Denon receivers have maintained a respectable level of popularity among home theater enthusiasts with a reputation for good performance and up-to-date technology. The brand's updated lineup for 2014 aims to maintain reputation with an impressive collection of features to compliment their proven design. Two of the major talking points of late 2014 and early 2015 have been 3D/Immersive audio formats and automated room correction. The processing power required for both features pushes the limits of typical AV receivers up to this point. Rather than compromise, Denon is one of the few that has chosen to bump their hardware specs in order to support Dolby Atmos as well as one of the most in-depth room correction and EQ packages available for home theater. Although there's certainly more to good performance than a nice spec sheet, the AVR-X4100W appears at first glance to be a serious contender.
The AVR-X4100W is a network-enabled receiver with 7 amplifier channels and the capability to process up to 9 channels with the addition of an external stereo amplifier. It supports 4k 60Hz video upscaling and passthrough, internet music streaming services, Airplay, dual subwoofers, Dolby Atmos and Audyssey MultEQ XT32. Other highlights include the ability to be network controlled via mobile app, built-in Wifi and Bluetooth, multi-zone audio control, and user-friendly setup and operation. It is compatible with a long list of media formats for network streaming, and includes a compressed audio restorer for improved playback of lower quality music files. The power amp is rated at a respectable 125 watts per channel with two channels driven. Assignable internal amplifiers and 11.2 channel preamp outputs provide the flexibility to make use of external amplifiers if desired. All of this for what is, frankly, a pretty reasonable price. But more about that later.
Aesthetics & Quality
The overall look of the Denon is very polished and clean, but not what I would call elegant. Its design is somewhat utilitarian, but not in a bad way. The receiver in general is utilitarian. It's not fancy, nor is it trying to be. It is simply designed to do lots of stuff really well. The brushed look on the front panel is a popular look these days, and I like it. It provides a nice contrast to the smooth black display panel and large, subtly textured knobs. The blueish text on the display panel is clear and easy to read from a normal seating distance. A flat door conceals additional controls and connections below the display, and retracts to allow access when needed. A minor, but consistent gripe of mine is asymmetric volume and source knobs on the front of an AVR. Devon does this, like most others. I can certainly live with it, but it makes the OCD part of my brain a little uncomfortable.
Build quality is what I would call sufficient, but not over the top. The unit has a good weight to it, suggesting a decent power supply for the 7 channels of amplification. It looks and feels sturdy. Knobs and buttons operate smoothly and consistently, though I controlled it via the remote 99.99% of the time. The rear connections appeared to be of good quality, and felt solid and secure as I progressed through the initial connection and setup. HDMI connections were spaced horizontally across the top of the rear panel as expected, providing ease of connection. This came in handy when connecting my Amazon Fire TV Stick, which is bulky compared to an HDMI cable. The speaker connections lined the bottom of the rear panel from left to right in a single row. I don't think I'm the only one who finds it extremely frustrating to navigate multiple rows of speaker terminals on the back of a receiver, especially if your cables don't have banana plugs or if you don't have good lighting/visibility. The layout on the Denon eliminates this frustration.
In terms of reliability, although I have only spent a short amount of time with the AVR-X4100 I can't think of a single glitch, hiccup, or problem I encountered during operation. It was responsive and consistent. It was left on for many hours at a time, sometimes the better part of a day, and enclosed in a closet with no ventilation. It did run very hot to the touch after extended use at high volumes, but never shut down or when into protection mode during my evaluation period.
Setup and Calibration/Audyssey MultEQ XT32
After making all of the initial connections and checking for firmware updates, I began to familiarize myself with the Denon's GUI and menu structure, and began manual calibration. The process was straightforward and intuitive. I had set the speaker layout and adjusted crossover, distance, and level settings in a matter of minutes and began to tinker with the built-in graphic equalizer. The graphic EQ was easy to navigate and adjust (such is the nature of a graphic EQ), though I personally prefer the flexibility of a multi-band EQ. That said, I was still able to achieve a measurable improvement in frequency response with the graphic EQ. I was pleased with the results, considering the challenges created by my room's acoustic properties.
After completing the manual speaker setup, taking some measurements, and listening for a bit, I ran the Audyssey auto setup. Mullets XT32 is very thorough, so the process takes a bit of time, especially if you allow it to measure at 8 locations (which you definitely should). As usual, it determined distance, level, and crossover settings at the first position (which should always be your main listening position) and continued the room's response at the additional 8 positions. After a quick bit of calculation, new calibration settings and EQ filters were in place. Take a look in the graphs section below for the results, including before-and-after comparisons.
