Saturday, May 3, 2008

Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver

Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver 
Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver 
Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver 
Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver 
Denon AVR-888 A/V Receiver 
HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Never has the field been so full of top-quality A/V Receivers and the competition is fierce among the top manufacturers for these types of components. It used to be that low-end models kept costs down by eliminating features and seriously compromising sound quality. However, consumers have come to expect the most bang for the buck, at any price, significantly raising the bar on less expensive models such as the $749 Denon AVR-888.

The AVR-888 delivers a substantial 100-Watts into each of its seven channels, offering additional configurations for systems requiring fewer channels. For instance, you can have a complete 5.1-channel system in your main theater and then use the extra zone provided, set up a two-channel system in another room. Another possibility is to use the additional channels to bi-amp the front left and right speakers in your main 5.1 system.

If you are setting up a 7.1-channel system and still want to use the Zone 2 capabilities of the AVR-888, you'll need to add a second two-channel amp to power the speakers in the 2nd zone. All controls for the second zone, including input switching, volume, muting and power on/off, are handled by the supplied Denon remote, which is the same remote that runs the main system. Unlike some manufacturers, Denon doesn’t provide a second remote for just the 2nd zone.

A potential negative for the AVR-888 is it only offers two HDMI inputs. Granted, they are version 1.3 and compatible with all of the pertinent video features you'd want and expect there. You will have to pre-determine your needs and, perhaps, use the three component video inputs and six digital audio (three coax/three optical) connections for more of your gear.

The Denon AVR-888 offers decoding for most current surround formats including Dolby Digital EX, DTS-ES, DTS 96/24, DTS NEO:6 and Dolby Digital Pro Logic II. A key feature that didn't make the cut, no doubt to keep the price down was the omission of onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. However, the good news is that the AVR-888 will accept multichannel PCM via HDMI from your Blu-ray and/or HD DVD player, allowing Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD and DTS-HD tracks converted to PCM to be transmitted at full resolution.

Since my DirectTV HD Receiver does not pass multichannel PCM over HDMI, I choose to connect it to a set of component video inputs and an optical digital audio input, reserving my Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players for the HDMI inputs. Of course, the sound and video doesn't suffer using this alternate configuration, though I would prefer to use HDMI for all three because I can eliminate some additional cabling

The rear panel looks more streamlined than many AVRs and that’s because there are some I/Os missing such as preamp outputs, which would have allowed the addition of a more powerful amplifier for the main system. Only Zone 2 has analog preouts for use with an external amp. Deletions such as this and the two HDMI’s make the AVR-888 vulnerable to early obsolescence. However, it does provide 7.1-channel analog inputs for external multichannel sources and a MM-type phono input.

The Denon AVR-888 incorporates a Faroudja DCDi chip and all video signals are automatically upconverted into the format used to output video signals. Simply, this means you only have to send a single output to your monitor. So, for instance, regardless of how many different types of inputs you use combining component video, S-Video and composite, they can all be watched via the HDMI output. Now if your TV is slightly older and only has a component video input, you can use that as your single video output. This cross conversion has become a fairly common feature to ensure the best video quality from all your sources and to reduce cable clutter.

Resolution can be set to output at the input resolution of the source or to upconvert all video input signals to the maximum resolution of your monitor. For instance, 480p and 720p inputs are upconverted to 1080p (HDMI only). For component video the maximum output is 1080i, but you can also set to 720p depending on the native resolution of your monitor.

The AVR-888 uses Audyssey MultEQ for automatic speaker calibration and room EQ. I remember the very first high-end preamplifiers that ran well over $10,000 in the late 90’s that toyed with automatic calibration. This technology has certainly trickled down and Audyssey has made it amazingly affordable for manufacturers to make it available on all their AVRs regardless of price. This set-it and forget-it feature makes speaker calibration of a multi-channel system super quick and easy. The room EQ can be calibrated for up to four listening positions to ensure that everyone is getting the best performance from various seating locations in your media room/theater.

Like most new AVRs the Denon AVR-888 offers special connections for a XM Radio tuner (Sirius is not supported) and a dedicated iPod Dock. With the iPod Dock all of the media player’s playback functions are controlled via the Denon's remote. To playback your iPod you need the ASD-1R, ASD-3N or the ASD-3W from Denon. Of course, all three are sold separately. However, when using the ASD-1R its possible to also view photos and video content on your iPod through the connected monitor.

