Denon PMA-150H Integrated Network Amplifier Reviewed

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Denon PMA-150H Integrated Network Amplifier Reviewed


Denon's PMA-150H Integrated Network Amplifier with HEOS ($1,099) lends some credibility to an argument I've been making for a few years now: Stereo integrated amplifiers represent one of the hottest product categories in our industry. We could speculate about why this is the case, but I think the answer is pretty simple. In a world where our lives are ever-increasingly being dominated by technology, a good integrated amp takes a bit of fuss out of the entertainment equation. There's no worrying about matching amp to preamp, no consternation over which interconnects to purchase and install, and when you add network streaming capabilities to the mix, as Denon has done with the PMA-150H, many of us find ourselves no longer needing to worry about source components, either.

An even more recent trend in the integrated amp marketplace is the embrace of video, which further simplifies things for those looking to build a good stereo AV system that services double duty as a hi-fi music system. In many cases, you'll even find newer integrated amps with HDMI switching and support for the latest 4K/HDR video standards.

The PMA-150H doesn't go quite that far. Or, perhaps viewed from a slightly different perspective, it goes further by eschewing HDMI altogether while still supporting TV interactivity, perhaps in recognition of the fact that shoppers looking for the simplest AV setup possible have probably turned their backs on video source components altogether in favor of the entertainment apps built into their smart TVs.

Y'all know I don't fall in the latter camp. But it's such a significant slice of the market now that if I were making a new sound solution with a focus on mass appeal, I would certainly be targeting the smart TV crowd. And that's exactly what Denon has done with the PMA-150H. While its TV audio input is limited to optical digital, that's totally fine if you're using built-in apps as your primary source, and don't need surround sound processing (which, of course, you don't with a stereo product). The PMA-150H even has a feature whereby it will turn on automatically in the presence of an incoming audio signal on its TV input, meaning you could connect this integrated amp and a couple of speakers, run a Toslink cable to your TV, and have a vastly upgraded sound experience for your video entertainment that functionally operates like a soundbar but delivers all of the fidelity (though not necessarily the power output) of a component sound system. 

Denon_PMA-150H_front.jpg

Of course, TV viewing is ultimately just a tiny slice of the PMA-150H's pie. I imagine most people who purchase it will use it largely as a music streamer, decoder, and amp, thanks to both its USB-DAC input (with support for PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD at 2.8, 5.6, and 11.2MHz), as well as its integration of the HEOS wireless multiroom music platform. The latter gives it access to all manner of streaming music services, including Spotify, TIDAL, Pandora, Amazon Music HD, TuneIn, Napster, Deezer, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, and SoundCloud, just to name a few, along with any music stored on your portable device and connected devices (both networked and USB-attached), as well. Needless to say, AirPlay 2 and Amazon Alexa/Google Assistant connectivity are also part of the overall equation.

Denon_PMA-150H_IO.jpg

The PMA-150H also includes a pair of analog audio inputs, should you have any such sources that you'd like to connect to the HEOS ecosystem at large, though neither of them features phono preamp functionality.

One unexpected feature it does boast, though, is a really nice built-in headphone amplifier whose specs unfortunately aren't revealed in the product literature, unfortunately. It is a full-sized quarter-inch headphone output, though, with configurable gain, which is very much appreciated.

The Hookup
Denon_PMA-150H_Remote.jpg
The first thing you see upon unboxing the PMA-150H is a rather sparse quick-start guide that is, quite frankly, largely unnecessary except as a means by which to point you toward the HEOS app for Android or iOS, which you'll need if you want to get the most out of the integrated amp from a streaming music perspective.

Other than that, setup is self-explanatory. The back panel features a pair of really nice speaker binding posts, connectors for WiFi antennas should you choose to use them, an Ethernet port for wired network connectivity (my preference, of course), an IR control input, a USB-DAC port (Type B), two Toslink inputs, one coaxial digital input, two stereo analog RCA inputs, FM and AM antenna connections, and a subwoofer output. The latter is more accurately described as a summed mono preamp output, since the unit lacks bass management capabilities, so if you want to add a sub you might want to consider getting a model with speaker-level inputs.

That aside, setup couldn't be any simpler. Connect speakers, connect sources (if any), connect power, and the front panel holds your hand through setup from there. Other than reassigning the TV input and adjusting auto-on functionality, and putting in your HEOS account information, there's likely little else you'll need to do.

Unless, that is, you have a set of hard-to-drive headphones. In that case, you'll likely want to adjust the HPA's gain setting to "High." But that's really it from a setup perspective.

Denon_PMA-150H_Lifestyle_finish.jpgIt is worth discussing the physical design and construction of the PMA-150H, since unboxing and setup is where you'll really get your first taste of the unit in this respect. Frankly, photos just don't do the thing justice. In terms of materials, the chassis is a mix of matte aluminum, high-quality black plastic, and glass, and the front panel is graced with an attractive OLED display screen.

The back panel is recessed, which does make plugging in cables and interconnects a little trickier, but not by much. Honestly, the unit is so compact that I found it easy enough to spit it around, make the connections from the front, then spin it back, although if you don't have enough slack in your wiring, this might not be an option.