Audyssey is not really designed to be tinkered with. This is probably best for beginners, but can be frustrating to advanced users. Crossover and level can be adjusted manually, but XT32's PEQ filters cannot be. There is another option though: a graphic EQ. While a graphic EQ is intuitive and quick to set up, it doesn't offer the flexibility of a multi-band PEQ. Having said that, I was able to achieve a respectable improvement in response using the graphic EQ, as you can see in the graphs above. I was able to smooth response for the main and center channels, and bring the overall shape of their curves closer together, for the purpose of timbre matching. Now I cannot say that one method had a distinctly better sound than the other. In general, the post-XT32 performance was very good.
Two other features offered by Aydussey are Dynamic Volume and Dynamic EQ. I don't have a need for Dynamic Volume in my setup so I didn't use it. After trying various different content with Dynamic EQ turned on and off, I concluded that I prefer to leave it on for most music, and off for most movies. It seemed to exaggerate the bass too much for my taste during action movies, where I like to hear a bit more impact from sound effects other than bass. For music, however, at moderate to high levels, it works pretty nicely for most of the music I listen to.
Operation and General Impressions
I will admit I came into the review with some preconceptions regarding the sound signature - partially due to previous experience with Marantz gear, and partially due to feedback and reviews from others. After listening through a good variety of music and movies, I can say that the Denon + Audyssey combo works very well for both. I would describe it as musical and dynamic. It presents 2-channel music with excellent clarity, great soundstage and imaging. Instruments and vocals blend nicely over the whole range of frequencies, and nothing stood out as being overly harsh. I would not call it "laid back" but in some cases the vocals could have been a bit more forward. As far as movie performance goes, I could repeat the same description. Dialog was always crystal clear and focused on the screen, while effects were precisely placed throughout the room. It handled dynamics well too, considering I was using all seven channels of the amplifier.
I'll briefly hit some other topics related to general usage, starting with the physical remote and the mobile app. The handheld remote is pretty standard. The layout of the buttons is relatively intuitive, but without much variation in size or shape. Like many others, it is more like a grid of rectangular keys that are not always easy to navigate blindly. If you're like me and use a universal remote, this won't be an issue as the Denon remote will just sit in a drawer for most of its life. Denon offers a mobile app, allowing Android and iOS users to control various functions through their network via their phones. This is very common now, and a very handy feature in my opinion. The user interface is very good, and pretty responsive. It provides a good amount of visual feedback, allowing the user to control things such as a second zone or the Pandora app without the need to be in the same room as the receiver itself. Very handy for a multi-room setup, or an outdoor zone.
Speaking of internet streaming, I'll mention Pandora and Spotify. The Pandora app functions well and provides all of the basic controls you would want. I did not do extensive listening, but the audio quality sounded plenty good to my ears for casual listening. The ability to create new stations and like tracks was very handy. Spotify seems to have moved away from stand alone apps on receivers and streaming devices and toward something called Spotify Connect. It requires the use of a mobile device to select a playlist or song to initiate playback. From there the receiver can take over control and pause the music or skip to the next song, among other things. Though I really prefer to have a stand alone app, it really ends up being quicker to find a song and start things up from the phone rather than the remote. As with Pandora, sound quality was very good for a streaming source.
Over the course of the review, I cannot recall a single functional or reliability issue with the X4100W. Network connection, remote control, input switching, and menu/option navigation all worked flawlessly. I did not encounter any glitches or hangups. I did notice that it would get very hot after extended use at higher volumes, though this seems to be common with most of the receivers I have used recently. Not hot enough to burn skin, but hot enough to prevent me from holding my hand on it for much more than a few seconds. It sits in a rack with open front and back, inside a closet which open about half of the time, so ventilation is more than sufficient. I don't point this out as a flaw necessarily, but for information to those of you who may be forced to place your receiver in a location with limited ventilation.
The X4100W has plenty of surround modes for my liking, with plenty of different speaker configuration options including Dolby Atmos and DTS Neo:X (one of the few that offers both actually). Switching between Atmos (with a pair of overhead speakers) and Neo:X (with a pair of front wide speakers) was simple, and the Denon handled the amp assignment with only a momentary break in the audio stream. Audio modes could be selected easily from a pop up menu triggered by a single button push on the remote.
Incubus - If Not Now, When? and Defiance (If Not Now, When?, CD/ALAC)
Vocals were clear and focused, with good stable imaging. Boyd's voice had a very lifelike quality to it, though I would have liked them to be just a tad more forward in the room. The soundstange was nice and big, extending beyond the main speakers both in width and depth. The level of detail and clarity were both very good. Acoustic guitars on Adolescents were crisp and well balanced - not tubby sounding at the bottom end and not harsh at the top end.
