Kenwood Sovereign VR-5900 Receiver 
Home Theater AV Receivers AV Receivers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Monday, 01 April 2002

Introduction
Receivers are better today than they have ever been; yet their reputation continues to be plagued by memories of low quality mass-market products of the past. A decade ago Japanese electronic manufactures had the reputation of churning out low quality inexpensive garbage-in-a-rack, a reputation that the better Japanese manufacturers have since worked hard to overcome. Today’s top performing receivers are substantial collections of advanced electronics that perform near the ultimate level, and provide convenience, excellent sound quality, and the most state-of-the-art features the industry has to offer all in a convenient compact package.

The Kenwood VR-5900 Audio/Video surround receiver resides at the top of the Kenwood line. It measures 17-5/16 in width, 16-3/8 inches in depth and seven-and-one-half inches tall with a net weight of 44 lbs. The retail price of the Kenwood VR-5900 is $3,000.

The Sovereign series is Kenwood’s reference line of components, a product line that provides consumers with a high performance option. Taking a close look at this piece, I rather liked its modern, rugged appearance. Its brushed black aluminum face looks somewhat industrial yet its design is unmistakably modern. The volume knob is a tad tough to turn, yet on the other hand felt precise and secure. Features such as a motor driven door that operates with the press of a button exposing control buttons, is an example of what gives this product a sense of exactness and precision.

Features
I am simply amazed with feature-set provided in today’s top theater products. Many come with options that can take you months to assimilate. The VR-5900 is no exception. It comes with 24-bit 96 kHz D/A converters and today’s best DSP modes to include Dolby Digital, the new Dolby Digital Prologic II, DTS ES Surround and more. It also provides THX correction modes and wears the THX Ultra certification.

The Kenwood VR-5900 is 7.1 ready, allowing you to connect 7 speakers, two more than a standard 5.1 setup. The extra channels in the VR-5900 reproduce Surround Back Channel information when it is present in THX Surround EX- encoded DVDs or when it is synthesized by the DTS Neo: 6 mode. These two extra speakers are designed to be placed behind the listener. The only downfall to feature is the current lack of software that will support this added capability. There are just a small handful of audio and video releases that provide 7.1 information. For a touch of tomorrow’s technology, the VR-5900 provides analog audio inputs for DVD-Audio sources.

The VR-5900 features a dual room mode that is essentially a second A/V system in another independent room. This mode allows you to run a completely different and independent source simultaneously meaning that you can be watching a movie in your main room and either listen to music or watch a movie in surround in another room. Another cool feature is the VR-5900’s Midnight Theater Mode that limits very loud passages for viewing at hours that would otherwise disturb those either sleeping or disinterested. This eliminates the need to turn voices up and frantically turn the theater down for abrupt action.

Perhaps the most alluring feature of the VR-5900 is its PowerTouch III controller. This ultra-cool Palm-like interface has a large LCD display/touch-screen. Along with this rather large appliance comes a stylus that is very much like the ones provided in today’s PDA’s. Similar in nature to the Philips Pronto remote, the PowerTouch III allows you to completely customize your system. The manual seemed to navigate me adequately through the initial setup as I soon had all my devices programmed into the remote. A simple press of the DVD button would both switch the video source to the proper input, and switch the display screen to display a full function DVD remote. This is pretty cool. When I select Satellite, I am switched to Satellite TV and the satellite receivers remote functions are displayed on the LCD screen. The PowerTouch III provides codes for most all modern equipment, but in the event that the code is not available, it has a learn feature that can memorize functions from other remotes. The VR-5900 also provides you with the ability to program macro steps for custom install applications. The PowerTouch III gives you the ability to save your favorite radio stations and add text to your preset such as the radio station name or the name of the family member that saved it. Another feature allows you to configure custom windows, then password protect them so others can modify them or erase them. (Kid proof) These are just a few of this powerful remote’s available features.

Setup
The manual navigates you through your system setup with relative ease. After you input your speaker size, the number of speakers that are being used, and adjust the volume levels, the VR-5900 calculates the timing delays and you are off to the races. One of my greater peeves today is the very complicated setup of many home theater products especially some receivers and AV preamps. In this day and time it’s becoming very difficult for John P. Average to set up and optimize their own theater system. I simply don’t understand this phenomenon. With all the high technology of the twenty first century, manufacturers need to figure out how to design more friendly interfaces. I would rate the VR-5900 as one of the easier setups yet I’m quite sure that a novice could not set up and optimize this product. This isn’t a knock on this product, but rather an industry wide issue.

