Sugg. Retail: $1800 (CAN)
Distributor: Denon Canada Inc.,
17 Denison Street, Markham, Ont. L3R 1B5
(905) 475-4085 FAX 475-4159
(Reprinted from the Winter/Spring 2000 Issue)
According to Phil Bryant of Denon Canada, the AVR-3300 is Denon’s most successful receiver under $2,000 in recent years and has constantly oversold in Canada and the United States since October. It sits third from the top in Denon’s line; above it are the AVR-4800 which is similar but with THX(ex) certification at $3,400, and the mammoth AVR-5700 at $4,800. It has to be among the most feature-packed receivers in its price range if not the most packed. However, they’ve managed to keep a misleadingly simple front panel, designed with that the ever-so-common brushed black aluminium and modest gold labelling. The illuminated display features crisp, whitish-blue characters which can be dimmed, and a few red and green LEDs which indicate the status of features such as muting and surround mode.
Inside, there are five channels of 105W amplification (into eight Ohms) , fed by a high quality Analog Devices chipset capable of up to 24-bit/96kHz operation, and featuring the following output modes: DOLBY DIGITAL, DTS, DOLBY PRO-LOGIC, 5-CH STEREO, MATRIX, STEREO, and DIRECT (the purest path stereo). Four DSP “effect” modes are also included. It has five analog stereo A/V inputs (composite and S-video), two analog stereo inputs, a phono input, an input array for eight analog surround channels, two component video inputs, three optical inputs and one coaxial digital input. On the output side, it has two analog stereo A/V tape outputs (composite and S-video), an analog stereo tape output, three video monitor outputs (S-video, composite, and component), an intriguing output array for eight analog surround channels or for outputting the usual six surround channels (including one subwoofer output) and an independently variable multi-room signal. All analog audio connections are unbalanced RCA style. Also, in addition to providing connections for one loudspeaker in each of the five usual home theatre positions, it has outputs for an extra set of surround loudspeakers. This extra connection and the intriguing eight-channel surround input/output are explained further. There is only one sub-woofer output, one coaxial digital input, and no un-switched AC outlets.
The room-mates this receiver had while being evaluated were the members of my Energy RVS (Reference Video System) loudspeakers which include three identical, medium sized front voices, two dipolar surrounds, and a matching powered subwoofer. The three front voices feature a stiff 5″ cone above and below a soft-dome 1″ tweeter. The RVS is a very neutral sounding ensemble. If pressed to characterize them, I would say the mid-bass is particularly trustworthy, and the last thing they would ever do is add any sibilance of their own; they’re not bright.
Personally, excellent music performance is a top priority. For two weeks I listened to a lot of my jazz CDs, played on a Carver TL-3200 CD player using analog connections only. For eight years I’d been using the same CD player with a Carver HR-752 stereo receiver in “CD Direct” mode and loving it. I like jazz guitar, and enjoy the characteristically clear, intense, midrange notes. With the Carver duo turned up fairly high, I was accustomed to a pleasing, energizing sensation when favourite passages peaked. When I first heard the Denon AVR-3300 perform the same material, I was immediately aware of some new detail, and the bass was much tighter and more accurate. It was a steadfast sound with finesse. However that particular energy was missing. Moments which used to step right into my apartment and confront me were speaking with new clarity and politeness from a formal seating arrangement on the soundstage. I was impressed by the improvements, but I had expected to experience more of what I already enjoyed too.
I played AIG’s own jazz CD “Chuck Israels: The Bellingham Sessions Vol. 1” (audio ideas ai-cd-011 - 1998), featuring the Chuck Isreals quartet. This is a super-high-end recording lovingly crafted by AM using such technology as the Meridian 607 A-to-D device and mastering each production copy directly to a CD burner. It is an excellent test representing state of the art technology and is a legitimate musical production too, not just a demo. I really turned it up. I heard slightly more metallic quality in the cymbals. I heard a lot of complex and stable spatial cues. However, the music still seemed a little - polite.
