In a perfect world, I’d always recommend full-range loudspeakers–and plenty of ’em–for a home theater and audio system. More air makes better sound. But the world wasn’t built around the needs of audio/video equipment. You’ll get a better picture from a CRT rear-projection TV than you will from a glitzy plasma or LCD, but the people have spoken and the winner is style over substance. TVs have slimmed down and the audio systems flanking them have to carry a trimmer profile too.
I’m living proof. My secondary “theater system” is a plasma TV in the basement. I wouldn’t mind thin tower speakers to go along with it, but there’s no way I’m going to run speaker wire across the floor for surround speakers. If I want better sound than what’s built into the TV, I need a neat, clever, compact solution.
Denon designed the S-301 speaker system for people like me. The S-301 stuffs surround circuitry, an AM/FM tuner and DVD player into a mid-size chassis. Two liter-size speakers flank the TV and a 9 Â¼ x 14 Â½ x 18-inch powered subwoofer–packed with amplifiers–completes the package. There are no rear speakers–that’s the clever part. The S-301 packs Dolby Virtual Speaker technology which simulates center and surround channels from a pair of left and right front speakers.
*Edit 12/27/05 – In the conclusion the writer mentions that the S-101 does not support the Apple iPod. This is incorrect as it does.We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. Please visit the conclusion for a list of differences between the two units.
Design and Features
Kudos to Denon for a slick design. With its attractive silver and black finish, the S-301 can stand next to any flat-screen TV on the market. Its curved lines are a welcome departure from the typical black box, too. If you want your electronics to cut some style, this piece won’t disappoint.
The standout feature of the S-301 is the iPod compatibility. An iPod cable comes in the box and plugs into a jack on the front of the unit. The on-screen display shows a graphic of an iPod front panel which you can control from the Denon remote.
The Denon clicker gets a gold star. Unlike the rows of Pez-like buttons found on typical receiver remotes, the S-301 controller shows only basic function buttons on the front: source selection, tuning, volume, mute, a cursor and enter key and a couple more. Buttons are large and well-spaced, which should make larger fingers happy. If you want to drill deeper into controls, you can flip over the door on the back of the remote to get to number buttons and other functions. The dual design meets the needs of both technophobes and tweaks.
The logo list for the S-301 reads like a who’s who of consumer electronics add-ons and upgrades: HDCD, HDMI, Kodak Picture CD, Dolby Digital and DTS, MP3, WMA, DVD-Audio, Super Audio CD, NSV precision video and DCDi de-interlacing by Faroudja.
My favorite button is Help, an idea that all consumer electronics companies should adopt and expand upon. You select Help to choose the playback mode. It does help by eliminating choices that don’t apply. The iPod option is highlighted only when an iPod is plugged in, for instance. And you can only select JPEG for picture viewing if a compatible CD or DVD-ROM is in the drawer.
Front panel connectors include the iPod jack, a USB slot for music (but not photos) and a headphone jack tricked out with Dolby Headphone for surround listening in private.
Speaker mounting options include direct to the wall or onto the supplied stands Hardware is included.
Image Courtesy of Denon
Setup and Use
Why can’t all A/V systems be this simple to set up? Plug the red connector into the red jacks on one speaker and into the corresponding red jacks on the subwoofer. Then do the same with the white connector and the other speaker. Take the pin connector, which looks like the old parallel connector from a printer, and screw it into the receiver and the sub. Plug the sub’s power cord into the wall. A snap.
Denon included an HDMI output on the back panel of the system, an unusual feature on a one-piece system. It’s a welcome one. If you’ve bought into the look of a flat-screen TV, you don’t want to see multiple wires behind the TV–especially if, as in my case, your A/V furniture doesn’t have a back to conceal the wires. There are also component, S-Video and composite inputs and outputs for additional source equipment, along with optical and coaxial audio inputs.
The on-screen help guide was easier to sort through than the complex owner’s manual, which is chock full of disclaimers like “Won’t play MP3 Pro” and “Operation of and power supply to all USB mass storage devices is not guaranteed.” Illustrations of some setup pages simply repeat what is said on the menu rather than providing guidance. The section on selecting HDMI, for instance, tells you to connect to either Y Cb Cr or RGB without explaining why you would select one over the other. The manual would gain from fewer disclaimers (or tuck them away in a special section) and more explanations.
The iPod was particularly fun to use. A simulated iPod shows up on screen displaying your playlists, artists, albums and songs. iPod controls are shown on screen too and you can operate them using the joystick button on the Denon remote. I was relieved to discover that tracks I’ve purchased from iTunes played through the system, something that’s not always possible with outboard media players because of copyright protection.
Just after I disconnected the iPod, it appeared that the Denon had locked up. I could enter the Help menu but couldn’t navigate between sources. When I tried to turn down the volume, nothing happened. I found the section in the manual about rebooting (welcome to convergence) and followed the directions. Despite the reboot, the problem continued.
I placed a call to a Denon source who shot the trouble: a tiny button on the side of the remote had slipped over to TV mode from DVD mode so my presses weren’t being received. That’s one button that’s not well placed on the remote. It should be behind the back panel with the other less frequently used buttons where it can’t get in the way. It’s also confusing that the DVD mode is the one you need to be on even when playing an iPod or listening to the radio.
Once I could navigate again, I jumped through the audio, video and parental settings leaving most of them as I found ’em. I tweaked the speaker settings to adjust the distances for my room and I ignored the simulated surround settings like jazz club that never quite sound like the real thing. You can play with delay times and beef up the bass, but with a virtual surround sound system those types of adjustments seemed excessive.
I had success playing both MP3 and WMA files on CD but could not get a music file from a USB drive to play. And I thought it was odd that the USB mode doesn’t support JPEGs. You can only play Picture CDs or homegrown CD-ROMs with JPEGs aboard. Since they went to the trouble to support iPod and USB, Denon engineers could have designed in an SD slot, too. It would be nice to pop the card out of the camera and into the receiver.
At $1,599, the S-301 is very expensive for a compact music system. Yes, it sounds terrific and yes, it does what it promises to do very well. It’s a great solution for anyone who wants convincing surround sound without the hassle of rear speakers. At that price, though, I’d like to see HD Radio and satellite radio compatibility along with the SD card slot. The iPod bling is a big plus but maybe not worth what it cost Denon to license. The S-101, a lower-power, non-iPod-ready version, lists for $999. But without the power features of the S-301 it’s just not the same.
Looks like the main difference between the S-301 and the S-101 include:
1. More power in the 301, 170 watts versus 50 watts
2. The 301 plays DVD-Audio and SACD where it doesn’t look like the 101 does
3. USB input for portable players and Flash memory devices on the 301, not the 101
4. HDMI output with selectable scaling (480p/720p/1080i) decoders on the 301
5. Dual Discrete Video Circuitry (DDVC) on the 301
6. DVD section features DCDi from Faroudja FLI-2310 decoding engine on the 301
– Exceptional sounding
– Supports Apple’s iPod
– Innovative design
– Plenty of input and outputs
– Complex manual
– Sometimes locks up after disconnecting the Apple iPod