Denon AVR-1500 AV-receiver
The AVR-1500 might look like a typical midprice A/V receiver, and in many ways that's exactly what it is, standing, as it does, precisely at the midpoint of Denon's A/V receiver line. But in a couple of very important respects it is more top-drawer than run-of-the-mill.
Let's start with the typical stuff first. The AVR-1500's amplifier section is rated to deliver 70 watts per channel in stereo operation. No main-speaker ratings are given for surround operation, but the center-speaker output is rated at 70 watts and the surround outputs (called "rear" by Denon) at 20 watts. There are A/V connections for two play-only video sources (laserdisc and videogame, for instance) and one VCR. There is a single video-monitor output. Audio-only connections are limited to a moving-magnet phono 1 cartridge, a CD player, and one tape i deck (labeled dat/tape), although 8 you can always use any free A/V input g for additional line-level audio sources. All source-component connections are through phono connectors, there being no S-video provisions. The source audio connectors are in vertical array directly around the right rear corner (looking from the front), a good alternative to a horizontal array. But the video connectors for A/V sources are separated from the corresponding audio connectors, and the tape-deck and VCR audio connections are also intermingled confusingly (at least to me).
Multiway binding posts are provided for connecting A and B pairs of main speakers. They most easily take stripped wires and will accept single or dual banana plugs as well, but not spade lugs. The center and surround speaker outputs are spring connectors. A line-level, wideband, mono subwoofer output is helpfully provided, as is a line-level center-channel output.
Additional rear-panel facilities include spring connectors for an AM antenna (a loop antenna is supplied) and an F connector for an FM antenna. There are two switched AC convenience outlets, into which the user is advised not to plug "hair driers, etc." (in case you were thinking of setting up a surround-sound system in your bathroom).
Most of the front-panel controls serve familiar functions. Included among them are buttons for AM and FM station tuning and programming the thirty-two available memory presets. There are separate on/off buttons for two main speaker pairs, as well as for the center and surround speakers.
The row of buttons directly underneath the display window selects the surround-sound processing mode. There are, luxuriously, nine modes to choose from: Dolby Pro Logic, Wide Screen, Live Surround, Super Stadium, Mono Movie, Rock Arena, Jazz Club, Classic Concert, and Matrix. Each has some characteristics that are adjustable via the remote handset. In Dolby Pro Logic and Matrix operation, you can set the surround-channel delay time. In the other modes, you can variously turn the processing on and off, adjust effect level, and adjust the control for the apparent "size" of the synthesized space in five steps. The soundtrack-oriented modes (Dolby Pro Logic, Wide Screen, and Live Surround) enable manipulation of the center output level.
Missing from the front panel is the usual array of input-selector buttons. With the AVR-1500 you select inputs by pressing the large audio and video buttons located next to the volume knob. They cycle through the available inputs in round-robin fashion, which would be an annoyance if the remote didn't have separate selector buttons for each source. Convenience is further enhanced by three Personal Memory buttons, present on both the front panel and the remote, that store input and accompanying surround-mode selections, enabling one-touch selection and setup for three sources. Adjustments to the surround-mode settings are not saved, however.
One of the AVR-1500's two most distinctive features is its incorporation of RDS (Radio Data System). RDS enables automatic tuning and memorization of FM stations by program type (news, soft rock, classical, etc.) as well as display of station call letters, local traffic conditions, and other text messages, which appear in the front-panel display (not on any attached TV monitor, since the AVR-1500 does not provide on-screen displays). For any of these features to be operative the tuned station must be transmitting RDS signals; the AVR-1500 has an automatic scanning mode to search for such stations. RDS is very useful in mobile applications, but I imagine the traffic messages could also be useful in planning your route before you leave home if you could find an RDS station transmitting them. Most reception areas don't have enough receivable stations, much less RDS stations, to make the automatic station-format selection system very useful at home.
In lab tests, the AVR-1500 generally did well. The output power into 8-ohm loads generously exceeded Denon's specification and was enough for quite ample playback levels, though current limitations slightly restricted its maximum output into lower impedances. Like the last Denon A/V receiver we tested, the AVR-1500 had non-flat frequency response in the front left and right channels when the tone controls were set to their center detents. The deviations were small but extended over a large enough part of the audio band to be audible. Although the AVR-1500 does have a tone-control defeat button on both the front panel and the remote, it works only during stereo operation; the tone-control circuitry cannot be switched out in any of the surround modes. You can, however, virtually eliminate its errors by turning both the bass and treble controls to their half past one o'clock positions.
Tuner performance, apart from exceptionally good AM rejection in the FM section, was average overall, as was the measured performance in Dolby Pro Logic operation. In our listening tests, the surround-channel noise level with Pro Logic was poised on the edge of distracting audibility. It crossed over that line in the Matrix surround mode, thanks to a 3-dB decrease in measured signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) and an equally distracting boost of the surround-channel lower-treble response, which only emphasizes how valuable each decibel is when it comes to noise.
As usual with components providing multiple surround-processing modes, you should not try too hard to match musical genres to the names of the modes. All the modes, even the movie-oriented ones, can provide useful spatial enhancement depending on the music and your willingness to fine-tune the parameters. We found the "small" room-size setting of the Classical mode useful with some pop music, for example. The two modes besides straight Pro Logic intended specifically for soundtracks, Wide Screen and Live Surround, added delayed artificial reflections to the front channels, which, as always in our experience with such processing, greatly reduced the intelligibility of dialogue. I'd stick to Pro Logic for movies.
Fortunately, experimentation with the processing modes is greatly simplified by the AVR-1500's second unusual feature: its remote control. What's unusual is its usability. It is the best remote control for an A/V receiver I've yet encountered, and that includes the super-fancy on-screen-menu "interactive" ones. That quality of usability emerges from the remote's basic design - not merely from its instant programmability to control laserdisc players, VCR's, and TV sets from numerous other manufacturers or from its ability to "learn" as many as twenty-six command codes from any other infrared remote. A glance at the buttons and their layout shows how good ergonomic design can produce a control array that is actually alluring, what with its well-spaced buttons strongly differentiated by size, shape, placement, and, most obviously, color. The handset is easy to use by feel alone in a darkened room.
Although I usually deplore flip-open doors to hide little-used controls, the idea works well in this case. The buttons hidden by a panel on the lower left of the remote are the ones that bring the surround system to vivid, interactive life. You can, for example, turn the surround processing on and off without distracting sound muting or changes to any of the settings. You can even separately turn off the main, center, or surround speakers to quickly isolate the sonic effects of the adjustments you've chosen. Those facilities combine to make it very easy to arrive at an appropriate surround setting, validating for once the inclusion of so many processing modes.
The audio performance of receivers in a given price class tends to be close enough, overall, to make other factors equally important in a buying decision. The superiority of its remote control should be enough to propel the Denon AVR-1500 onto everyone's short list of top $750 A/V receivers.