Denon AVR-3802 Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Richard Elen   
Tuesday, 01 January 2002

The AVR-3802 is mid-level in Denon’s line of AV receivers. As you ascend the range, the units get bigger, more flexible and a great deal heavier, thanks to Denon’s use of increasingly massive main power transformers to insure that the amps have the ability to hit loud transients hard without running out of oomph. The AVR-3802 is a happy medium between Denon's low and high ends in both quality and price, with plenty of power for many normal applications (110 watts all round into eight ohms, with rather more in the lower impedances, which mildly increases distortion here). It comes with a pair of "surround back" amps, which can be configured either to handle a second "zone" outside your listening room – where you can select an input other than that being used for the main output – or to deliver the rear outputs of the on-board DTS ES system that can decode 7.1.

The unit is distinguished by the presence of a 2mV sensitivity phono preamp, not something I particularly need these days, but I am sure this is an inclusion that costs little and increases the ability of the unit to handle legacy content. (Sorry if this upsets some people, but the vast majority of the two or three dozen vinyl discs I own are albums I actually engineered or produced. It has long been my opinion that the only people who think vinyl sounds better than modern delivery systems are people who have never been in a recording studio or suffered the horror of listening to test pressings and comparing them with the original masters.)

Installation and Setup
The AVR-3802 sports a useful collection of inputs and outputs that are easily accessed and configured, and as a result give surprisingly few challenges on the installation front. There are no less than four digital ins (three TOSLink and one coax) and one TOSLink out (tied to optical input 3 for CD-R/MD recorders). Of course these neither accept nor deliver anything better than CD-quality audio, such being the state of stupidity in the industry. Each digital input can be assigned to a main system input. There is a 5.1 "ext" analog in, expressly designed for high-quality audio devices such as an SACD player, so we can optimistically assume that it does not ruin this by converting it to PCM for processing – it is not entirely obvious whether it does this or not. I connected my Sony SACD player’s analog outs to this input and the same player’s TOSLink out to one of the optical ins, thus making it possible to have different settings for the multichannel SACD playback and regular CD playback from the same player, which is refreshingly useful.

The other inputs (there are nine analog inputs altogether) are generally stereo, with composite and S-video input jacks associated with them. These include DVD, videodisc, TV/DBS, two VCR I/O sets and a set for CD-R/tape. Of course, in several of these cases, you will assign one of the digital inputs if at all possible. There are also S-Video and composite outputs for connection to your monitor, and a pair of component video inputs with associated output. All the video paths through the unit are separate, so it makes sense to hook up all the outputs to your TV. Composite inputs only come out of the composite outputs, S in only out of S out, and the same with the component connections. If your setup is like mine, with the S-video coming from the DBS receiver, composite from the VCR and component from the DVD player, you will need to switch TV inputs at the same time as you switch receiver inputs. This is a pain (unless you have a very programmable remote), but necessary as format conversion would no doubt degrade the performance.

While we are talking about switching inputs, a few words are in order concerning the Denon remote. There are essentially two things a modern "universal" remote has to do. It has to select the appropriate receiver input, then lets you control the device you have selected. Sometimes these two functions are combined, so that, for example, by selecting the CD input, the remote automatically switches to "control the CD player mode." This is usually great, except when you want to turn the DVD player off without stopping replay of the CD, which requires you to put your hand over the front of the remote while you switch devices, so the receiver doesn’t follow your selection. If you think this is a pain, you should see the Denon remote, which separates these two control functions. You start by selecting the receiver input (press AMP and then the numbered button in the bottom section, which has a superscript that indicates the input you want), then have to push the upper button with the same name as the one you just pushed to start controlling the remote device. The remote has a basic macro capability (to record sequences of button presses), but these are not very intuitive or easy to remember when programmed. Additionally, although the remote sometimes offers two levels of operation of a remote device (i.e., pressing the DVD button twice causes the remote’s LCD displays "DVD SETUP" and the buttons take on a second level of functions), the remote is really not very intuitive when it comes to operating complex devices like a DVD player. In all of the above areas, my cheap Pioneer receiver’s remote does much better. It also controls more devices – the Denon could handle nearly none of my players (not the Sony MD recorder, not the JVC/DishPlayer DBS receiver, not the Kenwood DVD-Audio and not the Philips CD – that leaves the Sony SACD and TV), and although it has a "learn" facility, the Denon controller could only handle my DBS receiver if I was really close to it, something that is not a problem with my Pioneer. Although this remote looks and feels quite nice, it is overall not a success.

