Denon AVR-3300 A/V Receiver (Equip. Profile, Sept. 1999)

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With the possible exceptions of “I accidentally ran over your puppy” and “I really think we need to discuss our relationship,” there are few phrases I enjoy hearing less than, “The company’s marketing manager would like to stop by your apartment to make sure you’ve set up the receiver correctly.” And yet, shortly after finding out that I would be reviewing Denon’s new AVR-3300 surround sound receiver for Audio, that’s exactly what the company’s public relations firm was suggesting.

Now, I have nothing personal against David Birch-Jones, despite his marketing title and hyphenated surname (Spinal Tap’s Sir Anthony Eaton-Hogg ruined me for hyphenates). David, in fact, is an extremely personable, intelligent, and likable human being. And it wasn’t even that his visit would force me to clean my apartment to a luster it hadn’t seen since I stopped dating a woman for whom every floor held roman tic possibilities.

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Rated Power: 105 watts/channel into 8 ohms, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, at 0.05% THD, two channels driven.

Dimensions: 17 in. W x 6¾” in. H x 16.5” in. D (43.4 cm x 17cm x 41.7 cm)

Weight: 33 lbs. (15 kg). Price: $999.

Company Address: 222 New Rd., Parsippany, N.J. 07054;

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No, what it was really about was ego. After all, I’m a seasoned industry guy with a rack-full of costly components—I think I know how to set up a wimpy receiver, by God! So I responded to the request by saying, “I’d be happy for David to stop by m place— as long as he’s going to stop by and visit the homes of every other person who buys an AVR 3300 to make sure they’ve set them up properly.”

Perched on my soapbox of righteous indignation, I reasoned that part of my job is to describe to readers how easy it is to set up and use the equipment I review and that having the manufacturer’s marketing guy tsk-tsking any wrong moves would seriously skew that experience. “And I’m sure my editor would agree,” I in formed the PR woman, whose sudden bout of throat-clearing sounded suspiciously like the word “dickhead” spoken through a cupped fist. And so, I thought, that was that.

Apparently, my editor did not exactly agree. Without getting into the arcane subtleties of editor/writer relationships, I will only say that less than two days later I found David Birch-Jones and the smiling PR representative crossing the threshold of my recently cleaned Manhattan apartment. “David—so great to see you!” I positively beamed. “I’ve so been looking forward to this!”

With the launch of the AVR-3300, Denon is hoping to reach a broader range of customers, including those seeking a kick-ass home theater receiver but who couldn’t, wouldn’t, or won’t cough up the $2,800 it costs to own an AVR-5700. In order to hit the AVR-3300’s dramatically lower $999 list price, Denon, of course, had to shave a few features here and there. For example, while the 5700 includes Lucasfilm’s THX Ultra processing in addition to Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, the 3300 struggles by with just Dolby Digital and DTS. Also, the 5700’s amplifier is about a third more powerful than the 3300’s, which pumps out 105 watts to each of its five channels.

What’s truly surprising, however, given the AVR-3300’s comparatively low price, is the number of standout features—including component-video switching and 24-bit / 96-kHz DACs—that have been carried over from the AVR-5700. On paper, at least, Denon’s AVR-3300 appears to establish a new benchmark for features offered in sub- $1,000 receivers.

By the time David arrived, I had been living with the AVR-3300 for nearly a month, so imagine my, er, amusement when a very quick run-through of the setup procedure with him revealed that I had incorrectly configured the system for my speakers. You see, during setup you’re asked to select either “Large” or “Small” as the speaker option. Had I given the instruction manual more than a cursory glance before attempting setup, I would’ve known Denon was referring to the speakers’ response characteristics—i.e., their ability to play frequencies below 80 Hz—rather than their physical size. Instead, I glanced at my fairly large floor-standing Energy speakers and opted to super-size all the way around.

Unfortunately, as David patiently informed me, that meant only the low-frequency effects (LFE), or .1 channel, would be sent to the sub. The “Large” setting, he explained, was really for the increasingly popular breed of “powered tower” speakers that include built-in subwoofers as part of their design. To his credit, he refrained from adding, “And especially not two-ways like those Energys, Mr. Big Shot.” David also mentioned that because many movie soundtracks have little or no content in the LFE channel, powered subwoofers with auto-on circuits will often fall into sleep mode after a while, with the result that they miss the first few seconds of low-end program material when it finally reappears. Lo and be hold, after my system was properly configured, bass response, which I had listed as AWOL in my listening notes, marched smartly back into the barracks.

