Denon AVR-3200 A/V receiver Review

Denon AVR-3200
Denon AVR-3200

Denon's flagship AVR-5600 receiver impressed me mightily last year. The company's foray into more affordable Dolby Digital territory is the smaller and more modest-looking AVR-3200. It offers 85 watts per channel all around in multichannel modes and includes a handful of surround options in addition to its Dolby Digital and digital-domain Pro Logic decoding: Matrix, Mono Movie, Rock Arena, Jazz Club, and Video Game.

The AVR-3200 comes with a rather imposing remote controller (the same one packed with the costlier AVR-5600) that can call up a library of preprogrammed codes to establish hegemony over many popular brands and models of ancillary components. The handset can also be programmed manually to command more obscure gear.

The receiver's simple faceplate has knobs for master volume, bass, and treble and pushbuttons to select inputs and surround modes and to control tuner functions. Just about everything else, including setup, requires the remote. The blue display is plain and legible, though a bit glare-prone. The gold-on-black panel graphics are only medium-small, which I suppose earns points, but still proved slightly bothersome to read.

Around back, connectors include composite- and S-video ports for all video signals. Phono, CD, and DAT/ Tape audio inputs complement four A/V inputs marked DVD/VDP, TV/ DBS, and VCR1 and VCR2. Both VCR connections are full input/output loops, simplifying copying between VCRs or a VCR and a camcorder.

Quite unusually, the AVR-3200 also supplies a six-channel analog input, presumably for an outboard DTS decoder. This input is selected as a surround mode rather than as an "official" input. Front- and center-channel line outputs make expansion to separate power amps easy for the front stage, but there are no surround-channel line outputs. Speaker connections are multiway binding posts all around - excellent.

The AVR-3200 has no front-panel A/V input, a convenience liable to be missed mostly by camcorder users and equipment reviewers, both inveterate pluggers and unpluggers. There is a headphone jack, and the receiver can select record-out and main-out video signals independently for flexible dubbing or simulcast viewing/listening.

The digital inputs include one coaxial spdif port and one optical port, and either can be assigned to any source, including the VCRs, except phono. There's also an RCA jack marked Dolby Digital-RF for use with an AC-3-ready laserdisc player.

Setup was aided considerably by generally intuitive on-screen displays, though I selected the wrong item several times because the selection cursor's operation is a bit too subtle and the menu structure slightly inconsistent. There are "large/small" speaker options for the front L/R and center channels, plus "none" for the latter, but - astonishingly - only "yes/no" for the surrounds. From that I inferred that the 80-Hz high-pass crossover is always engaged for the surround outputs in all modes, and Denon later confirmed this. What if I want to connect my new receiver's not-insubstantial 85-watt surround outputs to large "rear" speakers expressly to exploit Dolby Digital's full-range surround-channel capability? I'd be flat out of luck as far as I can see. This mystifies me. Personally, I don't care much about having full-range surrounds, but for $1,200 I sure as hell want to make the choice myself, not delegate it to some unknown engineer. Hrrrumph.

You also get simple "yes/no" options for a subwoofer, for the LFE channel, and for redirected bass in all modes; the crossover is fixed at 80 Hz for both high-pass and low-pass filtering. Relative center- and surround-channel delays are set individually by entering the distance (in meters or feet) from your prime listening position to each speaker pair, probably the least confusing way to set up this subtle but potentially useful refinement. For channel-level setup the AVR-3200 lets you choose between the usual auto-circulating noise and a manual mode in which the test noise stays put until you command it to shift to the next channel. (Sound-level-meter-toting reviewers like me positively love this option.) Much more significant, the channel balance was consistent with both internal and external test-noise sources and stable over more than a 30-dB master-volume range.