Snarky Puppy - Sleeper (We Like It Here, CD/ALAC)
This whole album is a blast to just crank up and listen all the way through. It has a great live and raw feel with so much detail and complexity. It's just plain fun to listen to. The Denon presented it with great dynamics and clarity. Bass was punchy and clean. The drums sounded very real and open, not overly processed or compressed. All of the instruments blended well, but each maintained its unique character within the mix.
Fleetwood Mac - Never Going Back (Rumors, CD/ALAC)
There's something I don't like about this song. It's way too short. The guitars are so crisp and dynamic, as are the vocals. The guitars have a nice fullness, without being overly warm. The emotion in the lyrics was preserved through the lively presentation of the vocals from start to finish.
Paul Simon - Late In The Evening (One Trick Pony, Spotify Streaming)
This is one of my go-to songs for judging the overall musical quality of a particular setup. With the Denon pumping tunes through Spotify Connect, this was just plain fun to listen to. In fact, it was during this song that I was convinced I could definitely live with the Denon as my personal receiver (although I'd most likely go with one of its bigger brothers in favor of higher channel count). The drums and horns had nice impact, while the backup vocals and bass gave it a nice full sound.
Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek (Speak For Yourself, Spotify Streaming)
Another one of my review essentials - this is a fun test for a system's ability to create a huge soundstage with just the two main speakers. The Denon performed nicely here, helping my Studio 100s generate a big sound field that almost extended to behind me.
Pacific Rim (Blu-Ray)
There are two reasons to watch this movie: Absolutely beautiful visual and sound effects, and... gigantic robots fighting gigantic dinosaurs. Of more concern to the X4100W would be the audio and visual effects. The picture was as flawless as ever, and the soundtrack was a perfect compliment. Dialog, mechanical sounds, weapon blasts, the roar of the Kiaju, the musical score - everything was well balanced. Bass was hearty but not annoyingly loud, and blended well with the rest of the effects.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (Blu-Ray/Dolby Atmos)
I decided to give this one another chance. I didn't like it the first time around, or the second time really. With all the praise and hype surrounding the movie's soundtrack, I figured even if the plot and acting were terrible, the visual and sound effects would make it a worthwhile watch. Plus, it's still one of the only Blu-rays available with an Atmos soundtrack. Well, I'm still not sold, but this isn't a movie review. I'll explain what I liked and what I didn't, and why I still chose to use it in the review. Let me also note that I appreciate the immense amount of cost, time, and effort that goes into mixing a movie soundtrack of this scale. The complexity of the sound engineering for this movie is indeed a marvel. The level of detail really is stunning when you consider each little element that goes into each character and each scene. The LFE track is one of the best I've encountered on Blu-ray so far. Having said that, I stand by my previous comments regarding the overall balance and impact of the soundtrack. There is an emphasis on bass, detail, and dialog, along with dramatic integration of the musical score. And all of these things, the Denon handled well. I would have liked to hear more dynamics and intensity during the fights. I didn't feel the clash of metal, the crushing of anything and everything that stood in the way of these giant alien creatures. But again, this is another discussion. No fault of the Denon in my opinion.
Fury (Blu-Ray/DTS-HD Master Audio)
I have been conditioned to consume movies at the cinema very differently now. I frequently find myself sitting in a commercial theater thinking "this scene would sound great at home!" and immediately adding the Blu-ray to my mental wish-list. That very thought came to mind during a couple scenes in Fury. Turns out, I was right. Though my system with the Denon didn't match the dynamic peaks of the high powered commercial system at the theater, the gun fire and cannon blasts still had a very good level of intensity. I specifically remember the sensation of bullets whizzing through the room past our heads, and the effect was translated from the Blu-ray quite well too.
The Denon AVR-X4100W, while certainly not a budget receiver by any means, is still in a price range where value is important factor. Features, quality, and performance still need to be balanced with cost. This model offers pretty much any feature you'd want, including the unique combination of Dolby Atmos and Audyssey MultEQ XT32. Performance is up to par with its competitors, and operation was flawless. Unless you prefer another brand's room correction or DSP modes, it will be tough to compete with the Denon in this price range.
Conclusion & Recommendation
The Denon has been a welcome addition to my home theater for the last couple months. Once set up, it pretty much disappears, encouraging you to pay attention to your music and movies rather than fiddling with settings and tweaks. MultEQ XT32 did a nice job, but didn't quite live up to the hype for me in a few areas, mostly bass performance. In general I've been very pleased with the Denon's performance. It is very user-friendly and offers a lot. I would say it's one of the best options in its price range. If it had been the 5200W or 7200W model with the ability to process additional channels, I'd be very seriously considering keeping it. I'm not sure what else to say. It's just a great receiver.
Review Discussion Thread