The Denon AVR-3300 is a fairly impressive-looking piece of A/V gear: Not particularly striking but solidly built and possessing the kind of heft notably missing in many mid-priced receivers. The clean, relatively nondescript faceplate belies the myriad of analog and digital inputs and outputs (well, not digital outputs, but more on that later) that populate the back. All the digital inputs—one coaxial, three optical—are addressable during the initial setup, so they can be assigned to any program source, giving the receiver a flexibility missing in cost-conscious models that hard-wire the digital jacks.

This Denon receiver offers an impressive array of switching options. Perhaps the AVR-3300’s most surprising feature is the presence of two (two!) sets of component- video inputs and one set of component outputs for connecting to a TV or display that has component-video inputs. In addition to the component video I/Os, five composite and five S-video inputs are included, along with three composite and three S-video outputs. On the audio side, the AVR-3300 has nine analog inputs (including one for moving-magnet phono), three optical digital inputs, one coaxial dig ital input, and eight (7.1) external analog inputs, giving the receiver an upgrade path for accommodating future multichannel audio formats as they emerge.

Certainly, there are many receivers in this price range that offer more power than the AVR-3300, but for most home listening conditions its 105 watts of power per channel will be more than adequate. In my New York City apartment, it was clearly capable of rocking my—and my neighbors’— world. Not surprisingly, nearly half the receiver’s weight comes from the power amp block and a beefy (14 pounds, according to Denon) power transformer. Helping to keep things Ray Charles-cool are a finned aluminum heat sink and a microprocessor- controlled “smart” fan system mounted at the front of the power block. Denon says the fan system is sensitive to both heat and output level; as a result, it will kill the fan when it senses quiet passages and then crank it up again when the sound gets louder. Apparently the system works; I found the AVR-3300 to be quieter than a Detroit Li ons fan around playoff time.

Denon’s costlier AVR-5700 receiver sports a number of unusual features, many of which have flowed through the gene pool into its younger sibling. For example, most analog signals entering the AVR-3300 are converted to digital by 20-bit A!D converters en route to its digital signal processing section, based on the same Analog Devices SHARC 32-bit floating-point DSP chip used in the 5700 (which has two). But the 3300 receiver also includes an analog bypass that whisks signals around the converters and DSP section entirely. And a “parallel bass management circuit”—essentially a crossover system for the front left and right speakers and the subwoofer—works its voodoo by matching the analog speaker! subwoofer settings to those used for digital sources. Denon says the bypass system works especially well for high-quality analog sources, such as a turntable, or for CD players with HDCD decoding.

Another standout feature—again, particularly at this price level—is the AVR-3300’s ability to handle 96-kHz/24-bit audio. Denon employs true 96-kHzI24-bit DACs and filters on all six audio channels and a digital interface receiver chip of its own de sign that can accept stereo 96-kHz!24-bit PCM audio. I can’t think of another receiver in this price range that doesn’t down- sample 96/24 audio to 48-kHz/16- or 20-bit for processing and D/A conversion. The ability to handle true 96-kHz/24-bit audio will become increasingly important as more DVD players and audiophile DVDs with 96/24 audio become available.

= = = TEST RESULTS = = =

True Technologies’ measurements show very flat frequency response across the entire audio band for all main channels in “Large” mode and above 80 Hz in “Small” (Fig. 1). What little deviation is present shows up as a tendency for the frequencies below 1 kHz to shelve up perhaps a quarter of a decibel relative to those above, which might add just a touch of mellowness.

Plots of total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD + N) into 8 ohms (Fig. 2) essentially confirm Denon’s 105-watt (20.2-dBW) continuous power spec. Dynamic power measured 142 watts (21.5 dBW) per channel into 8 ohms with two channels driven or 133 watts (21.2 dBW) with all five channels going. Into 4 ohms with two channels driven, this receiver’s dynamic power was a very impressive 219 watts (23.4 dBW). The lab noted, how ever, that the AVR-3300 did not seem happy when pushed to clipping in 4-ohm continuous-power testing, so some caution might be in order if you have unusually low-impedance speakers.

Figure 3 shows THD + N versus frequency at various levels and with both standard 22-kHz and 8O-kHz analysis bandwidths. (The input signal was 0-dBFS PCM digital for all curves.) The curves for the wider measurement bandwidth lie considerably higher, presumably because of the larger amount of ultrasonic noise included from the D/A converters. Otherwise, the curves are all very similar, and when out-of-band components are eliminated by the 22-kHz filter, very low to beyond 10 kHz. There is a surprising amount of raggedness in the curves from about 2 kHz up, for which I have no ready explanation.

