Denon AVP-A1HDCi AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ken Taraszka, MD   
Tuesday, 01 July 2008

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.

Music and Movies
One of the last things I listened to prior to adding the AVP-A1HDCI to my system was the Yes classic Fragile (Elektra/WEA) on DVD-Audio.  This is absolutely one of the best progressive rock albums of all time and one of the best-sounding DVD-Audio discs in my collection. I used the Denon 5910 player via the D-Link III connector for this album and it didn’t let me down.  The opening track “Roundabout” had excellent balance and energy. There was a slight accentuation of the upper frequencies, but it was in no way harsh. The strings were clear, yet lacked a bit of the weight and separation that they had in my reference Meridian system, though this combo cost less than a third of that system’s price. The energy and surround effect of the song were wonderful and bass had a solid depth to it without getting blurred or muddy. The opening of “South Side of the Sky,” with the closing door and footsteps was great. Then the drums kicked in with power and authority. The delicate details of “Heart of the Sunrise” stayed distinct and contrasted well with the more intense passages, making the song a joy to hear.

In keeping with the Yes theme, I loaded up Yes: Live at Montreux (Eagle Rock Entertainment) on HD DVD. This disc has Dolby Digital + and DTS HD High Resolution Audio. Both of these codecs offer twice the bandwidth of conventional Dolby Digital or DTS, and the benefits were clearly audible. Switching back and forth, I found that I slightly preferred the DTS HD track, as it offered better air and separation and gave a more natural tone to the instruments, but the difference was subtle. “Clap” had a great openness; Chris Squires’ Rickenbacker bass seemed true to life, while the drums filled the soundstage with rhythm. The delicate strings at the beginning of “I’ve Seen All Good People” were crisp with perfect attack and decay. While Steve Howe looked a bit like your aged grandmother in this video, he played the song to a T. The rest of the band joined in and each instrument was clearly portrayed; you could just feel the energy from the crowd and the band. The band closed the show with “Roundabout” and this song really shone through this combo. Yes has aged, but if you close your eyes listening to this disc, you wouldn’t know you weren’t back in the 1970s.

I listened to a lot of two-channel discs during my time with the Denon AVP, fed from the Denon 5910CI via Denon D-Link III and the analog inputs. When I used the D-Link, the sound was very pleasant and only had the slightest enhancement to the highs. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble’s debut Texas Flood (Sony) on stereo SACD was lively and fun, but did show a bit of edge up top. Some of this is the recording, but there was also a lack of separation that I didn’t have with the DVD 5910 or my Meridian 861v4. This was especially noticeable on the jam “Testify” and “Texas Flood.” I continued to hear the slight accentuation and edge in the upper end, particularly with older recordings, such as Blind Faith’s self-titled album (Polydor). “Can’t Find My Way Home” is a classic tune and, while the recording isn’t the best, it was brighter than I am used to through the AVP, both via the analog and Denon’s own D-Link III connection. When using the music server with totally uncompressed tracks, I found a similar sound. The added convenience of WiFi and ease of set-up of the music server function was huge and one I’ve never seen in a pre/pro before. Denon must be praised for adding it to their new reference gear. It is to be hoped others will follow suit and add Mac support.

I had been so busy going through all the features in the Denon, and so happy to be able to fully exploit the new audio codecs of HD DVD and Blu-ray, that I had to remind myself to listen to a standard DVD. I went to an all-time favorite, Fight Club (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment). The surround from the AVP was very good and the famous scene where Tyler finds his animal, a penguin, had wonderful echoes and really gave you the feeling of being in a cave. I can’t wait for this disc to come out on Blu-ray so I can hear how it will sound with uncompressed audio, because after spending weeks with all the new codecs, plain old Dolby Digital sounded soft and somewhat compressed. I am not saying that the AVP did a bad job with the soundtrack – it did a great job – but once you hear what the new codecs can do for your home theater, you won’t be able to do without them.
I also took this opportunity to test the internal scaler of the AVP. I chose the component video, as none of the DVD players I own output 480i over HDMI, and I wanted the Denon AVP’s video circuitry to be the only processing the signal saw. The scaled video was excellent on this and on my cable channels. Though not as good as native 1080p, it greatly improved lesser video. The scaler also immediately recognized the native rate of any TV to which it was connected. 

To further test the scaler, I popped in The Fifth Element (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) on Superbit in my Toshiba HD XA2 and ran the HDMI video output at 480p, its lowest setting. The scaling from the AVP was excellent, and though it didn’t get the first pass at the native 480i SD DVD output, it was tough to tell. In fact, on my 70-inch Sony KDS R70XBR2, it was the same as when the HD XA2 did all the scaling to 1080p. This is quite a feat, given how good the XA2 is at scaling video.