Front panel controls are minimal, consisting solely of navigational buttons, Enter, and back, as well as a power button and one that cycles through inputs. All of these buttons save the power button are touch-sensitive, which adds a touch of class that's honestly a few steps up from what I would expect in a $1,000-ish stereo integrated amp.

For the bulk of this review, I relied on ELAC Sensible Speaker Cables to connect first a pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers, then a pair of Focal Chora 826 towers. In addition to networked connectivity, I relied heavily on a USB connection between the integrated amp and my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC.

Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...

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HTR Product Rating for Denon PMA-150H Integrated Network Amplifier

Criteria Rating

Performance

4.5

Value

4.5

Overall

4.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.

Available at Amazon

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Performance
Before that setup, though, I began my evaluation of the PMA-150H by connecting it to my bedroom TV and spending a few evenings watching some TV (mostly Critical Role via Twitch, but also a few movies from Vudu, including Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), I'll admit I didn't leave it in this configuration for long. This was mostly to test out the AV functionality of the unit and see if it's auto-on feature works as intended. Which it does.

Sound quality was also aces with everything I watched, although of course the PMA-150H's 35-watt output (into 8 ohms, 20 Hz to 20 kHz, with 0.07 percent THD, or 70wpc into a 4-ohm load, 1 kHz, 0.7 percent THD) meant that I couldn't exactly crank the volume to THX reference levels in my 13-by-15-foot master bedroom when watching movies. It was still a very satisfying listening experience, and the intense action of Into the Spider-Verse never pushed the amps into clipping, despite how hard I leaned on the volume knob. I also appreciated the way the PMA-150H delivered the often-cacophonous sound mix of Critical Role with utter clarity.

Installed in my smaller home office/two-channel listening room, which measures 10 by 12 feet, I never had the slightest bit of trouble driving the aforementioned Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers and Focal Chora 826 towers to my ears' SPL limits. Both speakers generally like a bit more power than the PMA-150H delivers; in fact, the Focals feature a minimum recommended amplification rating that exceeds the capabilities of the Denon altogether. In practice, neither asked for more than the amp could deliver, perhaps due to its reliance on Direct Digital Feedback Amplification (DDFA). As I understand it, this closed-loop switching amplifier technology was first designed by Zetex Semiconductors and further developed in cooperation with NAD, and has been employed in many of that company's products since, including the current M32.

Whatever the provenance or pedigree of the amps, there's simply no denying that Denon's PMA-150H sounds fantastic. With "Qué Onda Guero" from Beck's album Guero, I was immediately struck by the subtle but undeniable depth of the crowd noise at the beginning of the track, as well as the precision of the jingling bell that lies atop the rhythm section. The amp delivered the dense-but-distinct beat with authority and impact, and rendered Beck's voice with exactly the right balance of rasp and dryness.

I've often found that this song can tend to sound harsh and a little grating on lesser DACs, but that was never the case here. Throughout, it was a deeply textured listening experience with exactly the right sense of space and great dynamics on the beat.

With "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" from The Rolling Stones' album Sticky Fingers, the sense of space was a lot more blatant, especially in the space between the notes. Any amount of smearing or other temporal shenanigans courtesy of a DAC can really turn this song into a bit of a goulash, but the PMA-150H's excellent attack and decay kept every element in its place, both in terms of time and space. In the sax solo especially, I was absolutely hypnotized by the overall depth and width of the soundstage.

More than anything, though, this track is one I return to time and time again to get a sense of the overall sonic character of a DAC. Do you like ultra-precision and a complete lack of editorializing, like you'd get with something like Oppo's UDP-205? Or do you tend to describe that sort of sound as "overly analytical," preferring instead something warmer and toothier, with a little more grit and rock-n-roll--something like the DAC built into Oppo's UDP-103?

Your answer to that question will determine whether you're gonna dig the sound Denon PMA-150H, because of all the components I have kicking around the house right now, the Oppo UDP-205 is the most comparable to its overall sonic signature, at least in terms of its decoding.

That doesn't mean that it can't rock, mind you. In an attempt to find the PMA-150H's breaking point, I fed it Soundgarden's "Spoonman" from the 20th anniversary re-release of Superunknown (it makes me feel ancient to type those words) and dialed the volume knob clockwise until my ears started to complain. I honestly expected (and could have forgiven) some clipping at some point, but no. The amps gave me nothing but uncompromising authority and unabashed dynamic punch, not to mention wonderful detail.

This is another song that lesser DACs can have issues with, especially during the drum breakdown that starts at around 2:32. The shakers in the background can, with some gear, be rendered almost as noise. All I heard with the PMA-150H, though, was excellent transient response and a nearly holographic rendering of the percussion.

