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Product Review

Denon AVR-5803 Surround Sound Receiver
July, 2002

Kris Deering

 

Specifications:

2 x 1 Processing: THX Ultra2, DTS-ES suite, DTS 96/24, Dolby Digital EX and Pro Logic II, Dolby Headphone Jack

Amplification: 170 Watts per channel x 7 channels (8 Ohms, 20 Hz - 20 kHz, <0.05% THD)

Dimensions: 17.1" W x 8.5" H x 19.1" D

Weight: 70 Pounds

MSRP: $4,300 USA

Denon Electronics; http://www.del.denon.com

Introduction

The audio equipment industry has really had it good for the last few years. While I was growing up, there were really only two formats to choose from when you watched movies at home. There was the typical stereo reproduction, and the elite of the time, Dolby Surround. Later there was the updated Dolby Pro Logic, which offered better surround processing as well as a more up to date noise reduction technology.

For years, the limited home theater market lived on these formats, and life moved along peacefully. But in the early nineties, things took a turn for the worse, and better. New digital formats were being introduced in our local theaters, incorporating full discrete channels that offered amazing playback levels and endless possibilities for sound designers. Of course, this would have to eventually make its way down to the personal home theaters we've come to love, but during the early stages, these technologies were for the more affluent connoisseur.

In the later part of 1997, shortly after the release of the DVD format, consumers finally saw affordable processors and receivers that incorporated the newest surround formats, including Dolby Digital and DTS. Finally home theater lovers with a reasonable budget could have home playback systems that offered sound that equaled or surpassed that of the local Cineplex. With DVD offering these exciting formats at a reasonable price, and receivers being sold at a cost not even dreamt of a year before, people rushed to buy their dream systems, content that they had the best decoding home theater had to offer.

Unfortunately for all those consumers, the powers that be weren't done with surround development. For the last few years there has been a wave of new processing formats for us to choose from. With the release of " Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace", Dolby upped the stakes yet again, giving us Dolby Digital Surround EX at the Cineplex. This provided a matrixed rear channel, derived from the existing surround channels, to further enhance the surround sound experience. And of course within what seemed like a few months, THX and Dolby teamed up and brought us THX Surround EX to allow the rear channel in a home theater environment. But with a competitor in the surround wars such as DTS, one could only wait for a response, and of course we got one. DTS released its new decoding algorithm entitled DTS-ES. This went a step further than Dolby/THX, by offering not only a matrixed rear channel but a fully discrete channel option (6.1 Discrete ES). Discrete ES also contains the matrixed rear channel, for backwards compatibility. DTS also boasted a process called DTS NEO:6, which could derive a quasi-5.1 track from any two-channel recording. This competes with Dolby Pro Logic II (DPL-II).

Now anyone can see what this kind of technology does for the marketplace right? I'm sure many consumers found it a bit frustrating that every few months, a new format was being developed that made them feel that their recent purchase was obsolete. The surround processor market was almost as bad as the computer market with the technology expanding as fast as it was. Even now it is still evolving. With the recent advent of Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS 96/24, and THX Ultra2, people are looking to the future to find out whether it's safe to buy now or end up suffering later.

If these recent additions are in fact the last offerings for a while to come, I wonder what the electronics manufacturers will do. They may find it a bit difficult to sell processors if they don't have some new super-wammading surround processing. But, I really hope there is now a chance for the consumer to buy a product that they can be confident will last for years to come without the threat of incompatibility. One tactic they use is having an RS232 port for upgrading the receiver's software.

While this surge of new surround processing was taking place there was one company that always seemed to be on top of things. This was Denon. Their product lines were usually the front-runners when it came to introducing new features and compatibility. Their newest product, the flagship 5803 A/V receiver, reviewed here, is no exception. It incorporates every new surround-processing format on the market today and offers expandability for what may or may not be around the corner tomorrow.

They don't call it "Flagship" for nothing . . . .

With a price point in the $4,000 range, the 5803 is breaking into the territory of some top notch separates. While separates (as in separate preamplifier and amplifier components) have been considered the choice for high end home theater enthusiasts, the 5803 comes very close to bridging that gap and offers the performance attributes previously only seen in high-performance products.