The Denon AVR-3200 performed just about flawlessly. I was very impressed by the stereo and multichannel oomph of this "medium-power" receiver. In two-channel mode it drove my moderately sensitive B&W 803 Series 2 speakers to more than solid levels without strain, and in full surround playback it displayed equally surprising brawn. I proved this to my satisfaction using the receiver's 5Ch Stereo surround mode, which sends unprocessed stereo signals to both the front and surround L/R outputs and mono to the center channel - a far sterner test of all-channel amp abilities than movie playback. (This is the mode to use for events like big parties where maximum overall volume is the goal.) The Denon passed this test with flying colors. The sound was clean and punchy from all five speakers, and very loud indeed. The AVR-3200's output became unpleasantly "bright" before producing identifiable distortion. I could not make the surround amps stumble audibly until a level at which the front left/right speakers, hence the full system, were absurdly loud (my Citation Model 7.3 surrounds are perhaps 3 dB less sensitive than my B&W mains).

Surround decoding was exemplary. With DPL soundtracks fed via an optical PCM digital interconnect, the Denon receiver was extraordinarily quiet, fully dynamic, and very smooth and accurate. Channel leakage was low, stable, and balanced, and the sound was smooth and detailed even for low-level subtleties. The AVR-3200 includes the THX-derived Cinema-EQ feature, a gentle top-octave rolloff that can be applied to either DPL or Dolby Digital programs when dialed in from the setup pages. I'd prefer to have this option more easily accessible. Most films - and some music discs - definitely benefited from it, but some sounded better without; a root-level menu selection would be nice.

Dolby Digital sound was in the same major league: dead quiet, crystal clear, and very dynamic. The AVR-3200's DD dynamic-range-compression feature - unfortunately also accessible only through the setup menus - offers three levels of peak-limiting/low-level compression: Low, Mid, and High, plus off. It worked well and sounded fine. Simply put, every important aspect of the AVR-3200's mov-ie-surround performance appeared to be state of the art.

Ergonomically speaking, the Denon is good - not poor, but not wonderful. The big, multimode remote is very effective and reasonably easy to learn, and though there's no back-lighting its master-volume and transport keys glow magically in even moderately dim conditions. (How do they do that? I'm not sure I'd want to leave this puppy in my lap for days at a time.) But the remote's organization was occasionally puzzling. For example, although each surround mode gets a di-rect-access key on the AVR-3200's front panel, on the handset there is only a Mode key to step through the nine possibilities (for non-DD sources) - and the receiver mutes its output for about 2 seconds at each change. The remote's volume adjustment is also too slow for me: 3 full seconds to go up or down 10 dB.

Two small slide switches atop the remote select audio or video mode and the component to be commanded by the transport keys - three choices. This can get confusing, since many keys have dual functions. For example, the main ten-key numeric pad also selects the receiver's input positions when it's in the audio mode. And the manual is not terribly helpful.

However, I forgive all this and more because of three keys positioned on the remote below master volume: Ch. Select and Ch. Vol. up/down. These cycle through all five DD channels, plus subwoofer, and let you modify each one's level by +12 dB. The best part is that your modifications are stored independently for each surround mode (and stereo) and are recalled whenever you select that mode.

This is especially valuable because a couple of the AVR-3200's "extra" modes are very good. Matrix, with the center channel set to -1 dB and both surround outputs at -2 dB, delivered an unusually listenable and musical general-purpose ambience enhancement. Jazz Club was also good for other nonclassical, small-ensemble music, though most studio-recorded pop/rock sounded best "straight."

The radio section was no record-setter but gave solidly adequate performance by current receiver standards. FM performance on strong stations was good: clean and comparatively dynamic. Weak-signal quality was average, which is to say terrible by old-timer standards. Like nearly all current receivers, the AVR-3200's FM section is clearly intended for casual listening to powerful, urban, commercial broadcasts, not to classical concerts on small or distant noncommercial stations. AM reception was fair.

Although the Denon AVR-3200 is hardly the feature leader in its $ 1,000-and-up price range, it graphically demonstrates just what this range has to offer in up-to-the-minute A/V performance. If powerful, high-quality sound in both analog and digital formats tops your priorities, the AVR-3200 will be difficult to beat.