker and ambience information to the surround speakers. The Music setting provides center fill and ambience, but without extracting center or surround signals from the original stereo channels those are delivered intact to the L/R front speakers.

Neo:6 Music worked very well indeed on a wide variety of stereo recordings, adding stable breadth and depth to the soundstage without any synthetic reverb. Neo:6 Cinema worked well on stereo (not surround-encoded) video material such as broadcast TV programming, though I often found myself lowering the rear speakers by a couple of decibels.

Since the AVR-5800 is the first receiver capable of playing discrete 6.1-channel audio, I was especially eager to check out its performance with DTS ES-Discrete discs. The catalog is on the short side: a DVD of The Haunting remastered using a 24-bit audio source and music CDs from Don Henley and Studio Voodoo. (Gladiator, the second DTS ES-Discrete DVD slated for release, wasn’t out yet when I wrote this.)

The pleasingly restrained surround mix on Henley’s The End of Innocence made for interesting listening because the title track is mixed in ES-Discrete while the rest of the album is in ES-Matrix. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I didn’t hear any differences between the opening cut and the similarly textured “The Heart of the Matter” that I can confidently attribute to the different encoding systems. Both sounded seductively clear and open, with unusually distinct, roundly dimensional studio-produced ambience.

It is my firm policy never to watch scary movies I need my sleep but since The Haunting is based on a Shirley Jackson novella set in a house I actually used to live in, I had to check it out. (The real Hill House is no goofy Gothic mansion, just an ordinary, white-clapboard New Englander in a small Vermont town. In my day it was an off-campus college dorm.)

The movie is a rather hokey, conventional horror flick, but it has a killer soundtrack, fine ambience presentation, and some mighty impressive deep-bass effects. Just about every frame sounded very defined and unforced played through the AVR-5800, and most of the cavernous interiors provided a rich palette of superbly reproduced ambience effects. For example, early in the film, when Lili Taylor ushers Catherine Zeta-Jones from one room to another, the room ambience changes in a very smooth and believable way.

Of course, there’s no shortage of zingy 6.1-channel surround effects in the scary stuff. For instance, in the final ghostfest (Chapter 22), distant thunder rolled and gargoyle voices gibbered from side to side behind me in ways impossible for a “mere” 5.1-channel setup to produce keen! How much of this whiz-bang aural imagery is specifically owing to the discrete DTS-ES encoding, as opposed to Dolby Surround EX or DTS ES-Matrix, I can’t say, but my guess is comparatively little. Nevertheless, ES-Discrete appears to work as advertised, and it sounded great.

Denon showed welcome restraint in adorning the AVR-5800 with “extra” features and surround modes. One that I quite liked is that bass and treble tone control is available either globally, for all channels, or individually for the front, center, surround, and back surround channels.

The biggest feature news, though, is the Aktis RC-8000 remote control, a touchscreen handset about the size of an over-fed personal digital assistant. Accompanying the handset is a battery-charger/radio-frequency (RF) base station, which you can use to operate the remote from anywhere in the home through walls and floors.

This is a “deep” and powerful controller with a lot of capabilities. Once you “wake” the screen by touching it, or by hitting the Light key, it shows a palette of “soft keys” appropriate to the device the remote is currently set to command. You select components by pushing in the joystick to call up a menu bar. You can add up to a total of 23 devices, which can include multiples of a single type, such as two CD players. The preprogrammed categories include almost any A/V component you can name.

The remote comes with a modest library of code-sets for major-brand TVs, cable boxes, DVD players, VCRs, CD players and recorders, and satellite receivers (137 code sets in all). And any soft or hard button can “learn” any source codes via the time-honored, labor-intensive end-to-end cloning routine (up to about 200 learned codes). Each add-on device can be associated with up to four screen “pages” of soft keys (the AVR-5800 itself has five), for a total of up to 60 commands per device. Programming and customizing is exceptionally easy since LCD readouts prompt you through the routines.

Almost More Remote Control Than Humanly Possible

You’re not going to learn how to operate all of this remote’s features overnight, or even in a week, but it clearly has enormous potential. It also has some weaknesses, most of which are common to nearly all “paged” touchscreen remotes.

First, you can’t really use the Aktis by feel the screen is perfectly flat. Second, although each of the various screen redraws takes only 2 seconds or less, the response can actually seem sluggish after awhile. Third, readability is excellent in both dim and bright light, but reflections can be annoying in medium lighting (this is true of all LCDs). Fourth, navigating from one command set to another can be cumbersome. For example, if you were playing a DVD and wanted to change the receiver’s surround mode, you’d have to issue four commands (including waking up the screen) just to get to the right page. All of that aside, the Aktis is a powerful remote that lets you control a full home theater system without having to remember shift-key functions or unlabeled commands.

Denon’s AVR-5800 is a great receiver for anyone with a high-end budget who prefers not to bother with separate components. My only real quarrel is with its price, and even here, given the high quality of its hardware, software, and construction, and considering that it isn’t even the most expensive receiver on the market, I’ll willingly concede that it’s well worth what it costs.