On the output side, the speaker connections are a sturdy set of the usual screw posts with banana plug capability, and are easily identified. There are also preamp outs, plus a line-level multi-zone output to hook up a distant amp and speakers. You can connect a prodigious number of speakers to this unit, including an alternate (or additional) pair of surrounds in addition to the "surround back" pair that can be used either for 7.1 or as remotes.

Once you’ve plugged everything in, you can start to configure the system in earnest. The easy bit is setting up the inputs described above. The difficult bit is configuring the system itself, at least some bits of it. The AVR-3802 includes an on-screen display which is okay (although Japanese manufacturers still need to learn about delivering good-looking onscreen display images), albeit a bit noisy at times. A System Setup Menu leads you through the things you need to do, starting with power amp assignment, which is where you decide whether you have room for a pair of "surround back" speakers for 7.1 or not. Curiously, with all these amplifiers, you cannot configure any of them to drive a sub. You would have thought that a pair (say, the surround rears or the surround "B" outputs) could have been bridged to drive a subwoofer, but the assumption is that your sub is self-powered.

You then go through loudspeaker configuration, telling the system what speakers you have and whether they are large (bass-capable) or small. We are essentially also setting up bass management here, of course. The manual suggests that using the "small" setting for all five speakers and Subwoofer On with a connected sub will yield the best results. Hmmm… we will see about that. While you are here, you can select the sub crossover frequency (80, 100 or 120 Hz) and its mode if you have "large" front speakers, either LFE or LFE+Main. In the latter mode, the sub produces bass from the LFE and from the front pair of channels. This can add to the bass end in your room or detract from it, depending on where your speakers are. Try it and see.

It is around this point, when you may have contemplated going through a couple of steps again to see if you set everything up correctly, that you discover that the system utilized to access and configure these settings is not the most intuitive. It’s easy to drop out of the mode you are setting and back to the main menu when all you wanted to do was set some other parameter on the same page. And when you are dropped back into the menu, the pointer automatically moves incrementally to the next step. You are expected to do the configuration once and get it right first time.

If you have enough speakers connected, you can decide which of them are used for different surround modes and whether or not to auto-detect 6.1 and DTS-ES flags in source material. Again, if you have them, you can decode 5.1 and even stereo signals to use all the speakers. You then go on to set the speaker delay time (in meters or feet) and then channel levels.

A tone generator allows you to set up the channel levels, and you can do this either in auto mode or by manually selecting a channel to work with. Later, you can even engage this from the remote, which is a nice touch. Ultimately you drop out of the bottom of the menus with a couple of onscreen menu display settings and auto-configuring the tuner presets – another nice touch.

Operation and Listening Tests
If you are sensible, you set up each input on the unit to "auto" mode, in which it tries (and sometimes fails) to work out what you are giving it to play back. This means that if you place, say, a DTS CD in your player and play it, there is only a momentary burst of noise as it works out what you did. It will correctly choose the DTS or Dolby Digital (or Pro Logic II) decoder when you play back a DVD with a front panel display. LED and on-screen display (if enabled) will tell you that you have done so. At any time, you can manually override the auto decision with various results. You can set your CD player input to Pro Logic II Mode (you could, but you won’t, will you?), or do the same thing to your DBS receiver input (which makes much more sense). You can also use the remote’s "DSP SIMU" button to impose a standard set of horrible (as usual) pretend surround environments on your audio. Their parameters can even be customized. Please do not push this button ever again. You did not buy a nice surround receiver to do this with it. There is a slightly less obnoxious "DTS Neo 6" mode which "expands" stereo sources into six-channel surround, but I did not have enough speakers to try this (or the full DTS ES mode).

