MOVIE & MUSIC MAKER
Music and movie sound from an unobtrusive bar in front of your TV, plus a wireless subwoofer. Can Denon deliver the goods?
We were impressed a few issues back when we reviewed Denon’s sound base at $549 — now here’s the DHT-S514, a bar, not a base, at $999. Does it double the sound quality? Is it better value?
It’s certainly solid, a metre long, built solidly and fronted with a metal grille which hides its twin 14mm tweeter and oval 51 x 127mm mid/bass drivers, while the two sloping ends each have exit ports for the enclosure. In front of a TV it looks not insignificant at 8cm high, and higher if you add the feet which are supplied in two sizes.
The larger pair of feet lifted the Denon neatly over the central pedestal of the first TV we were using, a 46-inch LG, and this allowed it to sit back quite close to the TV for a very neat look. We tried it also with the 55-inch edition of Sony’s 4K X8500B, which has a stand so low that even without feet the bar covered the very bottom of the screen. With either TV the soundbar also blocked the TV’s IR receiver. No matter, however, as Denon includes a little IR blaster which connects to a minijack at the rear and will rebroadcast anything received at the front. Problem solved.
The wireless subwoofer is a little unusual in being shaped more like a conventional bookshelf speaker than the usual subwoofer cube — 30cm high, but only 17cm wide, and around 32cm deep, with twin 133mm woofers firing forward and ported to the rear, so that bass adjustment can be made both through positioning and through the control knob on its rear. The wireless connection with the main unit was instant and, aside from level experimentation, required no attention throughout our testing.
The Denon is nicely versatile in terms of connections. If your TV supports ARC (the Audio Return Channel of HDMI) and has a spare HDMI ARC socket available, then that’s your best option. There’s also an HDMI input, so you can plug, say, your Blu-ray player into the Denon soundbar by HDMI, then a second HDMI cable on to the TV — this avoids sending the audio from the Blu-ray player through the TV and out again, which can (depending on your TV) cause multichannel sound to be mixed down unpredictably, sometime all the way to mere stereo.
If you don’t have ARC available but your TV has an optical audio output, that’s the second best option for getting TV sound to the soundbar — there’s also a coaxial digital input available. Lastly there’s an minijack analogue input, which should cover anyone having trouble with the digital world.
There’s another important input, of course — Bluetooth, so you can stream audio direct from a smartphone, tablet or computer straight to the Denon.
You can also teach the Denon to operate using commands from your TV remote — eight of the nine front-panel buttons can be ‘learned’ in this way, though the obviously useful ones would be volume up/down and mute. You might keep the small remote supplied with the Denon to add the day/night and surround mode processing, plus Bluetooth pairing and input switching... or you could conveniently enough operate those from the soundbar itself (or avoid them altogether) so the mini remote can most likely be put away most of the time.
We had some initial set-up problems, which we’ll mention only in case it helps others in the same situation. After setting up the Denon soundbar and subwoofer, we could get no sound at all out of them via either the optical input or the HDMI with ARC. This can often be the result of your TV settings — is the digital audio output enabled? Is ARC enabled? Everything checked out but still no audio, except from Bluetooth, yet the optical cable worked into other equipment. Moments from packing it all up, we found reset instructions at the end of the downloadable full manual — yank the power cable, then hold the ‘volume down’ button while plugging it back in. Presto, resetting to the defaults fixed the optical input. With the LG TV the ARC option never worked (despite it having a supposedly ARC-enabled input), but when we switched to the latest Sony 4K X8500 model everything worked as advertised. HDMI-CEC control did work throughout, so that we could use the TV remote to control the audio system without any need for teaching those remote commands manually.
All this is an indication of the issues that can arise with HDMI and the vagaries of specific TV audio options getting in the way of simple set-up. But it also shows how the Denon’s versatility of connections means you’re always likely to find a way through.
So our first impression was of the Denon’s optical input bursting into life with a truly big audio sound, solidly supported but not overwhelmed by bass, so that it scales impressively effectively as you nudge up the volume. For day-to-day TV viewing some may even find this ‘larger-than-TV’ sound too impressive, in which case pressing the day/night button (to engage ‘night’ mode) strips out most of the bass support and crushes the dynamics. The idea of this is to turn things up at night without booming and rumbling through the floor and walls, but it is also a useful button when you’re listening to the news while cooking, or other casual viewing without engaging the full audio benefits of the Denon’s subwoofer.
But as soon as you’re sitting down for an evening’s viewing, keep it on the main defaults. The Denon’s musicality (see below) helps all manner of material, so that documentaries emerge with the voiceover kept clear and central as music spreads across the bar’s width and occasionally beyond. Watching Rockwiz we were momentarily distracted from Julia Zemiro’s magnificence by the impressively layered sound of audience reactions that were well separated from the main dialogue and spread wide across the room.
