|Denon AVP-A1HDCi AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Ken Taraszka, MD|
|Tuesday, 01 July 2008|
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The AV world has undergone an unheard-of number of changes in the past few years and, while many companies have been slow to adapt, Denon just released an AV preamp more up-to-date and with more features than ever before imaginable. The new Denon AVP-A1HDCI is described as an “Ultra Reference 12-Channel A/V Home Theater/Multimedia Preamplifier with Network Streaming and Wi-Fi” and that just starts to define what this piece can do. The Denon AVP-A1HDCI is designed to be the hub of an advanced AV system and can easily control two independent home theaters or one with up to three accessory zones. This AV preamp offers any feature you could dream of and has more flexibility than a Cirque de Soleil contortionist. Retailing for an even $7,000, it aspires to be the last AV preamp you’ll ever buy.
We started with composite video. Then the S-Video connector came out, followed shortly by component. All of these used analog video transmission. As fixed pixel digital displays grew in popularity, we were left having our DVDs’ digital video converted to analog, then back to digital to be displayed on our HD sets. When the DVI-D connector came into being, we could finally transmit digital video directly to our displays. Then came the HDMI connector, which allowed the high-definition disc formats of the now-defunct HD DVD and the surviving Blu-ray disc to pass native 1080p video directly to our digital displays. HDMI doesn’t just allow for video transmission, copy protection and increased storage space. These new formats permit uncompressed multi-channel audio as well.
While many, myself included, think this is one of the best things to happen to home theater in over a decade, it isn’t without its problems. The rapidity of change has left even most early adopters in the dust. Last year’s AV preamps are dated. In fact, many currently released and even some soon to be released processors are already arguably dated. I use the word “arguably,” as we still are not certain what will become the standard of transmission for these new high-resolution audio formats to the receiver or AV preamp. Right now, it seems it will be via digital bitstream, although multi-channel PCM is another viable option, as are multi-channel analog outputs from the high-definition disc player itself.
Many only know Denon as a receiver company, but those of us with a few more years’ experience remember them for their reputation in the high-end market as well, and this piece and the matching POA-A1HDCI 10-channel power amplifier are poised to make their re-entry into this market. The AVP-A1HDCI has it all: six to two HDMI 1.3a switching and 12-channel balanced and single-ended analog outputs, all of which are freely assignable. Wi-Fi capability allows installers, or you, to control and program the unit via the Internet thanks to its DNLA compliance and permits access to all your PC’s Windows Media Player’s music files, pictures, Internet radio and firmware updates. The unit is XM-ready and offers an AM/FM and HD Radio tuner, a 7.1-channel analog input, iPod connectivity, two-way RF remote control capability (which allows effective use of the pre/pro without line of sight) and video processing by Silicon Optix’s Realta chipset with scaling to 1080p and video transcoding between all analog video types and to HDMI. Audyssey Multi EQ XT auto set-up and calibration is compatible with the Audyssey Pro installer kit, available to your dealer or you for a fee, and allows maximum flexibility of room correction. Should you not like what the Audyssey does, you can manually set up your system, and even digitally EQ each speaker. You can custom configure each of the 14 available inputs however you desire. There are programmable triggers and volume levels including max, on and mute for each source. You can even independently select audio and video inputs in case you like to watch the weather channel while rocking CDs. Two digital outputs for Zone 2 and 4 allow Dolby Digital and DTS to be fed to other systems. Zone 4 doesn’t have an associated video output, but Zone 2 does. Tone controls can be bypassed in Direct and Pure Direct modes and the AVP offers a “Restorer” to enhance the reproduction of iPods and streaming music. You can even blend your center channel into the fronts by varying amounts to enhance soundstage and center imaging.