The plots of noise versus frequency (Fig. 4) are relative to 1 watt (0 dBW) Out, with the receiver’s gain turned all the way up. Worst case is, as one would expect, for analog input, reflecting the contribution of the A/D converter. Summed, A-weighted noise for an analog input was a low —81.2 dBW in analog bypass mode but deteriorated to —63.8 dBW in five-channel stereo mode, presumably because of the digital stages interposed.

Figure 6 shows separation versus frequency for the best and Worst channel pairings. These tests were made through the external processor inputs, but using the digital or two-channel analog inputs instead made essentially no difference, suggesting that the crosstalk was predominantly in the power amp section. Though not impressive technically, the 50-dB separation between the front left and right channels is more than adequate, and all other combinations were much better.

Fig. 1—Frequency response.

Fig. 2—THD +N vs. output.

Fig. 3—THD + N vs. frequency.

Fig. 4—Noise spectra.

Fig. 5—D/A converter linearity.

Fig. 6—Crosstalk vs. frequency.

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Finally, the AVR-3300-—like the 5700— tackles the issue of music versus movie surround sound in a unique manner. Many people feel that movie soundtracks benefit from the diffuse sound provided by side- mounted bipole or dipole speakers located high on the walls, while multichannel mu sic is more realistically reproduced by direct-radiating speakers located behind, and pointing toward, the listener. By including two sets of surround speaker terminals, Denon obviates the eye-gouging arguments over which system you’re going to live with by giving you the option of using bipole or dipole surrounds for movies and direct radiators for multichannel music. You can even use two pairs of surround speakers in tandem—and calibrate their levels separately—if you find that gets you closer to home theater nirvana.

As I discovered during David’s visit, making the surround speaker situation even easier is a feature Denon calls Personal Memory Plus. Essentially, PMP remembers your preferred surround mode and the parameters and speaker configuration for each main input you select. As a result, once you’ve entered your preferred settings for a source, they will become its default settings.

To evaluate the AVR-3300’s performance, I substituted it for electronics in my reference music/home theater system, which includes an Aragon 8008 250-watt-per- channel stereo amplifier, an Aragon 8008 three-channel amp, and a Lexicon MC-1 digital controller. (The Lexicon replaced the Citation 7.0 A/V controller—which de codes Pro Logic but not Dolby Digital— that I had been using previously.) Pioneer’s excellent DV-09 DVD player, which can feed 96-kHz/24-bit audio from its digital output, was used for playing both DVDs and CD. The speakers in my all-Energy reference system are floor-standing XL26s up front, an XL Center resting on my 36-inch Panasonic direct-view TV, and floor-standing XL25s in the rear. Energy’s XL S12 12- inch powered subwoofer handles frequencies below 80 Hz. Later, I also added a pair of Energy XL-R two-way dipole surround speakers for the review.

Although all of the Energy speakers except the center channel had been bi-wired with Monster Cable Z3 cables terminated with spade lugs, the Denon receiver doesn’t accept spade connectors. Therefore, I rewired the system with Kimber Kable 4TC loud speaker cables, terminated with Kimber’s WBT 0645 banana plugs. Audio connections were made with 1-meter runs of Monster’s Z2001 Reference interconnects and a generic optical digital cable. For my system’s video connections, I used generic S-video cables, until they developed a bad case of the flakies. Then I switched to Monster Z300 composite-video cables.

Thanks to the absence of DTS-encoded DVDs in my two local video rental stores, my primary movie references were Dolby Digital-encoded DVDs. The AVR-3300 handled every one of them—as well as matrix-encoded Dolby Surround discs—with aplomb. The rapid-fire, nonstop gunplay during several scenes in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Eraser was reproduced with alarming realism and power, and explosions rocked my apartment’s walls with near-terminal authority, as my new neighbors will attest. But the 3300 wasn’t just about sheer cinematic bombast. Quieter, more complex passages, such as some of the underwater scenes in Sphere and the rain effects in Tin Cup, were also delivered effectively, without obvious tonal coloration or the background noise common to many in expensive receivers.

Truth be told, I am much less demanding of audio in the home theater environment than I am when listening to music, and that’s where I expected the AVR-3300’s weaknesses to become readily apparent. But to my surprise, the 3300 is damn musical for a receiver of its price, with a warm, sweet sound, a fairly wide soundstage, and above-average transparency. Compared to other receivers I’m familiar with in this price range—Yamaha’s RXV-955, for example—the Denon is less strident, more de tailed, and less fatiguing to live with for long periods of time.

