Denon AVR-3808 A/V receiver - Review

Denon AVR-3808 A/V receiver - Review

This has been a landmark year for A/V receivers. Traditionally, receivers have just been the muscle of a home theater, but now there's no denying that they're the brain. As well, they contain more functionality than nearly any other piece of home theater equipment. The Denon AVR-3808 is the epitome of this new breed of receivers, with a high-def graphical user interface, built-in digital music player, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding, and extensive video conversion options to accommodate low-resolution signals on your HDTV. It's not skimpy on connectivity, either, with four HDMI 1.3 inputs, seven digital audio inputs, network and USB ports.

Of course, all these features are going to cost you--the AVR-3808 retails for S$2,399 (US$1,578.29). But you can take comfort that it's not a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, as its standard-def video processing is top-notch and the sound quality lives up to Denon reputation.

Our biggest quibbles with the AVR-3808 are related to its design and usability: Denon's new graphical user interface looks great, but there are some control issues that can be frustrating. The sheer complexity of the unit may also frustrate buyers--the copious features and tweaking options will delight A/V enthusiasts, but the average buyer will likely be overwhelmed. Even with these drawbacks, the AVR-3808 is sure to satisfy enthusiasts looking for a massively featured A/V receiver that should serve them well for years to come.


Let us start off by saying that pictures don't do the AVR-3808 justice. When we first saw the images for the AVR-3808, we weren't sold on the design, but it looks very stylish in person. The front faceplate is artistically designed, with subtle curves and rounded edges that make it stand out from standard boxy receivers. In the center of the receiver is the LED display, which was readable from a seating distance of about 2m. The LED display is flanked by two large knobs--to the right is the Volume knob and to the left is the Source-selection knob. Under the LED display is a flip-down panel revealing some extra connectivity along with many front panel buttons including a directional pad so you can still navigate the menu systems if the remote goes missing.

The design of Denon's main remote is sure to be divisive. You'll probably either love it or hate it, and we're guessing more will fall on the hate side. The top half of the remote is occupied by a gel-like touchscreen, similar to the design on the old One For All Kameleon 8. When you first pick up the remote, the screen is completely dark so you'll need to give it a press for it to light up. Then you either control the receiver or press another device to control it. When you select another device, the buttons on the touchscreen change to suit that particular device--so you'll get Play and Stop buttons for a DVD player, which is a nice touch. The fact that the touchscreen is backlit is also a plus for using in a darkened home theater.

Despite these pluses, we'd rather have a standard clicker. By omitting so many buttons, controlling simple functions can become completely unintuitive. For example, when listening to Internet radio, the only way to stop it from playing is to hold down the Select button for a couple of seconds. Old-school receiver fans will also complain that by including so few buttons and instead putting the functionality in the onscreen graphical user interface (GUI), it takes more button presses to get simple actions done. We heard this same complaint with Sony's GUI-enabled receivers, but it applies more to the Denon because at least the Sony remote also included tons of hard buttons if you wanted to jump straight to a command.

Thankfully, if you can't stand the main remote, Denon includes a smaller, more traditional remote. While the second remote is intended to be used in secondary and tertiary zones, it will work just fine as a main remote as well (although it can't control other devices). Instead of a touchscreen, the smaller remote offers dedicated buttons to switch inputs. Along the bottom, it has dedicated Stop, Play, and Skip Forward/Backward buttons for streaming music. The major omission is a Page Up/Down rocker button, but you can enable this functionality by pressing several more buttons (we'll get to this later).

The AVR-3808 offers Audyssey MultEQ XT speaker calibration, which uses an included microphone to automatically adjust your speaker levels to the vagaries of your room. Unfortunately, the system locked up the receiver during our initial tests.

User Interface
The AVR-3808 is part of the first line of Denon receivers to feature its new GUI. Receivers have long been stuck with ugly white text on a black background, but that changed with the Sony STR-DA5200ES and now Denon is taking its shot. Even though Sony beat Denon to the punch by a full product generation, Denon's GUI certainly looks good. It features high-def graphics and text, and the incorporation of more color than Sony's menu makes it feel more accessible. Another plus is that it's capable of overlaying over high-def video, so you're not totally missing out on the action if you're changing a setting (the STR-DA5300ES can't do this with HDMI inputs).

Denon's graphical user interface looks slick.
While the high-def graphics look great, the actual navigation scheme could use some tweaking. For example, when you want to select a source, you put the cursor over the Source Select button and to the right you can see a list of sources. Next you click to the right, but instead of moving the cursor into that list of sources, the row of icons you were browsing changes into the list of sources, and you lack the ability to see multiple source names at once. What you can see are some icons representing the sources, but those are not customizable and most likely don't represent the actual attached source after you've done some assigning. In reality, you'll actually need to highlight a specific source to know which device it represents--unless you memorize them all.

