Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
AV technology has been changing so fast lately that many receivers become obsolete just a year after they're introduced. Far fewer are designed with the ability to remain relevant for multiple years. So, when a company introduces a new flagship, like Denon's AVR-X8500H, which debuted at CES 2018, one can't help but wonder if it's the receiver of the moment or if it might have the goods to remain relevant into the future.
If nothing else, Denon has certainly raised the bar with the AVR-X8500H when it comes to amplification. Right off the bat, this new Denon flagship represents the world's first 13.2 channel AV receiver with 13 channels of amplification, adding four additional amp channels compared to the AVR-X7200WA I reviewed a couple of years ago (and two more channels than the 11.2 channel AVR-X6400H released last year), with control for up to three separate zones of both audio and video. The amp section keeps the R and L channel signal paths separate from each other for improved performance.
Denon also includes support for all three immersive surround sound formats, and also covers its bases in terms of High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG standards are all supported), so you're good to go on all the latest audio and video formats. In the previous flagship, Auro-3D was a $199 upgrade option; with the AVR-X8500H, Auro-3D is included in the receiver purchase price, as it is in all Denon's latest receivers above $1,000 (Auro-3D became available via a firmware download in late May for early purchasers of the receiver).
There are 15 sets of speaker binding posts including eight total height speakers, with Height 4 assignable to Front Wide speakers. This means that with 15 speakers installed, the enthusiast can have a full 13-channel Auro-3D configuration with five Heights (two Front Heights, one Center Height, and two Rear Heights) and the "Voice of God" channel, and still have another pair of Height outputs assigned as either Top Middle (7.1.6) or Front Wide (9.1.4) speakers for a 13-channel Atmos configuration. So, with four pairs of height speaker outputs and flexible amp assignment available, you don't have to sacrifice placement for one format over the other. Currently limited to 11 channels, DTS:X doesn't require any specific speaker configuration. Therefore, DTS:X will work with the configurations just described.
The AVR-X8500H comes with Audyssey MultEQ XT32 automatic room acoustic correction software. And with Denon's new Audyssey MultEQ Editor app ($20) you can run the room correction software for multiple speaker configurations and store the individual EQ calibrations to enable easy switching back and forth. Granted, it does take about two minutes to switch between stored calibration settings for Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D speaker configurations on the receiver using the app. But to experience the best these two formats have to offer requires proper setup and calibration.
As of this writing, there are only about 20 Blu-ray movie discs and 50 Blu-ray Pure Audio music discs available encoded with Auro-3D soundtracks, so switching won't need to be performed very often. The Auro-3D format is the little guy in this proverbial David and Goliath battle between Auro-3D and Dolby. However, since partnering with Barco and Sony Pictures about a year ago, there have been many more movies released in the cinema with Auro-3D soundtracks. So, in the future we could see many more Blu-ray discs with Auro-3D hitting the consumer market.
The Editor app also gives the user the ability to view and adjust the settings for total control over the configuration to suit individual preferences. For example, if you want to limit the correction to just the bass frequencies where it's usually needed most, you can do that. Granted you've got to have the space and budget to make having 15 speakers in your home theater a possibility. But if you do, this is the only mainstream receiver to date with the tools to let the true home theater evangelist have his or her cake and eat it too when it comes to reference speaker placement and calibration to optimize sound for the various formats.
For connecting source devices, the Denon provides eight (7 + 1) HDMI inputs and three HDMI outputs, all featuring HDCP 2.2 compatibility and support for 4K Ultra HD 60Hz video, 4:4:4 Pure Color, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and BT.2020 pass-through. An HDMI 2.1 hardware upgrade will also be available in the future to support 8K video and more (for an as-yet undetermined fee). It's also ready for Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) for 3D audio playback through TV apps, which will be enabled through a future firmware update.
All told, Denon has tried to make the AVR-X8500H as future proof as possible. At the same time, Denon hasn't left owners of legacy equipment without HDMI connections out in the cold either, because the AVR-X800H still provides coaxial, optical, and analog input options.
For streaming audio, the AVR-X8500H has both wired and wireless options, including ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay (with AirPlay 2 coming in August), and DLNA. The built-in HEOS ecosystem lets you wirelessly stream music and internet radio to any room of your home with a HEOS-enabled device such as HEOS Bluetooth speakers. The AVR-X8500H has at least 12 music streaming services onboard, including Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Prime Music, SiriusXM, Tidal, iHeartRadio, Deezer, and Soundcloud, all controlled with the HEOS app. Denon has also made the receiver compatible with Alexa to provide the ability to control music streaming with voice commands. For a few examples, you can use Alexa to select a streaming service, to select a song, adjust the volume, pause, mute, or play the next song, and to switch between inputs.
