When it comes to the subject of audio reviews, framing is everything. By that, I mean that, before you can sit down and really evaluate a product properly, you need to wrap your brain around what sort of categorical box it fits into. We don’t judge a $300 5.1-channel receiver by the same standards as a $2,000 Atmos-equipped AVR--and neither of those products is put under quite the same microscope as a wireless streaming music product. Ultimately, the question that any review must answer is, “What makes this specific model different from other offerings of its kind?” Try to chew off much more than that, and you’ll end up with a 20,000-word treatise that no one will ever read.
What to do, then, with a product like the HEOS AVR (MSRP $999 but currently priced at $599), a 5.1-channel streaming music player/AV receiver mash-up that breaks out of its categorical boxes and seeks to fill a new sort of niche? If you view it through the lens of AV receivers, it acts way more like a streaming music player. View it through the lens of other streaming music players, though, and it looks way more like an AV receiver.
One thing is pretty clear from the giddy-up, though: with this offering, Denon didn’t simply aim to make a more user-friendly AV receiver that happens to feature built-in HEOS music streaming and multiroom capabilities. One can’t help but imagine that the initial pitch for this product involved a team of crazy designers and engineers saying, “What if we pretended that AV receivers hadn’t been around for years? What would it look like if we invented the concept of a home surround sound system today, from scratch, integrating all of the elements required to make it work in today’s media landscape, but leaving aside the baggage of decades of tradition?”
I’m speculating, of course. I have no idea if anyone at Denon actually asked that question. But if they did, the answer would look a lot like the HEOS AVR. For one thing, it’s not a big, black box. The chassis for the AVR is a stylish, angular, sculpted affair, free from front-panel display or any other visible adornments--aside from a volume knob and dimmable status light. Around back, things look a little more like your standard slim-line receiver, and we’ll dig deeper into that in the next section.
But first, let’s cover a few general specs. Under the hood, the HEOS AVR features five channels of Class D amplification, rated at 50 watts per channel into eight ohms with two channels driven (65 watts into six ohms and 100 watts into four ohms). While that may not seem like much, do keep in mind that the HEOS AVR is really intended for use in applications where it’s rarely if ever going to be called upon to drive five channels simultaneously. That’s because the AVR supports wireless pairing with other HEOS speakers; so, chances are good that, if you’re in the market for this puppy, you’re going to mate it with a pair of self-powered HEOS 1, 3, or 5 HS2 speakers as surrounds. Or you could opt to put a HEOS Amplifier at the rear of the room to drive a pair of passive surround speakers, since the HEOS AVR supports easy wireless pairing with that product, too.
In either case, that really just leaves the amp and power supply with three loads to drive in its most likely configuration, meaning that real, usable power is much closer to the rated spec than you’d normally find with most mass-market AV receivers.
The AVR features both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA decoding, as well as four HDMI 2.0a inputs with 4K/HDR pass-through and HDCP 2.2 support--plus one HDMI output with ARC. You also get one optical and one coaxial digital audio in, two analog ins, and a USB port with hi-res audio playback. Bluetooth is onboard, and both wired and wireless network connections are available, with the ability to stream personal hi-res audio files (including DSD) over your network. Integrated music services (through the HEOS App) include Spotify Connect, TIDAL, Pandora, Deezer, Amazon Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio. Alexa voice support is another recent addition.
As is the case with the recently reviewed HEOS Bar soundbar, the particulars of setting up the HEOS AVR are ultimately driven by this product’s dual status as both a standalone AV product and an integral part of the HEOS wireless multiroom music ecosystem. Given that HEOS is an app-driven ecosystem (competitive with Sonos, MusicCast, and others of the sort), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a network connection isn’t optional here. Everything from initial setup to tweaking to daily use requires a mobile device running iOS, Android, or Fire OS, plus a rock-solid home network.
I think the thing that impressed me most about the setup of the HEOS AVR is that it doesn’t feel like you’re setting up two different devices in one box. Everything is integrated pretty intuitively. And, just like with the HEOS Bar (the review of which I’ll be referencing from time to time, with apologies), it’s a non-linear process that never makes you feel stuck if you do something out of the prescribed order. Upon plugging in the AVR and connecting it to my network via Ethernet, I was met with a setup wizard that covers all of the bases in terms of streaming functionality and receiver functionality. I realized something about halfway through the setup, though: the HEOS 5 HS2 speakers that I wanted to use as surrounds, as well as the HEOS Subwoofer, were still mated with the HEOS Bar I had just reviewed--meaning that I needed to reset them and add to them to the HEOS network again before they could be paired with the HEOS AVR. Normally I would fret about this sort of thing--not because I doubt my own ability to sort through such a situation, but more because I worry that a novice user might get confused or frustrated. Such worries are unwarranted here, because if you exit out of the wizard, the app is smart enough to realize that you probably want to run it again in a bit … and asks you if you’d like to do so. Or you can just skip the wizard and scroll through each setup screen at your convenience. Either way, it’s super intuitive.