The AVR3808's user interface also extends to its media-playing abilities. This is a significant step up from the Sony STR-DA5300ES, which lacks media-streaming capabilities. While the interface looks good, overall sluggishness is a drawback. One of the reasons the interface feels so slow is that the remote lacks a dedicated Page Up/Down button. It is actually possible to scroll page by page, but first you need to switch the remote into NET mode, then hit the search command, then use the right and left directional pad buttons to go up and down--not something you're likely to figure out without studying the manual. We're guessing most people won't read that section of the manual or will forget, and just normal scrolling through a healthy selection of artists takes forever.

A final note regarding the GUI is that we were disappointed to have the AVR-3808 crash on us a couple of times. We're guessing that's because the AVR-3808--more than any other receiver we've tested--feels like a computer. We love the advanced features like its streaming capabilities, infinite tweakability, remote programming and GUI, but each of these features introduces something else that can go wrong.


The AVR-3808 is a 7.1-channel receiver, which Denon rates at 130W per channel. Like essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround-processing modes. In addition, the AVR-3808 also offers decoding for the new high-resolution formats: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks can be found on both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, and employ lossless compression schemes--meaning there is no audio information thrown away as there is with lossy formats, such as the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks found on standard DVDs. The AVR-3808 is capable of playing these formats two ways: Either accepting the decoded PCM signal from a high-def disc player with onboard decoding, or accepting an encoded bitstream signal from a high-def disc player. As of the time of this review, high-def disc players' ability to output these soundtracks vary widely, so the fact that the AVR-3808 can handle both types of audio signals is a great plus.

As you'd expect in this price range, the AVR-3808 is packed with connectivity. There are four HDMI inputs, each capable of accepting both 1080p high-def video and high-resolution audio. That's not quite as many as the six available on the competing Sony STR-DA5300ES, but you can always pick up an HDMI switcher if you need more HDMI ports. For analog high-def video, there are also three component-video inputs capable of receiving 1080p signals. The rest of the analog video connectivity suite is rounded out by seven A/V inputs with S-video (one on the front panel). Audio connections are also well-covered, with seven total digital audio inputs (three optical and two coaxial on the rear panel, plus an additional optical upfront). Analog audio is supported by two audio-only stereo RCA inputs, including a phono jack, plus a 7.1 multichannel analog input. Rounding out the rest of the features are a Denon link port, a USB port (for music and photos), a serial port (for home automation systems), and pre-outs (for those with dedicated external amps).

All that connectivity can't be fully utilized unless there are enough input labels to go around. The AVR-3808 has this fully covered on the high-def side, with seven labels that can have either an HDMI or component-video input assigned to them. That means you can have seven high-def components connected to the AVR-3808 at one time. We were a little disappointed to see that seven is actually the total number of video labels available. So if you have more than seven video-components, you're out of luck (the competing STR-DA5300ES has nine high-def labels and 11 total video labels). There are also two additional audio-only labels, Phono and CD.

Denon packed plenty of multizone features in the AVR-3808 as well. It supports three zone/three source functionality, meaning you can play a different source in each of the three zones, plus the GUI works in a second zone as well. Second zone video is made possible with a second component-video output, although it will work with only S-video and standard composite-video sources.

The AVR-3808 comes equipped with a network port and two USB ports, both of which can be used with Denon's built-in digital music player. Simply by connecting the receiver to our home network, we were able to access digital music stored on our PC. The AVR-3808 is capable of playing back MP3, WMA, WMA files with DRM (if Windows Media Player 11 is running), WAV, AAC, and FLAC files--although it cannot handle songs purchased from iTunes or subscription-based songs from Rhapsody or Napster. Audiophiles will definitely appreciate support for both FLAC and WAV formats as they are both lossless, which means you'll get the full resolution from your ripped CDs. Denon claims it's also possible to view album art, although we could not get it working with our setup. As we expected from a wired connection, we did not experience any hiccups even when streaming large WAV and FLAC files. It's also possible to stream music and photos off a USB drive, but keep in mind that the drive needs to be FAT32 formatted.

In addition to streaming files off your PC, the Ethernet connection can be used to access Internet radio stations and podcasts. When you first jump into the Internet radio section, you are likely to be overwhelmed--there are thousands of stations from all over the world and the sluggishness of the interface makes it very tedious to truly browse. Luckily, you can circumvent the process by registering online at RadioDenon, where you can browse and select your favorite Internet radio stations (and even add your own). The nice part is that after you choose your favorites your Internet-connected AVR-3808 will download them so you can navigate a much more manageable list of your favorite Internet radio stations. The site says it will take a day to update, but it happened nearly immediately for us.

While we certainly enjoyed this functionality, it should be pointed out that there are other products which stream music better than the AVR-3808, such as the Sonos, the Roku SoundBridge, and the Logitech Squeezebox. As mentioned above, the interface itself is frustrating to use and you're stuck with the lackluster remote (unless you get a universal model). So while the network streaming function is an added bonus, remember that dedicated music streamers can be integrated with any A/V receiver and will probably do a better job.