For the first time in many years, Denon is offering the AVR-X8500H in either black or silver finish in the U.S. The receiver has the same 150 watts per channel for all power amps (8 ohms, 20Hz~20kHz, 0.05%THD, two channels driven) as its predecessor, but with a bigger power supply for a higher overall power rating of 900 watts. There is also not only a USB connection on the front of the receiver, but also a second USB connection on the back rated to power devices, so it would be useful for a streaming stick or to add a cooling fan if the receiver is in a location lacking sufficient ventilation. A new auto update feature provides the ability to have firmware updates installed while the receiver is in standby mode.
For audio, the AVR-X8500H has the same reference-class AKM AK4490EQ 32-bit DACs as its predecessor. The AVR-X8500H also features two newly developed dual-core SHARC DSPs from Analog Devices to handle surround decoding and Audyssey room correction algorithms. For those wanting to use external amplifiers instead of those onboard, there is a new pre-amp mode whereby the amplifier section is disconnected to minimize signal contamination.
I hooked up the 13.2 channel receiver in my family room system, the same system I used to previously evaluate the AVR-X7200WA receiver. Lifting the AVR-X8500H out of the box, it's immediately apparent that this new receiver is a beast, weighing in at a robust 51.4 pounds compared to the 37.7 pounds of the previous flagship. This is the most robust receiver from Denon in a long time. The chassis width and height dimensions of the AVR-X8500H are identical to the AVR-X7200WA, but the chassis depth is almost two inches longer. The extra depth is needed to accommodate the four additional amp channels, two additional fans, and larger, beefier power supply.
I connected the new Denon to a LG OLED 4K UHD TV (C8 series), a DirecTV Genie HD DVR, a Roku Ultra streaming media player, an Oppo UDP-203 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc Player, and a 7.1.4 speaker system from Monitor Audio and RBH Sound. I connected the source devices via HDMI and the speakers using cables from WireWorld. I used the custom amp assign feature during setup to designate all the speakers, and I also bi-amped the main L/R tower speakers to take advantage of the two remaining available amp channels. There are numerous preset speaker configurations available, but the custom assignment capability provides the ultimate flexibility.
I also connected the receiver to my home network and ran the Audyssey MultEQ XT32 room correction software from the automatic setup assistant menu. Next, I connected my smartphone to the receiver via Bluetooth. I connected via Wi-Fi to the Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device that I use to store and stream most of my music collection.
I also set up the three HEOS speakers that Denon sent along to try out with the receiver's wireless multiroom capabilities. I set up the two HEOS 1 speakers in the second-floor master bath, and one HEOS 5 speaker in the kitchen. Next, I set up an Amazon Echo Dot and added the receiver and HEOS speakers as devices. Finally, I logged into my accounts with Tidal and Pandora streaming services.
The whole setup and calibration of the receiver, HEOS speakers and Alexa took about 90 minutes. I should note that this was for the basic setup described. The receiver's menu is loaded, with more adjustments possible than I've seen for any other receiver. You can spend hours digging through them to make tweaks. It's at this point that the online owner's manual not only comes in handy, but almost becomes essential.
The remote for the AVR-X8500H is similar but with just a few tweaks from the remote for the AVR-X7200WA. The AVR-X8500H remote has the HEOS button to access connected HEOS-enabled speakers, built-in music streaming services, Internet radio, or any media servers you have connected to the Denon over your network. Also, there are four macro buttons at the bottom of the remote that you can program to perform various functions.
After a few weeks of using the AVR-X8500H for television viewing, I started my evaluation of the receiver by viewing the film The Greatest Showman (20th Century Fox) about the life of P.T. Barnum. The film was shot in native 4K and I viewed the UHD HDR version (HDR10, Dolby Atmos). This film was scripted in the style of a Broadway musical with an almost otherworldly aesthetic, telling much of Barnum's story through song and dance.
As expected, the Denon had no trouble passing the video or audio signals correctly. During Keala Settle's performance of the movie's anthem song "This Is Me," colors start out muted as the circus cast is in the shadows, but a great deal of costume texture and detail is still present. Once the cast moves into the slight the colors become richer and more vibrant, almost to the point of popping off the screen thanks to HDR10. The soundtrack exhibits some good bass detail when the cast is performing a sort of dream sequence in the circus ring. The Atmos speakers become quite active with overhead sound effects, while the powerful vocals and accompanying music expand to fill the entire front of the room.