Movies and Music
Looking for something a tad from the ordinary, I cued up Spinal Tap (MGM), the Rob Reiner directed rock and roll cult classic. This movie affords me the opportunity to supply some volume and a sizable load for the Kenwood VR-5900. In the song "Big Bottom," a song complete with such brilliant lyrics as "Talk about mud flaps, my baby’s got ‘em," my RBH loudspeakers kicked at extreme volumes without any true signs of running out of gas. This is particularly important because the wattage ratings of today receivers tell little about their ability to drive your loudspeakers. There can be a huge difference between two different manufacturers receivers, even if they reference the same wattage rating. RBH loudspeakers aren’t necessarily a difficult load, yet are far from the easiest speaker to drive. The bass in this chapter remained open and lacked compression even at extreme volumes. High frequencies lacked the edginess most typically associated to poor or underpowered amplifiers. I was actually surprised by how well this receiver performed. I have long considered receivers to be a small-time solution for home theater when compared to higher priced separate components, a theory that the VR5900 has since proven erroneous. They perhaps don’t supply the ultimate performance of the mega-thousand dollar separate preamp/amp combinations, but they supply a good percentage and at a fraction of the price.

One of the better thrillers of the past couple years, What Lies Beneath (Dreamworks), provided me a good taste of what this product is all about. The Kenwood VR-5900 sounded well balanced. It’s midrange is weighty yet seemingly agile and transparent. This was probably the biggest surprise to me as this represents the area that most all receivers can fall apart. The high frequency however could tend to lack some sweetness at higher volumes. I played with a variety of source materials and later found that this is partially due to the fact that the VR-5900’s top end is exceptionally revealing. With good source material and quality speakers to match, this effect would be a non-issue in most all systems.

In scenes where low frequency information is combines with high frequency detail, the VR-5900 managed to separate them nicely. A couple times I felt the aural images blur at high volumes, but this was something that I would expect from any receiver at any price.

After navigating through the VR-5900’s bass management feature, I was ready to test its 24/96 capability with the DVD-Audio version of Buena Vista Social Club (WEA/Atlantic). In the song "Chan Chan," the drums were set back and separated nicely, integrating superbly with the rest of the information. The stage was well formed both in width and depth. It had a surprising well-developed three-dimensional image. DVD-Audio is always impressive but this test proved that you can have big-time music reproduction from a relatively inexpensive DVD-A player and a $3,000 packaged receiver - a wake up call for all of those that still unsure if this new high-resolution format is really a worthy improvement. Compared to the 16/44 version of this cut, the reproduction was considerably better. It had superior detail and transparency, a difference that the most novice would not only notice, but would be thrilled about. The VR-5900 once again sounded like a piece of electronics at the top of its game.

Downside
As much as I loved the PowerTouch III controller interface for its flexibility, programmability, and downright coolness, its size will turn some off. Measuring six-and-a half inches, by five inches, by two inches deep, this remote is not one that will sit easily on your lap like most remotes. A nearby table will do the trick. I couldn’t help but wonder why it needed to be so large considering the diminutive size of the Philips Pronto, one of today’s stronger references in affordable programmable LCD remotes.

Conclusion
Lets say goodbye to the reputation of cheap low quality electronics that plagued mainstream audio-video manufacturers like Kenwood for so many years. The VR-5900 is a solidly made instrument with today’s very best and up to date features. Its $3,000 price tag is on the high side of receivers today, yet the performance and build quality clearly justifies the price. Movies and music were energetic and detailed, lacking the painful grit of yesteryears receivers. In my eyes, this is the product for those that want ultimate performance at a reasonable price point. The VR-5900 has the power to drive the tough loads of many speakers without fatigue, and the features to keep your system state-of-the-art for years to come. For those that want the utmost performance from single chassis, and either don’t have the time or availability to audition receivers, the Kenwood VR-5900 is great choice. Perhaps a sizable receiver purchase, yet one I am certain you will not regret.
Manufacturer Kenwood
Model Sovereign VR-5900 Receiver
Reviewer Bryan Southard





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