The soundbar has both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, so it can pass the real surround information from those soundtracks to its Dolby Virtual Surround processor, which then attempts to make not so much a ‘fake’ surround effect as a wide and immersing soundfield based on real surround channels.
To give this its best shot (and avoid any dodgy audio processing in the TV), we ran HDMI from our Oppo Blu-ray player into the Denon soundbar, and out again via HDMI to the TV. Loading up the sixth chapter of ‘Gravity’, we sat back to enjoy the awe-striking space station destruction scene. To get the required impact for this scene, we had to dial the volume up to 80 of the maximum 100, which the bar managed without signs of stress while doing a good job of steering effects and spreading the sound without muddying the few lines of dialogue at the beginning of this scene, and of delivering the music that overlays the eerily silent explosions. The only weakness was a relatively loose bass, which softened the slam that was delivered when we switched the audio to a pair of largish standmounters. But then again, returning to the TV’s own speakers is a joke — once you’re used to the level of the Denon, you’ll wonder how you ever heard anything without it.
The other sound ‘modes’ are more complicated, especially as you have to learn the arrangement of lights on the soundbar as you cycle through the three options. These are, at least, easier than the five options on Denon’s soundbase reviewed previously, and the light displays are fairly logical — if the two centre lights are on, it’s in ‘dialogue mode’, if four middle lights are on then it’s got a bit of widening applied for ‘music’ mode, and six lights all the way across mean maximum widening for ‘movie mode’. We normally don’t like maximum wideness settings — they tend to create width at the cost of softening centre dialogue. But here the clarity and the sheer strength of sound made the Denon enjoyable in either music or movie mode, so play with these as you like. The wide movie setting certainly pushed sounds beyond the width of the soundbar.
Thus impressed by TV and movie fare, we turned to Bluetooth music, so often an outright failing of soundbars. But not here — the Denon is wonderfully musical, easily the equal of a good wireless speaker at a similar price, and able to create a larger and wider sound than any localised box. With Jeff Beck’s ‘Let Me Love You’, the guitar was pushed far beyond the soundbar in the right channel, while the delicate snare on kd lang’s version of ‘The Air that I Breathe’ was also firmly out wide in the right channel. While the soundbar couldn’t resolve all the layers of detail in this recording with the openness of a proper hi-fi system, it nevertheless held its composure during the complex highs and presented a deep and spacious soundstage for the lows.
These were also good tracks to experiment with those sound ‘modes’; on kd lang both ‘music’ and ‘movie’ modes did a little too much to emphasise and soften the bass guitar line, and we settled on listening in ‘dialogue’ mode. But with Jeff Beck, this mode all but removed the bass guitar, and ‘movie’ mode was by far the most effective. This variability contined — Nick Lowe needed ‘dialogue’, Kate Miller-Heidke’s vocals sounded best with dialogue but the electrobass on her latest album far more fun on one of the wider modes. So play around, and remember there is also the separate control knob on the back of the subwoofer, which we had (most of the time) slightly above its mid point. The combination of bar and sub produced some significant lows, though with a small dip between those and the midrange.
We listened also to music cast from rdio and Spotify to a Chromecast plugged into the TV; this signal chain yielded a marginally crisper sound than did Bluetooth, though if you have an Android device with aptX Bluetooth compatibility, this may bring Bluetooth up to a similar standard.
One note — when playing the sound-tracks of some Blu-ray discs through the Denon’s HDMI input, the Denon delivered loud cracks coming out of FF or rewind into play; this didn’t happen when the same cable was plugged into either TV.
The Denon proved an excellent soundbar for sound quality, notably better than the pack for music, and able to make the most of genuine surround signals delivered by HDMI. There are rivals with even more tech jollies in their bag (see the Yamaha review in this issue), but the DHT-S514 is versatile in its connections, unobtrusive in appearance, offers useful if slightly confusing sound modes, and does a great job at presenting powerful and musical sound. It’s at the top of its league at this price. Jez Ford
Denon DHT-S514 soundbar
FOR: Big audio upgrade for TVs; Good at music as well as movies; HDMI in and out
AGAINST: Higher than some — check the height works for your television
Quoted frequency range: 40Hz to 20kHz
Drivers: 14mm tweeters x 2, 51 x 127mm oval drivers x 2
Inputs: HDMI, optical, analogue (minijack), Bluetooth (2.1+EDR, aptX)
IR passthrough: via blaster
Dimensions: 79.8 x 1004 x 78.3mm
Drivers: 2 x 133mm woofers
Dimensions: 313 x 171.5 x 346mm
Warranty: Two years (three on registration)
Product page: www.qualifi.com.au