For those of you who are trying to decide between the HEOS Bar and the HEOS AVR, there are a few differences worth pointing out here. The biggest one is that the AVR allows you to bring your own wired subwoofer to the equation. Another is that you can use it to power wired surround speakers in a 5.1 setup--although, as I said in the intro, I find that to be an unlikely scenario. But hey, at least it’s an option.
No matter which of your own speakers you bring into the system, the setup wizard does a great job of asking you, one at a time, “Are you connecting a front right speaker? Yeah? Front left? Okay. How about a center? What kind of sub are you using?” Et cetera.
Physical setup is also straightforward. As I said above, the back panel doesn’t look unlike other slim-line receivers you’ve likely seen, but the HEOS AVR is a step up in terms of quality and layout as compared with most. High-quality binding posts laid out in Denon’s distinctive horizontal configuration really make speaker setup a snap, especially if you’re using banana plugs, as I do. For the duration of this review, I relied on a pair of RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers and a CG23 center speaker as my front soundstage and the HEOS 5 HS2 as surrounds, and I switched back and forth between the HEOS Subwoofer, RSL’s SpeedWoofer 10S, and an ELAC S10EQ for the bottom end.
As is the case with the HEOS Bar, the AVR does require that you connect the HEOS Subwoofer and HEOS surround speakers wirelessly, even though they have Ethernet ports. Again, this is because the AVR creates its own ad hoc 5-GHz network between speakers to nip latency issues in the bud.
In addition to all of the networking and speaker assignment stuff, you’ll also find most all of the setup functionality you’d expect to find in a receiver, including crossover settings (if you’re using HEOS surrounds and subs, the Optimized setting is your best option, but for your front speakers and any other non-HEOS speakers you add, you also have choices from 40 Hz to 120 Hz in 10-Hz increments, in addition to 150-, 200-, and 250-Hz options). In the event that you’re using low-impedance speakers for your front channels, there’s also an option to compensate for four-ohm loads. The default setting is intended for use with speakers anywhere between six and 16 ohms.
Anyone who’s concerned that a 50-watt-per-channel Class D receiver isn’t capable of cranking out the dBs cleanly and effectively need look no further than Spider-Man: Homecoming on UHD Blu-ray to alleviate those concerns. The end of chapter eight, in which Spidey rescues his classmates at the Washington Monument, gives the system every opportunity to flex its muscles, and flex them it does. In my roughly 200-square-foot listening room, I was able to push the system comfortably to peaks of 99 dB without strain or struggle, which is far past the point I would normally push a receiver rated at 50 watts.
This scene also highlights the system’s ability to deliver a nice, cohesive surround soundfield, even with such different speakers. Granted, I did select the RSL speaker system for this setup primarily because it’s a pretty good timbre match with the HEOS 5 HS2; but, even so, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they played together in terms of front-to-rear cohesion at higher listening levels. A reduction of volume to what I consider to be more appropriate TV watching (as opposed to movie watching) listening levels did result in a little more emphasis on the HEOS 5 surrounds than I would have liked; but, like most of you, I rarely reach for the volume knob while engrossed in a show or movie. So, my recommendation here would be to set your channel levels (specifically the balance between wireless surrounds and wired fronts) to match your preferred listening level.
Getting back to Spider-Man: Homecoming specifically, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way the HEOS AVR handled the dynamics of the action sequences, as well as the richness of its delivery of the film’s score. I’ll admit that I did go in expecting a bit of harshness with some elements of the mix--specifically higher-frequency effects, like the shattering of glass when Spider-Man crashes into the Washington Monument. But I heard none during the course of my testing. Even the most raucous sound effects were delivered powerfully but never gratingly, and dialogue throughout was delivered with fantastic intelligibility.
The HEOS AVR also strutted its stuff quite ably with the Blu-ray release of Roger Waters: The Wall, capturing not only the bombastic dynamics of the performance, but also the aggressiveness of its sound mix and the richness of its instrumentation. “In the Flesh” stands out in my mind as one of the most memorable tracks from the disc, at least via the HEOS AVR. The performance starts with a pre-recorded sequence of Waters playing a somber solo trumpet line at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and the AVR captures not only the timbre of the instrument but also the sense of space quite well. The transition from that scene into full-blown rock show and fireworks display really pushes the AVR’s amps, but it never complained. The punctuated slams of bass guitar, drums, explosions, and guitar really came through with nice authority, and I even found myself getting goosebumps when the song’s main guitar riff kicked in.