Inputs and outputs abound, with true 24-bit/192-kHz digital inputs allowed via HDMI or Denon’s own D-Link III connector and 24-bit/96-kHz via the five optical, four coaxial and two BNC digital inputs. Nine single-ended analog stereo inputs are there, too, eight with composite or S-Video or up to six with component video, five via RCAs and one BNC, with one component output of each connector type. There is a pair of balanced stereo analogs and even a moving magnet phono input. There are also three switched power outlets, four independent 12-volt triggers, IR remote control ins and outs, two RS-232C controls, an Ethernet port, AM and FM antennas, a mini USB port and finally a WiFi antenna. This preamp conforms to DNLA standards, which allow you to control it from almost any wireless device, such as your laptop, PDA or iPhone and download firmware updates. Your AV system installer can even change the configuration remotely, saving time and costly in-home visits.
The AVP-A1HDCI uses six independent power supplies to isolate the various sections of the preamp maximizing audio and video performance and, as you might expect, with all these connectors and features, this thing is big. Measuring 17.1 inches wide, eight-and-a-half **** tall and 19.25 **** deep, it’s the size of a big receiver, nay, exactly the size of Denon’s flagship receiver, as it uses the same case. The preamp weighs in at just under 60 pounds, only three pounds less than the receiver, which has seven 150 watts-per-channel amplifiers in it, showing just how much extra attention to performance they added to this piece. While this is undoubtedly the largest AV preamp I have ever seen, once you look at the back of it, you know it couldn’t have been smaller, as all those connections take up a lot of space.
The AVP comes packed solidly in a heavy gauge cardboard box and Styrofoam and includes more accessories than any AV device I’ve purchased before, including five antennas, two remotes – one for the main zone and one for the secondary zone – a power cord and a heavy metal Audyssey microphone for room correction. This is a nice step up from the usual plastic, as the added weight made positioning the microphone on soft surfaces easier.
The Denon main remote is functional, though it requires multiple keystrokes to control the device properly and lacks a sufficient number of hard buttons, so I used it for my initial set-up and some reprogramming, but for day-to-day use, I employed my Harmony 890. The remote comes preprogrammed with most AV component IR codes and is capable of learning should it not have the codes needed for your gear. It also has a second remote for another zone, which should more than suffice for its intended purpose.
With anything described by a company as “Ultra Reference,” I had no doubt where to put this – it went straight to my reference rig. I cleared a spot on my AudiAV Crystal rack and connected it to every source I could find. These included Sony PS3, BDP-S1 Blu-ray and Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD players, a Scientific Atlantic HD 8300 HD DVR and a Denon DVD-5910CI. I connected the Denon DVD 5910CI via the D-Link III, coaxial digital and stereo analog outputs, as well as HDMI and component video. The preamp outputs were wired to my Mark Levinson 433 amp for the front three speakers with Transparent Reference balanced ICs and speaker wire; it was connected to a Proceed HPA-2 for the surrounds. I used my Definitive Technologies Mythos ST speakers (two pairs) and the matching Mythos Ten center channel with a Paradigm Servo 15v2 subwoofer initially and then swapped out the front left and right for a pair of Escalante Design Fremont speakers. Power for the system was filtered through a PurePower 700 power unit.
Swapping out an AV preamp can take a lot of time due to the vast number of connections, but the HDMI connector adds convenience to modern home theater. The fact that I have torn down this system many times recently allowed me to fully integrate this unit into my theater in less than an hour. When all the connections were made, I turned my attention to setting up the sources connected to the AVP. I was pleased to see Denon’s new GUI is much improved from the older version. It’s still not the most intuitive I have seen, but the new GUI is far more streamlined and elegant than the prior version. I was surprised to see just haw many options there were for each source. You can select almost any option in audio and video, as well as room correction on a source by source basis. I must admit that I hadn’t read the manual. I spent some time setting it up blindly and was able to get it to work fairly easily. After the first day, I read the manual cover to cover, actually took notes and went back and set it up perfectly for my system. I was amazed at just how flexible this processor is and, once I got used to the GUI, it was very easy to navigate, though it can be daunting at first glance.
Once I had balanced the volumes associated with each component and got everything set the way I wanted it, including the scaler to convert my TV to 1080p while leaving my Blu-ray and HD DVD player’s video alone, I fired up the system and let it run for a few days before doing any critical listening or finalizing the room correction. I wanted it to burn in as much as possible before making any judgments. I connected the 75-ohm FM and DTU AM antenna for HD radio and waited patiently for it all to settle.