Next, I watched the film Ex Machina (Lionsgate Films) in UHD HDR (HDR10, DTS:X) to check out the receiver's DTS:X processing. This film was also shot in native 4K so the transfer was pristine. In the opening scene, there is some fantastic panning of a helicopter as it flies overhead through mountainous terrain.
The HDR10 provides natural looking colors with good detail on the overcast day. With the 7.1.4 setup there didn't seem to be any gaps in the overhead soundscape, as sound moved smoothly from back to front. After the helicopter drops off one of the characters, you can hear birds chirping directly overhead as he makes his way along a river in the wilderness.
To see what the potential of the AVR-X8500H was in reproducing surround music, I listened to the track "Ave Maria" performed by Cantus & Tove Ramlo-Ystad on the Pure Audio Blu-ray disc Spes (2L). This album was originally recorded by Morten Lindburg in DXD 24bit/352.8kHz and then down mixed to 9.1 Auro-3D in 24bit/96kHz for the disc. The album was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for best surround sound album.
It is one of the cleanest surround sound recordings you will ever hear, with an extremely low noise floor, and the Denon did not disappoint in recreating the recording space inside the Uranienborg Church in Oslo. The Denon and 7.1.4 speaker setup dropped me right into a chair in the midst of the circle of singers, exactly as Cantus was positioned for the recording.
During the review period, I got comfortable using voice commands with Alexa to stream music from Tidal and Pandora to the Denon receiver or the HEOS speakers. It was a nice convenience to be able to dictate the music on the fly while cooking in the kitchen without having to grab the remote or my phone. And the full sound of the HEOS 5 was impressive for a speaker of its size. There were only two or three times when Alexa got confused, playing the wrong song or not playing a song at all. And it was great to have the two HEOS 1 speakers set up as a stereo pair in the bathroom to play music streamed from the HEOS app or directly from my phone while getting ready in the morning.
Streaming high-resolution music from my NAS was straightforward using the HEOS button on the Denon remote, too. The AKM DACs and amps built into the Denon did a more than adequate job resolving the 24bit/192kHz and DSD files I sent their way.
The remote is loaded with small buttons and it seemed to be very easy for family members to accidentally hit the Zone button without knowing it and then getting frustrated because they couldn't figure out what was wrong. I ran into the same issue with the previous flagship. Maybe the button could be relocated, changed in size, or programmed to require two pushes instead of one to execute the command. I also found that my music server library was cumbersome to search because of the simple alphabetic layout.
Comparison & Competition
If you want a one box solution and must have 13 channels of amplification, you can stop looking, as the Denon AVR-X8500H is currently the only such solution.
However, if you only need a receiver with only 11 channels of amplification, there are many competing alternatives to pick from, including the Anthem MRX 1120 ($3,499), Integra DRX-R1.1 ($3,300), Marantz SR8012 ($2,999), and the Denon AVR-X6400H ($2,199).
The type of room correction you prefer, the specific streaming services offered onboard, and whether you would like to connect to your existing music streaming system such as Sonos are considerations. Solutions for all these considerations vary by brand, so it's prudent to do your homework.
To read news and reviews of these and other receiver brands, visit our product category page.
The Denon AVR-X8500H receiver has all the features and performance to satisfy the most hardcore AV enthusiast. It produces terrific sound with precise imaging. Does it sound better than its predecessor? That's hard to say. But I can say that I haven't heard a receiver that sounds better than the AVR-X8500H to my ears. I also know the new Denon flagship is the only one-box solution for those wanting a full 13 channels of amplification and support for all the current 3D surround sound formats and all the 4K UHD with HDR formats available.
And with a promise to provide upgrade paths for future technologies like eARC (for free) and 8K (not for free), Denon seems committed to making this new receiver as futureproof as possible. The price may seem expensive at first glance, but perhaps not so much when you consider all the technology already provided and the future upgrades on the way. With the introduction of the AVR-X8500H, Denon has thrown down a challenge to all the competitor brands to catch them if they can. But for now, the Denon AVR-X8500H stands above all other mainstream AV receivers.
• Check out our AV Receivers category page to read similar reviews.
•Denon Introduces the 13.2-Channel AVR-X8500H AV Receiver at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Room Correction Revisited at HomeTheaterReview.com.