With a price such as this, one should expect all the bells and whistles as well as top notch fit and finish. Immediately you'll notice that this receiver has those bases covered. Relying on the chassis previously incorporated with the 4800, 5800, and 4802, they had an excellent starting point. Of course this bigger chassis does have some disadvantages. Its size may present storage issues for some people. Its attached user interface is also not as simple and smooth as the chassis used for Denon's lower line receivers either. On the front panel you'll find two main knobs, one for volume that steps in increments of 0.5 dB, and another that selects the desired input. On the bottom half is a flip down panel that offers more user options. There is a function knob to allow the user to interface with the on-screen menus, as well as a control knob to enter the desired values. Most of these controls aren't needed all the time, since everything can be done with the remote and on-screen menus. I would have like to have seen a dial to change the surround mode like their other receivers incorporate.

The internal guts of the unit are very well laid out. In the center of the chassis you'll find a massive audio transformer and the bulk of the audio processing components. In the underbelly are the digital processing circuits, which are isolated to alleviate cross talk. In the back are the video processing circuits, which are isolated as well. On either side of the unit are the main amplifiers that use heat sinks as well as fans, which are located in the center part of the chassis to eliminate fan noise. Although all of the audio and video circuitry is isolated from one another, there is a pure direct mode that turns off all video and display circuitry to ensure optimal playback of audio sources.

The back panel is a spectacle in itself, but may be a bit intimidating to the non-tech types. Just about every connection you could hope for is here. The binding posts for the speakers are laid out on both sides of the panel, offering seven channels of amplification at 170 Watts each at 8 Ohms (20 Hz - 20 kHz, 0.05% THD). There is also another set of surround outputs for those who want to use a different set of speakers for music or movie playback. There are three component inputs that support 100 MHz bandwidth for high definition or progressive sources and one component output. Eight sets of composite inputs and eight sets of S-Video inputs are provided. Similar to the new Kenwood receivers, the Denon will up-convert any incoming video signal to component video for ease of playback. This output will only be 480i though. In addition, eight composite video outputs and five S-Video outputs are provided. [Click on photo below to see larger, more detailed version.]

Click here to see larger version.

On the audio side there are 13 analog inputs and two sets of eight-channel analog inputs with full DSP (bass management, A/D conversion) to support formats such as DVD Audio and SACD. There are six sets of digital (optical) inputs that can be assigned to any input you desire as well as five sets of digital (coaxial) inputs. An RF input is provided for anyone with a DD-compatible laserdisc player. There is also Denon's new proprietary digital link, which is used in conjunction with the Denon DVD 9000 DVD player (review upcoming). This provides a single path for all audio the player outputs, including Dolby Digital, DTS, stereo, and six-channel DVD-A. Unfortunately, it will not pass a copy protected DVD-A audio signal in digital form. Since all my discs were copy protected this didn't offer me any real use. On the output side you'll find one eight-channel pre output, five sets of analog REC outputs, two sets of multi-zone audio outputs, and two sets of digital (optical) outputs. There are also some terminals for the AM/FM tuner that's built into the receiver. A set of +5V and +12V triggers is provided for separate power amplifiers. And an RS-232 port supports AMX, Crestron integrated control systems.

It's safe to say that even the pickiest home theater buff will find what he needs.

As for processing, the 5803 does it all and more. All the common place formats are supported such as DTS and Dolby Digital, plus all the new formats such as DTS-ES discrete and matrix, DTS NEO:6, DTS ES 96/24, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, music and movie modes, THX Surround EX, THX Ultra2 Cinema, and THX music mode. Of course there are also some DSP modes such as Hall and Jazz, plus Denon's own five or seven-channel stereo mode. All this processing is done by two new SHARC Hammerhead 21161 32-bit floating point DSPs from Analog devices.

The 5803 offers 24-bit, 96 kHz or 192 kHz A/D conversion plus full DSP support on any of its analog inputs. If you want to bypass the DSP processing, the 5803 offers two modes, direct and pure direct. In direct mode, all bass management and A/D conversion are bypassed. In pure direct mode, all video circuits are turned off, including the front panel as well as DSP processing. This also arranges four DACs per channel when you're playing back a two-channel source. Using two DACs offers a balanced output stage from the DAC, and using four gives you 384 kHz sampling.

There are four 24-bit, 192 kHz digital interface receivers, one for every two channels. This allows the multi-channel digital inputs such as the Denon digital link or other digital inputs to perform at optimum levels.