On Steve Morse’s underappreciated CD High Tension Wires, his guitar playing runs the tonal gamut from a nylon-string, neo classical solo piece to high-energy, blisteringly fast electric runs. The AVR-3300 not only kept up with Morse and his wicked guitar vibrato but maintained a tight, focused low end when electric bassist Jerry Peeks matched Morse’s jaw-dropping runs note for note on the showoff track “Tunnel Notes.”

The Denon AVR-3300 also performed admirably on a tweaked rerelease of the Bill Evans Trio performing at Shelly Mann’s club in Hollywood in 1963. The recording—a superb special edition mastered using JVC’s high-resolution 20-bit XRCD (Extended Resolution Compact Disc) technology—emerged from the AVR 3300 with the excellent detail, accurate imaging, and overall impressive sound quality that I hear from it through my reference system.

Reviewing the AVR-3300 was my first in- home experience with 96-kHz/24-bit audio—the Lexicon arrived toward the end of the review—and, man, it spoiled me for more! The only 96/24 disc I have is Jon Faddis’s Remembrances, a Chesky release that sounded great on the AVR-3300—richer, more alive than the CD, with an extensive palette of tonal colors. Subtle differences in instrumental timbre—oh, there’s the baritone sax, and there, the bass clarinet!—were readily apparent on the Chesky DVD.

Although DTS movies were in scarce supply in my neighborhood, I was able to get my hands on several DTS audio discs, including a DTS sampler. At the risk of drawing fire from audiophiles who feel that anything but two-channel stereo is hokum, I loved the ways the cuts on this disc sounded! On the opening track, “She Makes Me Feel Good,” Lyle Lovett’s distinctive, emotive voice sounded better than ever, with harmony background vocals popping in and out from the surround channels. On the AVR-3300, Dean Parks’ acoustic slide solo retained a tight, sinuous snap, while the subtle Hammond B3 organ parts sounded, well, like a real Hammond B3.

On the Boyz II Men reworking of The Beatles classic, “Yesterday,” you’d swear the Boyz were in the ‘hood—or even better, in your living room. The 3300 was able to fill the room with the Boyz’ lush a cappella harmonies, accurately reproducing the warmth and depth of their respective voices. And on Diana Krall’s version of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” I closed my eyes and was transported to a smoky jazz club, with her voice seeming to bounce back off the rear wall.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed listening to music using the AVR-3300’s five-channel stereo mode. As far as I’m concerned, if they can shave $10 off the price of the receiver, they can eliminate the rest of the DSP modes; I frankly didn’t care for them at all. But at the risk—again—of committing audiophile heresy, I found myself using and enjoying the five-channel setting frequently when listening to CDs, particularly when I wasn’t going to settle down in the sweet spot in my room. What came from my speakers was warm, rich, and detailed, with a huge, satisfying soundstage—certainly not the cheesy, artificial sound I associate with most receiver DSP modes. If you have decent surround speakers, my guess is that you’ll be using the five-channel stereo more than you’d imagine.

It should be obvious by now that I am favorably impressed with the AVR-3300, especially when you consider its price. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its short comings. For one, it doesn’t have a digital output, which may be important to some of you. The AVR-3300 also doesn’t allow you to name stations or tune them directly, which are standard features on a lot of receivers in this price range. The remote is a bit clunky and difficult to use (though Denon is getting better at this). And maybe my opinion is skewed, but I think they could have put a bit more thought—and easier explanations—into the manual.

In addition, when I compared the AVR 3300 to my reference electronics, there was a significant difference in performance— muddier dialog, narrower soundstage, more tonal coloration, less focused bass, and vocals that sounded much more veiled. My reference rig was demonstrably smoother when pushed to higher volume levels. But I would certainly hope so: We’re talking about $15,000 worth of gear.

That said, I can’t think of a sub-$ 1,000 receiver I’d rather own than the AVR-3300. If you’re looking for an amazingly quiet, affordable receiver with plenty of power, impressive Dolby Digital and DTS home theater performance, 96-kHz/24-bit audio capability, and a warm and detailed sound for music playback, you need not look past this one. It does tons of things way better than its price gives it the right to.

(Source: Audio magazine, Sept. 1999)

Also see: Denon 20-bit CD technology (ad, Jan. 1989)

Denon DR-330 Cassette Deck (Mar. 1982)

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