I have a recording called “Live At The It Club” (Columbia/Legacy C2K-65288 - 1964, reissued 1998), of Thelonius Monk and his quartet. Some parts are like the contents of a giant horn-of-plenty being shaken onto the floor in front of the stereo. Some of Monk’s designed clattering matches this image perfectly. On the AVR-3300, there was a bit more detail again, and I had a fresh sense of the very materials the instruments were made of. At one point a telephone rings far-off-microphone and I heard more of its mechanics than I had ever heard before. But, I missed how the recording used to jump out and electrify me, from peak to peak.
The AVR-3300 sells for considerably more than my old standby receiver (the Carver) would today, and claims a lot of cutting-edge componentry and sound improving designs which were not available eight years ago. Here’s an example, edited from the literature:
“The DDSC-D [Dynamic Discrete Surround Decode - Digital] circuit utilizes a discrete block topology design instead of integrated A/D - D/A chips. [It] dynamically allocates processing power for optimum surround sound decoding improved fidelity, resolution and dynamic range. Unlike competitive A/V receivers which digitize all incoming analog signals even in the stereo mode, [DDSC-D] has a dedicated analog pathway that keeps signals in the analog domain [and] preserves the high quality analog output from LP, or HDCD decoding.”
I thought: Could it be the AVR-3300 is simply more accurate? Consistently more detail suggested this. Denon has a tradition of excellent, low-distortion amplifiers and everything SOUNDED very, very clear. So what was I missing?
AM dropped by for a visit and he could see I was suffering. He suggested I was simply experiencing much lower distortion, most noticeably in the higher frequencies. He sympathized with me by saying: “you keep wanting to turn it up”. I had indeed, in hopes of manufacturing that familiar energy. Did this make me guilty of liking distortion somehow? Was I audio-ideologically corrupt? Some harmonic distortion can contribute a richness, warmth, or sweetness when conditions are right. If a component pollutes sound with additives which relate harmonically to the original input signal, then by definition there ought to be a certain degree of harmoniousness in the result. This is how distortion doesn’t always have an ugly character; consider the traditional contrast between tube and transistor amplifier designs. AM1 departed, and I settled on trying to acclimatize to cleaner, better sound despite it not being the happy experience I had been hoping for. It felt like an effort of puritanical discipline. However
AM1 also left behind a Toshiba SD-4109X DVD (a 6-disc player reviewed elsewhere in this issue). I connected it to the AVR-3300 over a coaxial digital connection and witnessed a phenomenal change. Decoded inside the AVR-3300’s Analog Devices chips, the overall impact improved so drastically that my general excitement leapfrogged beyond the Carver duo, finally. I put on Donald Byrd’s “Street Lady” (Blue Note Rare Groove CDP-7243-8-53923-2-0 - 1978, reissued 1997) and it was slapping my face like never before, based on real detail and vitality in the recording.
Having the Toshiba DVD player with a digital connection also allowed me to test performance of higher-standard digital sources. I used the HDCD Sampler Volume 2 by Reference Recordings and blew myself away with several Classical and Jazz numbers, decoded inside the AVR-3300. I was not able to find a 24-bit/96kHz signal over the digital connection (most likely a limitation of the Toshiba DVD player) but ran several 24-bit/96kHz tests over analog connections. In every case, the AVR-3300 clearly demonstrated that the both the digital and analog stages are up to the job of realising the incredible “everything” which those higher digital formats offer. Every test in which digital decoding was performed inside the AVR-3000 was supplemented by a second test in which decoding was performed by the Toshiba DVD player over analog connections. This included CD, HDCD, and Dolby Digital comparisons (using six separate audio cables). In every case, the AVR-3300 produced a clearer and more impressive sound when it was allowed to perform the decoding.