In fact, you can customize quite a few aspects of this unit. You can fiddle with the dialogue normalization level in Dolby Digital if you can’t hear the dialogue well enough. You can squash the dynamic range when watching action movies late at night. And you can configure the level of the LFE channel on replay of Dolby Digital or DTS sources (i.e., not bass management, but the amount of that ".1" channel that comes in from the player). There are even tone controls, but I never found it necessary to use them.

For test material, I started with Alan Parsons' stunning On Air DTS CD. This is a wonderful piece of surround production by a true master who has been doing surround mixing even longer than I have. The album sounds exquisite on this receiver, particularly when driven at respectable listening levels. I did notice one strange thing though: playing back one of the instrumentals, I was messing with the "LFE" And "LFE+Main" settings and noticed that I was hearing some distortion in the surrounds. Putting my ear to the speakers, I noticed that they were trying to replay the significant bass part, despite being configured as "small." This points to a bug in the bass management system, which needs to be examined. Apart from this, the unit behaved flawlessly, with plenty of power on high-level transients, especially at the bass end.

One thing naturally led to another and I played the DTS CD and DVD-A versions of Toy Matinee, one of my favorite rock test records. The DVD-A version is definitely at its most impressive here, with very clean and crisp highs and plenty of nicely-defined impact in the low end. Next, it was over to the SACD player. Being in a holiday mood, I checked out a ridiculous arrangement of "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" from the delicious Mormon Tabernacle Christmas SACD on Telarc. This is also extremely impressive, and so is the Telarc "Symphonie Fantastique," pointing out clearly the somewhat overenthusiastic brass section. The Chesky "Swing Live" SACD delivered an excellent surround picture. This disc uses a surround technology that gives it markedly superior inter-speaker imaging over conventional 5.1, and it sounds better than I have ever heard it before on this system.

The Downside
The remote control for this unit needs a rethink in several areas, all of which have been detailed in this review. In my view, however, you really need a programmable remote these days, such as the Philips Pronto. I noticed that there is a setup for the Denon AVR-3802 online, which I immediately downloaded and used in preference to the remote. It took only about five minutes to edit my macros to incorporate it fully into my system.

Returning to the matter of the apparent bug in the bass management system, I was only able to find it in DTS mode. The setup system is a little unintuitive at times. One coax digital input is enough for my personal needs, but I wonder if it is sufficient for everyone. TOSLink is a common digital interlink, but it suffers excessive jitter if the cable length is too long. Coax will provide better interconnect performance.

I enjoyed having the Denon AVR-3802 in my system for the time it was installed, and I rather wish I could have held on to it. I particularly liked its transient handling and input flexibility. It is also one of the few units currently available that supports surround systems beyond 5.1, and if you have somewhere to put the speakers, more is better with current surround sound practice. With a suggested retail price of $1,199, this is certainly good value for money, considering the gutsy PSU. The impressive transformer (if you think this is big, you should see the top of the line) makes the unit fairly weighty and gives the power amps the ability to drive heavy bass and transients without taking a breath (or getting particularly hot in my case, with eight ohm speakers). If you get a Pronto or similar remote for a modern system, this system will perform with extreme credibility. In fact, when my neighbor came over to watch the DVD of Jeff Buckley Live in Chicago with me (an excellent disc, with a well-mixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack), she commented that my audio system sounded "truly awesome." As she is a regular recording musician used to studio playback systems, this was compliment enough. Then again, she hasn’t been over to Jerry Del Colliano’s place.
Manufacturer Denon
Model AVR-3802 Receiver
Reviewer Richard Elen

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