Kenwood VR-4700 Digital Surround Receiver Review

Ever looked at the pile of remote controls on your coffee table and wondered if they were breeding when you weren’t watching? I’ve got a receiver for you, Kenwood’s second-from-the-top model, the VR-4700. It brings a new weapon to bear in the fight against coffee-table clutter.
I’ve seen touchscreen remotes with LCD panels before, so the receiver’s PowerTouch handset wasn’t too surprising at first. But finding out that it controls the receiver via radio-frequency (RF) commands instead of the usual infrared (IR) flashes struck me as a valuable innovation. The use of RF signals not only promised correct operation regardless of where I pointed the remote but also let me use it through the walls of neighboring rooms – it doesn’t need a direct, line-of-sight path to the receiver. As the early draft of the manual that came with our preproduction test sample so vividly puts it, the VR-4700 will receive the PowerTouch commands even when it is installed “in a position where the IR remote signal can hardly access, for example, behind a tree.”

Touchscreen remote controls are, in general, really cool. The best ones, like Kenwood’s, are two-way devices that show the operating status of the receiver on the display panel right under your fingertips. They not only eliminate the need to squint at a cryptic array of indicators on a too-distant front-panel display (though the VR-4700 has these, too), but no more video graffiti need be generated by the receiver. In fact, the VR-4700 has no on-screen display on any of its video outputs (composite-, component-, and S-video). With audio-only playback, you don’t have to turn on a TV set to adjust or change the surround sound mode – all that information is shown on the remote’s backlit LCD panel.

The remote controls “foreign” (non-Kenwood) devices via IR codes, which means you can’t operate them from another room without some kind of remote extender. You have to program the PowerTouch with IR commands either the old-fashioned way, by placing it and the other remote head to head, or by recalling the commands from a prestored library.

The handset has many other powers that might prove enticing for a more elaborate home theater setup. For example, operating through the receiver, it can control as many as eight different non-A/V accessories, such as home-automation equipment that follows the Lutron, Makita, or X-10 protocols. In a press demo Kenwood showed the PowerTouch dimming the room lighting and drawing the vertical blinds (“Why don’t you get more comfortable, Mr. Bond . . .”). With a compatible Kenwood megachanger, the remote can help you enter title and track information. In all, it’s an unusually versatile device.

In comparison, the receiver it controls is rather simple. There are only five digital signal processing (DSP) ambience modes, for example, all operating only on two-channel signals. There are no cinema-ambience simulations here – all you get is plain multichannel Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. I’m not complaining, mind you, since I find that adding DSP ambience to multichannel signals is not so much gilding the lily as throwing mud at it. Nearly all of the receiver’s other features – at least those that could affect a rational purchase decision – are listed in “Key Features” on this page.

The VR-4700, however, has a couple of features unique to Kenwood gear that require mention. The first is a process called Drive III (for Dynamic Resolution Intensive Vector Enhancement), which is supposed to “remove quantization noise while the signal is in the digital domain.” More on this later.

The other special Kenwood feature should appeal to those who want to use component-video connections. Usually you have to send composite-, component-, and S-video signals separately to a TV and use the set’s remote to select among them. Since this would obviously run counter to the PowerTouch’s one-for-all design, Kenwood has incorporated Universal Video circuitry in the VR-4700. This processing “upconverts” both composite- and S-video signals into component video for feeding to a TV (the picture quality can be no better than the original signal, however). Going in the other direction, the system will also convert S-video signals into composite video for recording on conventional VCRs that lack S-video inputs. Incoming component signals are not downconverted, however.

Setup was unusually easy, a byproduct of the remote’s LCD readout. Having the crucial speaker size/level/distance settings available at a touch of a finger – without annoying cursor navigation through a typical on-screen menu – led to a very rapid setup of the receiver’s bass-management system, which performed very well.

Up and running, the VR-4700 sounded just great. With the Drive III processing switched out, it produced extremely clean sound thanks to its very low background noise and high power reserves. These qualities were especially useful with the remastered special-edition DVD of The Abyss. Imaging quality was in all cases limited by characteristics of the input signal, not the receiver. The VR-4700 also had no problem with the changing sonic perspectives in the now-classic scene of The Shawshank Redemption in which Tim Robbins plays “Che soave zeffiretto” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison PA system, to transcendent effect on the prisoners – and, one hopes, the audience. (If this scene gets to you the way it always does to me, I can recommend a “prison” opera that has a similar but even more devastating effect: Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.)

As usual with DSP ambience modes from companies that haven’t made a specialty of them, those in the VR-4700 were simply okay – not especially effective in enhancing realism but not egregiously annoying, either. The DSP modes were, however, much easier to adjust than usual, both because only a few parameters need to be changed (room size, wall hardness, and effect level) and because you can access them so easily with the remote.

I could not hear any improvement in the sound quality of music when I switched in the Drive III processing. But on low-level test signals it was obvious to the ear, and to our measurement equipment, that the system added noise to the signal, making it slightly but distinctly less clean than before. If you want accuratereproduction, I recommend keeping the processing off (there’s a virtual button for this on the remote). Without it, the receiver will perform at its sonic best, and that, as its outstanding performance in our lab tests showed, is very good indeed.

Performing less well, at least with our early test sample, was, of all things, the remote control. On the whole it is extremely well thought out, with unusual flexibility for adding those rare infrared command codes that aren’t in the basic sets called up from the code library. But for whatever reason – the construction of the room, the location of the antenna, interference from nearby electronic equipment – operation of the PowerTouch in our sound room was erratic and spotty. The RF commands would work fine with the remote in one location, but if I moved it a few inches away, the receiver might not respond at all. Tilting the handset more or less sometimes made a difference.

Fortunately, right before we went to press several Kenwood representatives visited our offices carrying a sample of the receiver next lower down in the line, which had received the latest preproduction modifications to the RF circuitry in both the handset and the receiver. It performed flawlessly, with the RF commands shooting through walls and activating the receiver from many feet away.

Provided these modifications all make it to the final production runs of the VR-4700 (the Kenwood reps assured me they will), I have no reservations recommending this receiver to anybody who wants to maximize convenience without sacrificing sound quality. Just imagine: once you install the VR-4700, you’ll need only one remote control most of the time – you may actually have room on your coffee table for a coffee-table book!