I screened The Matrix and U.S. Marshals in Dolby Digital (decoded inside the AVR-3300), and things were as impressive as expected. It was an excellent Dolby Digital experience. Good Pro-Logic and stereo television programs (input over analog connections) held as stable a centre channel image as I think can be expected. I also enjoyed the excellent “Cinema EQ” feature which relieves classic sibilance problems on many videos and all television sound tracks. It’s similar to the re-equalization part of THX, which pulls back highs originally boosted to cut through projection screen fabrics. Many products have a similar feature, but exactly how the sound is affected overall varies greatly from product to product. I normally find it difficult to stop playing with such an adjustment, on and off, over and over, always feeling it’s too dull or too sibilant. Delightfully, the AVR-3300’s Cinema EQ has one of the best formulated roll-offs I’ve ever heard, and does not dull the sound at all. I programmed it for all video tape and television sources, left it there, and forgot about it.
I listened to several FM broadcasts of classical music from CBC stereo, including a live broadcast of the Montreal Symphony - and it’s safe to say that among upper-priced receivers, it’s as good as it gets. I was also impressed with the auto-tuning which brought in and programmed 33 stations off the dangling wire which came with the unit. Only three of the stations were unlistenable (sonically). Interface
Denon calls the AVR-3300’s volume control “intelligent”; if you turn the knob fast, the volume changes greatly, if you turn it slow - through the same number of detents - it changes much less. Right under the volume control are a small knob and four buttons which control surround parameters, surround mode, individual channel volumes, and tone. The tone control offers bass and treble adjustments of fine 2dB steps, and was previously only available in the AVR-5700. Muting can only be controlled from the remote, and there is an additional volume control only on the remote which independently controls the level of the multi-room outputs.
A large input selector turns through a series of ever-so-slight detents, selecting among eight main inputs. It’s very elegant, but I wish the detents were stronger as I found myself wheeling right past my desired input more than once. When an audio input has been selected, another button labelled Video Source allows the user to select a matching video input. A user can mix practically any combination of picture and sound inputs. This would be handy for previewing or dubbing a music track over a home video material. A straightforward on-screen menu is used to set up which digital input is scanned when a particular stereo A/V input is selected. The user can also select a different input to be routed to the record outputs and multi-room output.
The remote controller controls EVERYTHING, is multi-brand pre-programmed, learning capable, and can be programmed to output custom sequences. It’s generally understandable despite having 63 separate buttons (a flap at the bottom hides several buttons in the picture). I had it worked out in one evening, including the multi-brand aspect. However, those functions are accessed through two little thumb-nail sliding switches and one of them has four positions and eight possible meanings - I found it a bit confusing and labour-intensive every time I wanted to fire several commands at several different units. The other buttons are brightly coloured to indicate groups of functions, and this makes it look like a bit of a toy. (Well isn’t the whole product?) I would have preferred a lower profile, more elegant design to match the character of the main unit.
The on-screen display is complicated, but this would seem unavoidable. It uses a lot of contractions (i.e. D.COMP for “Dynamic Compression”), but I was always able to figure them out. The source video picture is visible behind the displays at all times, thank goodness.
The user’s manual is average - and the average is pretty good these days. However, many of the technical notes or asides are scattered around the pages in little boxes. I wish manufacturers would write a succinct paragraph at the top or bottom of each section to cover all those technical need-to-knows such as: “the S-video and the composite video circuits in this unit are completely independent. Signals input by S-video will only be present only on S-video outputs”
The output for additional surround loudspeakers, unique to Denon, is great for people who are really into surround theory and wish to have instant switching capability between two different surround designs or drive four at the same time. This might involve one set of direct-firing loudspeakers for soundtracks with a high level of left-surround and right-surround differentiation and where localized surround has been accepted, and a dipolar or bipolar set where the opposite philosophy of delocalisation is adopted such as with music or Dolby Pro-Logic. A user can preset which combination of loudspeakers are used in each surround mode automatically, and can manually switch between them using the remote control.