Wait there's more! They also incorporated sixteen Burr-Brown PCM-1738E high resolution 24-bit, 192 kHz DACs in an eight channel differential configuration. This allows two DACs per channel and can be configured up to four for each stereo channel. These DACs satisfy all the requirements of DSD.

All this processing power is not put to waste. Full bass management for all inputs can be incorporated with an adjustable crossover that can be set at 40, 60, 80, 100, or 120 Hz. Unfortunately this is for all channels so you'll have to be a bit flexible if you're not using matched speakers all the way around. Delay settings can be set up to 20 feet for each channel in increments of 0.1 feet, offering unprecedented flexibility to the user. It also features an audio delay adjustment for lip-synch issues of up to 200 ms.

With all these features, I was expecting setup to be quite daunting. Fortunately, the on-screen menu guide is fairly easy to use. All the setups are step-by-step and basic. I did run in to some difficulties when it came to the Digital Link. The instructions were a bit vague in the manual, so I needed clarification from the people at Denon. This went well and they were plenty of help. I do commend them on trying to get away from all the cables you must use for DVD-A, but unless this link can pass a copy-protected DVD-A signal, it's a bit of a waste. I still had to use the six channel analog outputs on the DVD-9000 for 5.1 DVD-A playback, so the link didn't offer any use to me. Hopefully in the near future this sort of connection can be used as intended. However, copy protection is a big issue.

THX Ultra2

The 5803 incorporates the latest THX has to offer with the new Ultra2 specification. With the advent of six channel processing and the demands of newer full range soundtracks, THX improved upon the standards that were previously in place. Along with a revamping of their speaker requirements, which included subs that could perform down to 20 Hz, there are new processing algorithms employed. All THX Ultra2 receivers must have seven discrete channels of amplification since the use of two rear channels is called for. Full bandwidth component video inputs are also required. As for the processing itself, Ultra2 is used in conjunction with any 5.1 track. Using its proprietary processing, it blends the directional and ambient signals from the side surrounds directly with the rear surrounds. Therefore the new rear channels you have won't go to waste from the lack of software support. Another new advantage from Ultra2 is boundary gain compensation. This allows the user to reduce the boomy sound of speakers that are placed near a wall.

THX Ultra2 Cinema derives a 7.1 output from non-encoded 5.1 soundtracks, but puts an emphasis on the surround channels to capitalize on the diffuse nature of the recommended dipole speakers. A Secrets diagram. THX Ultra2 Music derives a 7.1 output from non-encoded 5.1 music, but puts an emphasis on the rear channels to capitalize on the direct nature of the recommended monopole speakers. A Secrets diagram.

I especially enjoyed the THX music mode. When playing back 5.1 audio tracks, the surrounds were used a bit more effectively than before. Most of the ambience is kept to the rear, offering a broader sound stage with directional effects coming from the sides.

THX post-processing can also be applied to the DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX tracks. For those who don't like THX post processing, you can play back any track in its native form, including Dolby Digital EX. It's nice to see that THX is staying on the ball and supporting the new formats that are in the marketplace. I for one really appreciate what THX can do for surround processing, and the ambience it adds is well worth the extra money to me.

Usability

This is the only area I thought needed improvement. While the 5803 does a good job of automatically detecting the format needed based on the source, it can be a bit daunting to change the surround mode to something else if desired. This mainly came into play with Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks. There is an automatic flag detection mode for DVDs flagged as ES or EX material. Unfortunately the majority of DVDs out there do not incorporate this yet. At first the 5803 automatically engaged EX or ES processing without my calling for it, regardless of the material being played. While I understand that most people will want to utilize their rear speakers, I like to use the format that the film was recorded in regardless of its potential for increased ambience with further processing. For this I had to switch my video input on my television since the 5803's user menus are in 480i, and then tell it I didn't want the rears used. That also means that if I know a DVD is a six-channel mix but not flagged, I have to repeat this step to engage the correct surround mode. This could easily been avoided if Denon had made these modes selectable on its remote control screens. This may or may not bother some if they don't mind using the rear surrounds all the time though.

