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Kenwood VR-4090B Receiver Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2001
ImageThe Kenwood VR-4090-B is a receiver that takes on all challengers with a full suite of features, the latest inputs, a beefy 120-watt-per-channel amplifier section and a modest $1,150 price tag. The VR-4090-B can pull off tricks that are simply not yet possible with high-end AV preamps costing more than five times the 4090’s price tag. Among the 4090’s most important qualities is its ability to play back DVD-Audio discs via its 5.1 analog inputs.

You ask how Kenwood can beat the high-end guys to the punch with so many features? The answer is that many of the Japanese AV electronics companies are more tuned into the latest formats and new technologies than some of their American counterparts, with manufacturing capabilities that allow for fast updates to products so that they are always cutting edge. Will the Kenwood VR-4090 be as upgradable as, say, a Proceed or a Meridian? Most likely, not but at $1,150. You can move the 4090 into another room or sell it as soon as there is a new set with features so important that you have to make a trip back to you audio/video dealer.

The Kenwood VR-4090-B made me rethink my definition of "value" as it applies to a receiver or even a high-end entry-level AV preamp. At $1,150, the VR-4090 has seemingly everything. 120 watt amps times five, DVD-Audio inputs ready to go right away, a full function remote, 14 digital inputs, a headphone jack, video inputs on the front face plate, and so much more. Why should you spend more on a higher-end AV preamp or integrated AV receiver? You do get what you pay for with the pricier models. However, at $1,150, this Kenwood receiver has me scratching my head in disbelief with how much gingerbread you get for so little money.

The Kenwood wasn’t really hard to set up at all. I didn’t really even need the on-screen menus to get the DVD-Audio player firing and have all of the speakers set up. The speaker setup is pretty cool, as you can determine right on the faceplate what size speakers you have hooked up and how far they are from their constraining walls. This is a tremendous help to the DSP functionality of the receiver, assisting it in locating and creating a wide but all-encompassing surround sound.
Most people haven’t set up DVD-Audio yet. It is therefore important to note that, in spite of logic, the music industry has made it impossible to hook up the DVD-Audio source of your system digitally. I know – that’s stupid, but it isn’t Kenwood’s fault. It is the current DVD-Audio standard, which you must abide by if you want 24-bit and 5.1 goodness flowing through your speakers. With that said, you’ll need to consider that you need a specific DVD-Audio player(which will most likely also play DVD-Video discs), along with six individual RCA interconnects for the audio portion of the flight. You will then need a video cable, perhaps S-Video, along with a digital cable for the 5.1 surround output of your movies and DVD-Video discs. Plugging in other inputs is as simple as it is with any other receiver.

Sound and Picture
The Kenwood VR-4090-B can handle nearly every mainstream surround field know to man, including DTS and Dolby Digital. For music, the 4090 can accept inputs from your CD player, MP3 player, DVD-Video, or any other source that you can think of. Obviously, you can input them either digitally or via an analog connection, with the exception of DVD-Audio, due to the problem described above.

The VR-4090 benefits from the latest advances made in source material, which make it a very good-sounding receiver, especially when considering its price. With a CD playing in the analog inputs, the Kenwood is capable of presenting a believable soundstage and fortified musical presentation. A good example of this is on Janet Jackson’s "Go Deep" from The Velvet Rope (Virgin). This CD is a demo standard for testing really deep bass material, especially on subs or big speakers. On the Kenwood 4090, the little sonic accoutrements float in air as they do on higher-end systems, but not quite with the same absolute resolution or silky resolve. The dynamic impact on the VR-4090 is far better than I expected. Sticking with Miss Jackson, because I am that nasty, the low end had good strength and felt real when the 4090 was hooked in. I didn’t feel as if it was rolled off or wimpy as I had anticipated it might when compared to the AV preamp and amplifier system that I’m used to using, which cost 20 times what the VR-4090 does.

The 120-watt amplifiers built into the Kenwood VR-4090 are going to be good enough for nearly all end users who are considering owning the receiver. With a good-sized set of B&W’s, Paradigms or Monitor Audio speakers, you’ll have no problem pushing the volume to nightclub levels without horrific distortion. But before you fall in love with the internal amp, remember that the VR-4090 does so many things well that you might easily consider using the VR-4090 as a DVD-Audio-ready AV preamp, along with a higher-end, more refined two- or five-channel amp, like an Anthem MCA 5. Using some or all of the six unbalanced preamp outputs could give you even more power and/or finesse than you get in the all-in-one package, thus making the VR-4090 compete favorably with AV receivers and preamp/amp combinations costing double the price.

How does the DVD-Audio sound? Incredible. The level of resolution increased greatly with the higher bit source material. On STP’s Core (Atlantic DVD-A), the track “Plush” took on new depth far surpassing the stereo mix. The center imaging was greatly improved and added levels of detail, like being able to hear each note of the augmented chords of the chorus made me aware of new musical details that I had never heard before. The snap of the snare hit with realistic dynamics not normally heard outside of a live performance let alone when listening to a $1,150 receiver. Foreigner’s "Feels Like The First Time" from their self-titled album now on DVD-A (Atlantic Records DVD-A) added more surround into the mix, which made for a more modern 5.1 sound, despite the vintage of the recording. The vocals popped out of the soundstage in ways you simply won’t hear with the stereo mix on a standard system. It was hard to believe you were listening to a receiver.

As for movies, I was pleasantly surprised by the video quality of the Kenwood VR-4090. I am used to the broadcast-quality video inputs on my Proceed AVP ($5000). The Kenwood, while a bit more faded in the color department, did quite nicely considering the price difference. Movie soundtracks were smoking on the VR-4090. "Super Speedway" (Image Entertainment) was ripping 180 MPH turns in the rain at full volume while keeping the tense whining of an Indy car’s engine panning across the entire front soundstage. I expect this kind of imaging from a $5,000 AV preamp. I am surprised to hear it on my reference material from a $1,150 receiver.

The Downside
I wasn’t thrilled with the remote for the 4090. It wasn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but there are all sorts of buttons on it and it is physically very long. For me, it was so counter-intuitive to use that I left it on my rack and did most of my testing with direct access buttons on the front faceplate. As compared to an aftermarket Philips Pronto, the VR-4090’s remote doesn’t live up to my standards for ease of use.

While I have used many a superlative to describe the sound, the VR-4090 is not going to blow away the sound quality of a high-end AV preamp costing many times the price. The 4090 does so many things that the parts quality, while very good, is not as good as the big bucks components and you can hear the difference in some of the most resolute details on the most resolute systems. For potential clients, this is of no importance, but for someone looking at a VR-4090 to use as a DVD-Audio preamp in high-end system, it must be considered.

The Kenwood VR-4090 doesn’t have the latest 7.1 and higher surround processing and/or built-in amplification for the newest DTS ES and Dolby EX surround formats. I have very few discs encoded with such material, but those who are adamant about it may need to consider a more pricey receiver like the Yamaha RXV-1 at $3,500.

My standard for value in a receiver has been readjusted thanks to the Kenwood VR-4090. At its price, it brings many trick features home without breaking the bank. In the right system, you can have it all at a price that would embarrass many an "audiophile." With an outboard amplifier, you can improve the power and resolution of the Kenwood VR-4090 beyond its already very good power section, so that it will give you DVD-Audio performance in a mid-level high-end system. For very little money invested, you get quite a lot of bang for your dollar with the Kenwood VR-4090. For most modest AV systems, the Kenwood VR-4090 will bring home the latest technology and a whole new world of surround music.

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