The eight-channel surround capability is very progressive. The AVR-3300 has five channels of amplification. However, if a user had a high definition more-than-six channel surround source, the AVR-3300 could select it and control its volume. Five internal amplifiers and the subwoofer output would take care of the first six channels while the additional two channels would be routed through a special set of outputs to an external amplifier to power additional loudspeakers. Six-channel sources could also make use of the first six inputs and simply leave the additional channels unused. This was how I tested Dolby Digital performance using the Toshiba chipset for decoding, and the AVR-3300 as simply an amplifier. There is one small drawback to how Denon has arranged this, however. The extra two outputs are also used as an independently variable multi-room output. A menu option selects whether they present the seventh and eighth surround channels or perform the multi-room function. Multi-room operation (listening to an alternative source) would not be available during full eight-channel surround output operation. A multi-room amplifier could be fed from one of the AVR-3300’s three tape outputs but these are set at a constant level and a separate volume control would be needed.
In the first few days after setting up the AVR-3300, I found myself making several adjustments each time I switched inputs. I had to select an appropriate surround mode (i.e. MATRIX for music sources, PRO-LOGIC for the VHS deck), and match the correct video inputs to their audio inputs. And, I set different channel levels for different surround modes. However, after a while I noticed the fiddling became less and less called for. Things seemed to be automatically as I wanted them - even when I changed inputs or surround modes. Denon calls this feature “Personal Memory Plus” and it’s been included with all their receivers for several years. The unit memorizes unique surround mode and video input selections for each input setting, and surround parameters and even tone adjustments for each input/surround-mode combination.
I was also delighted with the two non-DSP, non-encoded surround settings: 5-CH STEREO and MATRIX. These are standard throughout the Denon line. In MATRIX mode, the main left and right loudspeakers produce pure stereo, the surrounds produce a derived left-minus-right (stereo difference) signal, and the centre produces a contrived centre signal (not a stereo sum). There are no “DSP” delays, reverbs, or timbre-changing gizmos. I’ve always enjoyed the simple but room-filling effect of this mode for music while I’m roaming around. 5-CH STEREO works similarly, but duplicates the front stereo channels at the surrounds. This way, the rear loudspeakers steal a lot of attention from the front, but I can see its use in parties or other situations where equal sound distribution is wanted. The channel volumes may be set individually in all the modes, however there is no “zero signal” setting at the bottom of each adjustment; a bit of sound can still be heard even at the lowest individual volume settings; the only way to kill the centre channel is to deselect it in the AVR-3300’s system set-up menu, or to use DIRECT or STEREO mode.
Another well thought out feature of the AVR-3300 is its “bass management” control. Users can determine whether Dolby Digital or DTS subwoofer information (LFE channel, including low bass from other channels designated as “small”) is to be sent exclusively to the subwoofer, or if low bass in both the subwoofer and main channels will be mixed together and distributed to every bass-capable loudspeaker including the subwoofer. Depending on room characteristics and loudspeaker placements, one of the two settings will provide the optimum distribution of bass. This feature should not be confused with the standard Dolby Digital controls over which loudspeakers are bass-capable and which are not (”large” vs. “small”). In each case, if a loudspeaker is set as “small” (i.e. surround loudspeakers), bass information in those channels is mixed back into the subwoofer channel.
The AVR-3300 also features independent on and off power functions which means it is positively known whether the unit is being turned on or off when it cannot be seen, such as in a multi-room situation.
Looking at the competition (and having just installed a system based around a direct competitor) - I think the Denon AVR-3300 is the winner. If you’re looking for the heart of a high-quality, multi-component home theatre system, give this one some serious consideration. I am. In fact, so long as I can get a good DVD (single) player and have that digital coaxial connection, I think the AVR-3300 is the one for me. In addition to stunning movie sound, I can hear MORE in my favourite recordings. My faithful Carver duo will be encouraged to retire, with full honours.
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