One of my favorite features employed is the flexibility in setting channel levels. In the initial setup, you can use the receiver's test tones to set a universal balance for all inputs. This is reference to the 0-volume level on the master indicator. I used my Radio Shack SPL meter to calibrate all channels to 75 dB at the listening position. But, as most home theater enthusiasts know, this does not ensure proper playback through all your equipment. Denon has gone a step further in not only allowing you to set different channel levels for each input, but with each surround mode for each input as well. This allows the user to use test tones from sources such as Avia or Video Essentials to ensure the correct levels through the entire playback chain. It also allows you to calibrate for the differences between DTS and Dolby Digital tracks. Using the new Sound and Vision calibration disc, I was able to set up my channel levels correctly for both formats, which keeps the volume balanced regardless of the format. I only hope that other companies catch on to this and offer this sort of tweakability. The 0 dB setting on the volume control correlated with an 85 dB SPL in my room.

Another nice feature is Denon's approach for tone controls. These can be bypassed on any input or surround mode. Also, if you have your fronts set to small and your subs in a mixed mode, it allows you to adjust the bass control for both the fronts and sub separately. This allows you to blend the bass throughout the room to your liking.

As to the Remote Control . . .

I have pretty big hands. I can easily palm a basketball in either hand. But the remote for this amp is enormous. This makes it uncomfortable to work with. The top 2/3 of the remote is a touch screen LCD that is backlit in an eye friendly green hue. There is a knob for interaction, a mute button, a light button for the backlighting, and channel and volume switches. The remote is pre-programmed for all Denon products. To switch what you want to control you just push the control knob down. This brings a device menu up on the side of the LCD display. There you can use the knob to select or just press on the icon. The remote is fully programmable and offers a USB interface to customize using your computer. Unfortunately, I became real frustrated in that the remote times itself out a lot. When trying to set up the receiver, I had to reinitialize the remote to get it to do what I wanted. I really feel that the remote could have been a bit more user friendly and sized down. The 5803 also includes a charging stand for the remote that was only offered separately before or with the 5800. The menu screens on the remote are fairly simple to understand, but offer more than what is needed. Thankfully, you can change these screens to your own liking. The remote has its own user's manual and provides easy instructions for setting up the remote to your taste.

The Sound Experience

This receiver was everything I was expecting as a top of the line product. With the amount of power utilized, it could easily handle the most daunting soundtracks with ease and not a hint of strain. I put it through its paces with tracks from "Saving Private Ryan", "The Haunting", "Toy Story 2", and "Atlantis", and it pulled it all off without a hitch at full reference levels. The soundstage was always massive, with a very full, rich tonality that never left me disappointed. For movie playback, especially with today's more aggressive soundtracks, this is about as good as it gets.

The 5803 also produced a great sound with music. I compared it directly to my own Marantz 9200 for music utilizing CDs, HDCDs, and DVD-A discs. While I thought the Marantz had a bit more warmth and a more laid back sound, the Denon had a bit more presence. This is probably due to the beefier Denon amplifiers, although my speakers are quite sensitive.

While not quite as smooth as high-end ($10,000) separates, the 5803 was still never a disappointment on the audio side. With its infinite amount of adjustments to dial in the sound you want, I think anyone could be satisfied with this piece when it comes to sound quality.

Bottom Line

If you want a receiver that can do it all, and which offers just about every convenience thought of, then the Denon 5803 is a very safe bet. While I did find it to have some quirks to its user interface at times, it's still a solid performer in almost everything it does. All products will have some quirks for any user. With a heftier price tag than most receivers, I imagine this will be a product for hardcore home theater buffs, so the steep learning curve associated with the piece in the beginning may not be all that bad. If you are not a hardcore buff, this thing will turn you into one, because it has every feature that exists right now. It is a top performer, so if that is what you are looking for, search no further.

Equipment used for review:

Panasonic PT56WXF90 HD RPTV
Panasonic RP-91 DVD A/V player
Panasonic RP-56 DVD player
Krell DVD standard
Denon DVD-9000 DVD A/V player
Marantz SR 9200 THX Ultra A/V Receiver
Monster interconnects
PSB Image 6T mains
PSB Image 9C Center
PSB Image 10S surrounds
PSB Image 2B rear surrounds
Dual SVS 25-31 CS subwoofers
Sampson Servo 700 amplifier
Xbox Gaming console

- Kris Deering -

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

Surround Sound Processor Primer
Dialog Normalization Equalizers: Friend or Foe?
Misunderstood 0.1 LFE Channel Digital Audio
Cinema Sound and EQ Curves Accuracy, Distortion, and the Audiophile
A Night in the Projection Booth What we Hear
High Fidelity Nature of Equipment Reviews
 

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