At the other end of the rocking spectrum, "You Make Loving Fun" from the 2004 remaster of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is another go-to test for me when auditioning new gear, because even higher-performance components can do pretty awful things with the hi-hat count-in that kicks off the song. I realize I'm somewhat contradicting myself here, because I've already plopped the PMA-150H into the "analytical" pile as far as decoding goes. Oddly enough, it's generally the more precise, more what-you-feed-it-is-what-it-gives you DACs that can render that count-in with overt harshness or brittleness, and I never found that to be the case with the Denon. Decay of the vocals was graceful and natural, and the delivery of the ethereal background "ahhhhhs" was spot-on.

Itching to test out the PMA-150H's built-in headphone amp, I whipped out my Audeze LCD-2 planar magnetic open-backed cans and plugged them into the full-sized jack at bottom left of the front of the chassis. With the headphone gain setting left in the "Mid" position, it sounded okay--certainly not out of line with the built-in HPAs you'll find in most receivers. When I switched the gain setting to "High," though... whoa, baby. Yes. Gimme more.

I know I'll get some eyerolls for this musical selection, but I have a racing playlist that I pull out on track days or even when I'm just playing Project CARS 2 at home, and I left it running to test the dynamic capabilities of the PMA-150H's HPA. When the Biggie/Miley Cyrus mashup "Party & Bulls*** in the USA" came up in rotation, I sat up and noticed. This is a mix that normally doesn't play well with my larger planar magnetic open-backs. In High gain mode, though, and even with my most finicky headphones (the Audezes, as well as a couple of HiFiMan planar magnetics I have kicking around) the PMA-150H delivered the song forcefully, with none of the flabby bass or clipping that I'm used to hearing.

Of course, when I put the larger cans away and switched to my Westone Audio ES50 custom in-ear monitor (with a quarter-inch-to-3.5mm adapter added to the signal chain, as well), the Mid gain setting was a much better fit.

Part of me wants to complain about the fact that this setting isn't more easily accessible; it requires a trip into the setup menus, which can be difficult to read from more than three feet away. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that plugging the Westones in was more of an academic exercise, and that I was perfectly happy leaving the amp set up for my larger cans.

The Downside
If I do have a bone to pick with the PMA-150H's headphone output, it's the complete lack of volume memory. Plug your cans into the unit with the volume knob cranked halfway, and that's the volume level you'll get for the headphone output, as well. Depending on the headphones you plug in, of course, this may mean you'll need to turn the volume way up or, conversely, launder your underdrawers.

Wherever the volume knob eventually falls, once you disconnect your headphones, that's where the volume setting remains. So, again, you might either need to turn it up, Freedom Rock style, or replace a tweeter in your speakers.

Another complaint is that I really wish the PMA-150H featured some form of bass management for its subwoofer output. The lack thereof means that if you want to add a sub, you'll likely be better off using one with speaker-level connections and its own built-in crossover settings.

Literally the only other thing I can find to complain about is that the PMA-150H's volume knob just doesn't rise to the same quality as the rest of the unit, in terms of feel or finish. It's a little wobbly, a little small, and the inertia just doesn't feel right. I am, admittedly, a volume knob fetishist, so you may or may not be as concerned with this as I am, but I feel that an integrated amp this well-designed and -constructed deserves a better, beefier, more elegant loudness knob than the shaky, hollow one we're given.

Comparison and Competition
It should come as a shock to exactly no one that Marantz offers a product that's incredibly comparable to the Denon PMA-150H. What make come as a surprise is that the HD-AMP1 is identically priced, at $1,099, although it can often be found for a street price of less than $800.

You generally pay a bit of a premium for Marantz's HDAM circuitry, but in this case, not so much. The HD-AMP1 is pretty similarly spec'd in terms of amp output, inputs, settings, etc., and also includes HEOS functionality, although it does lack the Denon's auto-on feature for its optical digital input (which, again, is intended to be used with a TV on the PMA-150H).

What the Marantz does feature that the Denon lacks, though, is your choice of two digital filter algorithms, which will allow you to tune the sound a bit. It also has a very different look, with woodtone side panels and a brushed aluminum front panel whose matte look contrasts starkly with the gloss aesthetic of the Denon. 

Conclusion
Some time back, Jerry Del Colliano wrote a story that posed a simple question: What AV System Would You Buy for a 14-Year-Old? The Denon PMA-150H is now my answer to that question. It's also my answer to the question, "What music system would you buy for an old-fogey who wants to ease into the modern world of streaming music?" It's a fantastic all-in-one entertainment system that combines exceptional audio quality with simple setup, straightforward operation, great network connectivity, and a sleek form factor. In fact, if you're connecting it to a TV via Toslink, there's literally nothing to control. Simply turn the TV on, and boom, you've got great sound (I mean, assuming you're pairing the amp with a great-sounding pair of speakers).

Would I have liked to see some bass management thrown into the mix? I would. Would I also prefer some form of volume memory when switching between the speaker outputs and the built-in headphone amp? Very much so. But those two niggles don't keep the PMA-150H from being an all-around excellent audio solution that combines modern connectivity with excellent fidelity.

Additional Resources
• Visit the Denon website for additional specs and information.
• Visit our Amplifiers category page to read reviews of similar products.
• Marantz NR1200 Two-Channel Slim Receiver Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.

 


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