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