This is the first AV preamp I have had in my reference system that could decode every new audio codec on HD DVD and Blu-ray, so I quickly set about trying them. I first went to the HD DVD of Inside Man (Universal Studios Home Video), with the Dolby True HD bitstream from my Toshiba XA2 feeding the Denon. Well, if you haven’t heard the new uncompressed audio codecs, you are sorely missing out. Every minute detail, from the tapping of shoes on stairs to the massive width of the soundstage of the strings and piano in the background, were precise and rendered with incredible detail and separation. Explosions are one of the most heavily used demos for a home theater and, while they show off dynamics and subwoofers, after hearing the increased clarity of an uncompressed codec, I think we will see people getting away from such demos. I found that being able to clearly hear and almost feel the actor’s hand sliding down a rail or the breeze softly blowing by in the background made the movie truly seem real, and the Denon AVP made for the best rendition of a movie soundtrack in my reference rig to date. Yes, explosions and gunshots rang true, but I was more impressed by the subtle nuances that came through clearer than I had ever heard before.

I spent time with the tuner and HD radio of this unit. I hate to say it, but the components of my reference rig are surrounded by brick and concrete, so the tuner had its work cut out for it. I was able to adjust the antennas to receive all my local stations and, when they were available in HD, it was clearly better, though I never found a good way to A-B regular radio to HD with this preamp.

The Downside
To test the music server function of this unit, I had to re-burn discs onto my Windows laptop. For me and other Mac users, this is a shortcoming, but to the vast majority of PC users, it will not be a problem. Denon used their flagship receiver’s case to house the new AVP-A1HDCI, and while there are some upsides to this, namely Denon’s years of refining the receiver/user interface, I for one don’t like having a piece that looks like a receiver in my reference rig. This is a personal and snobbish complaint, but one I must air. The unit is big – no, frankly huge – even by pre/pro standards. This isn’t as much a complaint as it is a statement of the connectivity this piece has. A smaller box simply wouldn’t have allowed all these connectors without using the sides. I think they could have done away with many of the composite and S-Video connectors, as I imagine they’ll just take up space in almost every system that utilizes this piece.

The Denon AVP-A1HDCI made a popping noise through my speakers when switching sources, muting, un-muting and powering on or off. This happens with many pre/pros, but I would prefer that it didn’t. This phenomenon could easily be system-dependent, but it needs to be mentioned. The remote is the standard Denon remote. A two-way RF remote is a $299 extra I would have liked to see included. This allows users to have the front panel displayed on the remote, maximizing iPod and music server functions, as well as general use of the receiver when not in direct line of sight or just close enough to see. 

The Denon AVP-A1HDCI lacked a slight bit of smoothness in the midrange and upper end on music. Separation was not as good as with some other similarly-priced pre/pros on the market, but it more than made up for this lack on movies, especially with the new high-resolution audio codecs. Note: the slightly better-sounding, similarly-priced preamps are woefully shy of features and connection options when compared to the Denon preamp.

When I heard of Denon’s return to the high-end market and saw the specifications of this preamp, I wanted one so badly that I bought it without hearing it. Having lived with it for a while, I can say that it does a very good job with music, but for movies it is simply incredible. Once you hear a movie with uncompressed audio, you will never want to listen to Dolby Digital or DTS again. It is HD for your ears and something every home theater enthusiast needs to experience, but be warned, once you hear it, you will have to have it.

To my knowledge, there is no more feature-packed AV preamp that exists.  If you are an early adopter of the new video and audio formats, as I am, then you will adore the Denon AVP-A1HDCI. It does everything you could want and then some. I doubt many will ever need more from an AV preamp, and most will never come close to needing all the Denon AVP offers. Its incredible flexibility and connectivity, as well as high-level room correction and Wi-Fi streaming that allows Windows users to instantly have a music server, stream Internet radio and Rhapsody music accounts and control, make this a steal even at the $7,000 price. 

The Denon AVP-A1HDCI is the most feature-packed piece of AV gear on the planet, and currently the AV preamp to beat. This is a preamp that should stay current for years to come. This might just be all most users could ever need. The Denon AVP does it all, from exceptional video scaling to very good musical performance and decoding of every new audio codec on the planet. It also has WiFi, DNLA compliance and the ability to be the hub of a whole home audio/video system. If you are a home theater and tech junkie, this is your dream AV preamp, and one I am sure will become popular with installers, as it allows service to be done online rather than necessitating an in-home visit. If you are in the market for a new AV preamp, you owe it to yourself to give the new Denon AVP-A1HDCI a look and listen. This preamp will keep you current for now and into the foreseeable future, giving you all the connectivity and flexibility even the most source-crazy AV enthusiast could need.
Manufacturer Denon
Model AVP-A1HDCi AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Ken Taraszka, M.D

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