Here, too, I found that keeping the volume knob in that comfortable movie-watching range was key to maintaining balance between the fronts and surrounds. Turning the volume down low resulted in a little too much weight on the surrounds, but to reiterate and expand on what I said above, that really only becomes an issue when you swing from one end of the AVR’s usable output range to the other. So, if you tend to listen to some material at face-peeling loudness levels and then turn it way down low when watching The Weather Channel, you might choose to just go ahead and knock the surround levels down a peg or two when calibrating your system, assuming you’re mixing passive surround sound speakers with active wireless surrounds. It’s a minor inconvenience at worst, and not what I would consider a downside overall.
For two-channel listening, I leaned heavily on one track in particular: “Old Friend” from Lyle Lovett’s album I Love Everybody. This song--particularly Lovett’s vocals--can be a struggle for some Class D amps to faithfully render. I don’t mean to perpetuate any myths about Class D amps here, as most perform just fine. But a poorly implemented Class D amp can make Lovett’s voice in this song come across as particularly rough-edged, especially during the melismas that pepper the composition.
The HEOS AVR delivers Lyle’s vocals with all the appropriate richness and nuance, and any hint of harshness I heard was Lyle’s fault, not the amps’. The amps also deliver the instrumentation with utter aplomb, spotlighting the delightfully lifelike punch of the percussion. I think what draws me to this song (in addition to its utility as a stress test for Class D amps) is the complexity of textures captured by the record. In addition to the dynamic punch of drums, there’s also this silky-smooth layer of strings that serve as jelly to the crunchy peanut butter of the rhythm section. The HEOS AVR does a better job of delivering that diversity of textures than I expected, quite frankly. And when paired with a good pair of bookshelves, it also renders an appreciably wide (and deep!) soundstage that does justice to even the densest tunes.
In my review of the HEOS Bar, I mentioned that one thing holding it back was its lack of room correction capability. That same shortcoming is a sin of the HEOS AVR. While the lack of room EQ is harder to forgive in a receiver than it is in a soundbar, it’s also easier to ameliorate. That’s because, as I mentioned above, the HEOS AVR has something the HEOS Bar doesn’t: a wired subwoofer output. During the course of my testing, I subbed in a couple of subs in place of the HEOS Subwoofer (say that three times quickly) and found that, while neither delivered quite the same stunning impact that the HEOS Subwoofer does in the 50-Hz range, both were easier to tame. The ELAC S10EQ, with its built-in room correction capabilities, allowed me to knock down a few egregious nodes in my room and get a handle on the wall-rattling bass, resulting in a better-integrated sound experience from the lowest to highest frequencies. The limited, two-band EQ of the HEOS system just doesn’t allow that sort of precise integration.
Comparison and Competition
Oof, I’m sort of at a loss here. There are any number of receivers that have integrated multiroom streaming support; but, if you think something like the Marantz NR1608 slimline receiver with HEOS built-in is really competing in the same space as the HEOS AVR, you’ve either radically misunderstood this product or I’ve done a poor job of explaining it. Still, if you don’t need the instant-on accessibility of the HEOS AVR or the wireless surround speaker capabilities, or you want a little more flexibility in terms of setup (namely: room EQ), or if a more traditional AV experience is what you’re looking for, the NR1608 is a great pick.
If you’re not wedded to the HEOS ecosystem, something like the Yamaha RX-S601 Slimline Network Receiver with MusicCast might also be worth considering.
Really, though, I think anyone seriously considering the HEOS AVR is probably more likely trying to choose between it and the HEOS Bar. Of course the AVR requires you to bring your own front-channel speakers to the mix … and likely your own subwoofer, if you want to precisely EQ your bass. That does allow for a much wider front soundstage, though.
When it comes to home theater audio, virtually all of the major players are now attempting to build a better mousetrap to account for the fact that the way we consume media is changing at an alarming pace. With the HEOS AVR, it seems that Denon, instead of tinkering with the mousetrap paradigm, is instead searching for a different way of catching mice altogether.
Find your local Denon retailer (if you have one nearby) and try out the HEOS AVR, and I think you’ll agree with me. This thing isn’t a surround sound system with streaming capabilities built in, and it’s not a streaming media system with surround sound capabilities tacked on. It’s a new and different sort of beast designed from the ground up to serve both roles equally. And yes, it does have a few rough edges--namely, the lack of room correction. But I’m quite eager to see how and where this platform evolves going forward, assuming it catches on. I honestly cannot decide if the niche carved out by this new and interesting beast really speaks to the normal HomeTheaterReview.com crowd.
But hey, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? The base of our crowd is getting older and will one day start dying out--perhaps not literally (at least not anytime soon), but at least as a marketable shopping demographic. The sort of thinking that went into making the HEOS AVR is, I think, the sort of thinking needed to keep our industry vital going into the future. And that alone makes it a pretty exciting product.
• Visit the HEOS by Denon website for more information.
• Check out our AV Receiver Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
• HEOS 7 and HEOS 3 Wireless Tabletop Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.