The remote control is very unique and I've never seen this type of design before. There are buttons on both the front and rear of the controller. The rear buttons are recessed and hidden behind a door. These buttons are used primarily during set up and can be hidden from view during normal operation. The buttons on the front panel are for everyday operation, such as input selection, volume and muting.

I'm not one for a lot of processing so I left the AVR-888 in the Pure Direct mode for all my sources. Pure Direct offers the best reproduction because it plays any source in its original format without any additional EQ or signal processing.

The Blu-ray Disc of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, is a serious feast for the senses. Even if you are not a huge fan of this franchise, the video transfer and uncompressed audio soundtrack represent the best of what Blu-ray has to offer, at this point.

The Denon AVR-888, as I mentioned earlier, can accept multichannel PCM of audio over HDMI, for a far superior presentation than the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Blu-ray’s ability to open the menu and make adjustments while the movie continues to play provides a terrific way to compare the two soundtracks. Its possible to go back and forth between the two options while in the menu mode and hear the difference. It’s quite remarkable. The collapsing of the soundfield is palpable when you move from uncompressed to compressed and you can detect a shift in the frequency response, particularly at the top end.

Overall, I found the sound quality of the AVR-888 to be quite good but when comparing it to my reference NAD separates and even the Sony STR-DA4300ES that I reviewed last month, I did notice some limited dynamic range particularly on high impact scenes with lots of information such as the final battle-at-sea sequence in the final Pirates film.

It’s unusual for reviewers to add video games to their evaluation. However, I recently purchased the Sony PS3 as my reference Blu-Ray player. I thought, what the heck, I’d like to see what a video game looks and sounds like in hi-def. Thus, I was completely blindsided by the driving game Burnout Paradise and have become totally hooked. Other than uncannily realistic HD graphics of exhilarating hi-speed races through the streets of the fictional Paradise City, the 5.1 audio provides cues that are enveloping and startling life-like. Each car that you win has its own unique sonic characteristics, such as high-pitched whines to deep low-end growls, making it possible to identify them by just by the sound. Crashes are totally immersive with tires, glass and pieces of metal flying around in a 360-degree environment. Don’t start because you’ll never stop and it’s even more immersive when you have an 80-inch wide (92" diag.) front projection screen like mine.

Going in a completely different direction I popped in the HD-DVD of Cream playing at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2005. Sure you notice the deficiencies of a three-piece band when it gets a little too freeform but you also witness the force that three great musicians can exert with only the basics. This disc takes you back to a simpler time, musically speaking, but the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is well reproduced on the AVR-888 for a robust, clean and pristine sound. I never had the pleasure of hearing Cream play back in the day but I suspect that Clapton's blues chops are far more refined now. Hearing him riff through these classic tracks is worth the price of the disc. Jack Bruce's bass is tight and punchy and Ginger Baker's drums are so life-like you think they are in the room with you. In fact, this is very much an intimate, right in your living room, kind of performance.

Normally, when I do an evaluation I start with two-channel music, as I believe such tests reveal the best and worst sonic traits in an AVR pretty quickly. With the Denon AVR-888 I ended up spending several hours listening to high definition movies and concerts as well as having those late-night PS3 sessions before playing any CDs. During that time I felt the AVR-888 was a very worthy performer but there was something missing. It was only after I started playing some two-channel material was I able to detect and articulate just want it was that I found lacking in the AVR-888’s general performance.

Ultimately, I didn’t find anything egregious of a tonal nature but it just lacked the air, spaciousness, depth and warmth that I get from my reference components. As these are audiophile-types of characteristics they may mean little to the budget- conscious or those who just don't sit down and listen for the fine nuances in music the way I do. Overall, imaging was good but there was no sense of presence, nothing popped. However, bass was solid and instruments were well defined. Basically, it just lacked its own character, feeling flat and well … ordinary. Sonic performance is good, just not special. Given how most people listen to music these days, it’s more than likely no one is going to even notice the qualities I found lacking.

Unfortunately, your rebate check from Congress won’t cover the cost of the Denon AVR-888 but this relatively inexpensive AVR has a lot going for it with plenty of power for a complete 7.1-channel surround system, dual-zone functionality, HDMI 1.3 inputs, and the ability to accept multichannel PCM over HDMI. It may not be the most vibrant-sounding AVR you will find but it certainly gets the job done, and done quite effectively. If you are on a budget and can get by with the limited two HDMI's, the AVR-888 may be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

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