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Many paths to music

Denon has a long history in producing very conveniently-sized micro systems, but this is something rather larger, between those offerings and full-sized component hi-fi. And in many regards it is the quintessential modern amplifier — handling conventional analogue inputs, plus digital inputs handled by an internal DAC, and then transformed by Wi-Fi and Ethernet, Bluetooth and Spotify into a streaming networking music player as well as amplifier. As its ‘receiver’ tag implies, it also has radio on board, though this is internet radio rather than ye olde FM and AM.

So much stuff! The trick, then, is making it all easy to use, while maintaining focus on sound quality among the extended abilities. How does Denon do?

It’s a solid and impeccable neat unit 280mm wide and about 100mm high, though you’ll need another half dozen centimetres to let its Wi-Fi/Bluetooth antenna stand upright. It has a luxurious metal casing that forms the top plate, then wraps around the back to meet a second piece which forms the base.

The matt-black acrylic sides curve round to a glass-acrylic front dominated by a big knob on the right indented through a chrome surround, and a white-on-black OLED display in the centre large enough to show three lines of text in a slightly ugly font. When this receives track information from streaming sources, this area displays the band at the top, the track name scrolling across the larger second row, and the third line with input and timing information. If you’re just playing from one of its inputs, it puts the input small at the bottom and rather brazenly displays Denon’s logo continuously on the larger line. You can dim this but not turn it off, so consider yourself branded!

Round the back are two pairs of analogue RCA inputs (no phono option for a turntable here), and four digital inputs — two optical and one coaxial, plus a USB slot on the front panel (no USB-B for playing a computer straight in). Then there’s the network connection to be made — either by Ethernet or by Wi-Fi, a choice which you make when performing the initial Quick Setup through which you are guided by the front screen.

The binding posts are full-sized and good for bananas, bare wire or small spades, and there’s also a subwoofer output and a pair of RCA line-level outputs which can be made variable if using the Denon as a preamp directly to power amps.

When doing the Quick Setup we chose Ethernet, and then used the DRA-100 for three weeks without any issues, using the digital input for TV audio, an analogue pair for stereo from our CD/Blu-ray player, and both AirPlay and Bluetooth for streaming from various devices.

When we tried to send Spotify to the Denon, it didn’t show up as a Spotify Connect device — instead we could send from our iOS devices by AirPlay, but that’s not as good. We rechecked the literature — Spotify Connect should have been available. On a hunch we removed the Ethernet cable and joined Wi-Fi instead, which required a repeat of the Quick Setup procedure. Once on Wi-Fi, presto, the Denon appeared as a true Spotify Connect device. We plugged the Ethernet back in, and after a pause while the Denon shifted its data to the cable, Spotify Connect remained available, and forever thereafter.

We mention this lest it assist others who experience the glitch, but also because it was the only problem we encountered during a full month using the Denon; indeed within a day of installing it, the DRA-100 had become the audio hub for the lounge without so much as a murmur of dissent even from the missus, so easy to adopt was its clear and well prioritised remote control, so unemphasised its playback, whether for TV or background music. You can access bass and treble controls if you desire a little tweaking.

We plugged an iPhone into its front USB socket where it could be charging while we controlled its playback of music and podcasts using the Denon Hi-Fi Remote app on a second device. We were impressed by its sound quality from this USB-connected source — it takes (we assume) the files digitally from the iDevice and applies its own DACs, so that the clarity significantly exceeded that achieved from either the lower transmission rates of Bluetooth (SBC and AAC codecs supported here, and NFC pairing) or the higher rates of AirPlay. With more clarity and less compression, it opened up the mix of Coldplay’s Yellow and prevented the full-on section from compressing into pumpy mush, retaining dynamics and an easy ability to focus on individual instruments.

This ability to deliver clarity from digital files no doubt benefits from Denon’s inclusion of technology from the company’s premium digital audio components, including a Denon Master Clock circuit aiming to reduce jitter and so improve timing, and its “Advanced AL32 processing” for lower bit-rate files, upconverting them to 32 bits, filtering and noise-shaping them in the digital domain.

This worked with similarly purist results on a USB stick of content plugged into the USB socket (powered USB drives can also be used), and on files sent over the network using DLNA. From all these paths Denon covers the mains targets of low-res WMA, MP3 and AAC files, plus FLAC, WAV and AIFF up to 24-bit/192kHz, Apple Lossless to 24-bit/96kHz, and dsf/dff DSD files at 2.8 or 5.6MHz. The app was good for browsing, though selecting a track would close the browsing window, which then had to repopulate from scratch, often showing ‘Item 1’, ‘Item 2’ before the required information came through. Given a format it didn’t like — such as our sole DXD352.8 file from 2L Records — it declared ‘Unknown file format’ and moved quickly on to the next track on the list; the best possible behaviour (other than playing it). The app showed artwork where foldered for some file types, seemingly not for FLAC, though these things vary with storage and server settings, so as they say, your mileage may vary.

Internet radio was easy to access through the app — though there’s no true search function, and we had to find Double J by choosing Australia and scrolling through the massive list of available stations, at qualities varying from super-compressed to entirely listenable. Podcasts get their own menus.

We continued to enjoy the Denon’s sound quality, which is quoted at 35W per channel into 8 ohms, so we got rather more into our 6-ohm German standmounters, and never wanted for level in a medium-to-large sized room. This is Class-D amplification, but a specific variant of it, since Denon is using Qualcomm’s Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier (DDFA) technology, which uses PWM (pulse width modulation) in a closed-loop architecture with a discrete output circuit, all aiming to correct for nonlinearities of power supplies and output stages, so it doesn’t sound like ‘Class D’. And it was certainly only at full pelt that you could pick it as having less musical magic than a big Class-AB amp of higher pricing levels — you can, of course (as ever!) spend more to get more. But for its price level, and especially considering the DRA-100’s wide abilities, the Denon provides excellent value in its amplification delivery. Perhaps it’s pride in this delivery that makes the front panel beam its Denon logo so often.

The only questions here are whether the Denon has sufficient physical inputs for you (two analogue, four digital, no phono, no USB-B) and whether you could spend more to go to the next level of power. Otherwise the DRA-100 is a classily-built, versatile and musically enjoyable smart amplifier ready to stream its own music from the internet, stream from your network by Wi-Fi or Ethernet, or do it the old-fashioned way from the physical inputs. At this price, with this performance, it’s an attractive option in both design and performance terms.

Denon DRA-100
networked stereo receiver
Price: $1799

+ Conventional inputs plus loads of streaming options
+ High-quality design & build
+ Powerful Class-D sound

- No turntable or computer inputs

Inputs: 2 x RCA analogue, 2 x digital optical, 1 x coaxial digital, 1 x USB/iPod, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (SBC/AAC)
Outputs: speakers out, subwoofer out, line.variable analogue RCA out
Output power: 35W per channel into eight ohms (website says 20Hz-20kHz, THD 0.07%; manual says 1kHz, THD+N 0.01%); 70W per channel into four ohms (website says 1kHz, THD 0.7%; manual says 1kHz, THD+N 0.01%)
Dimensions (whd): 280 x 337 x 104mm (+ 60mm for antennas)
Weight: 4.8kg