Control via PC
The Ethernet connection also makes it possible to control the AVR-3808 via a PC on your home network. To do this, simply put the IP address of your AVR-3808 into the address bar of your browser, and you should be able to make changes. This is actually a much easier way to accomplish many tasks. For example, it's much easier to type in source names with a keyboard than uses the antiquated system in the GUI (Denon really should have included an onscreen keyboard). Surprisingly, it updates nearly immediately so we could see our changes taking effect on the receiver as we tweaked it from a laptop computer on the couch. The other advantage is that it's possible for offsite custom installers to tweak your system if you give them access. Considering how complex the AVR-3808 is, this is a really nice feature for those who'd rather leave the tweaking to the pros.

Video Scaling and Conversion
The AVR-3808 offers more video scaling and conversion options than we've seen on any other receiver we've tested. First off, the AVR-3808 is the first receiver we've tested that offers scaling on HDMI sources. While many receivers offer the ability to upconvert analog sources to their HDMI output, the AVR-3808 can, for example, upscale the 480p HDMI output from a DVD player to 1080p resolution. While it's theoretically a nice feature (and for some reason seems to really excite some A/V geeks), there isn't much of a practical purpose to it, especially considering its high-def performance (see performance section for more info). Owners of older, pre-HDMI Xbox 360 models should note an important limitation: 1080p component video signals cannot be upconverted over the HDMI output.

All of these scaling options are further enhanced by the ability to choose whether you want video conversion to occur on each individual input. Since the video upconversion is mostly solid on the AVR-3808 (see performance for more details), you'd be pretty safe just leaving it on. But videophiles will appreciate the ability to get things exactly how they want them.

How Does It Compare?
Anyone looking at the AVR-3808 should also consider its step-down model, the AVR-2808. The main advantages of the AVR-3808 are the music streaming over the network port and the additional two HDMI ports. However, that functionality can be added to the AVR-2808 by throwing in an inexpensive HDMI switcher.


The AVR-3808's sound immediately impressed us with its quality and power. High-impact DVDs like 300 were heard without concern that the receiver would run out of power as the gruesome battle scenes filled the listening room. The sounds of blood-splattering gore were detailed, perfectly conveying the metallic clangs of the soldiers' swords, but the sound never grew harsh or irritating. For a change of pace we popped on Seabiscuit and were pleased by the way the AVR-3808 seamlessly integrated the surround channels' sound with the front speakers', so we felt like we were there at the racetrack. The rhythmic pulse of galloping horses and the way the musical score swells when the crowd goes nuts were vivid demonstrations of great home theater sound.

The Rolling Stones' new concert DVD, The Biggest Bang, proved the old guys can still rock the house. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood's guitars had just the right electric edge, and Charlie Watts' drums sounded unabashedly live. When Mick Jagger strapped on an acoustic guitar and went "country" with his heartfelt take on Bob Willis is Still the King, we could hear the crowd at Ziker Park in Austin, Texas, hanging on his every word.

We finished up with the Cobb's Corner new SACD, which took our appreciation of the AVR-3808's sound to another level. Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb's delicate touch on Never Let Me Go was set off against Roy Hargrove's lyrical trumpet. The SACD's natural presentation let the music come across as it would in real life.

Standard-Def Processing
We started off testing the extensive video upconversion capabilities of the AVR-3808 by looking at standard-def upconverted to the HDMI output, using the S-video output of the Oppo DV-980H to the receiver, which was set to output at 1080p. First we looked at Silicon Optix's HQV test suite, and the AVR-3808 did a great job with the initial resolution test, demonstrating its ability to display the full resolution of DVD when upconverting. The next two jaggies tests were also solid, lacking the jaggies and artifacts that show up on less-capable upconverters. The AVR-3808's processing really shone on an image of a waving flag, as the ripples looked life-like and smooth without any "stair-stepping" artifacts. The AVR-3808 was also up to the task for 2:3 pull-down detection as it kicked into film mode in about a second on some program material of a racecar driving by the grandstands.

Actual program material was impressive as well. It showed off its 2:3 pull-down prowess again on the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, rendering the railing of the bridge and the curved hulls of the boats without any jaggies. We moved to the difficult Seabiscuit opening sequence and the AVR-3808 didn't skip a beat. The slow pans over the old black-and-white photos give even the best video processors trouble, but the AVR-3808 showed how good DVD can look.

The AVR-3808 is also capable of scaling HDMI sources, which is a feature we haven't seen in any other A/V receiver we've tested. We looked at similar material using the Oppo DV-980H's HDMI output set at 480i and had the AVR-3808 upscale to 1080p. The results were nearly identical to the performance using the S-video connection, with the digital connection providing an even slightly sharper image.

High-Def Processing
We also looked at 1080i deinterlacing on the AVR-3808. (This is the process that occurs when a 1080i signal is converted to a 1080p signal.) Since nearly all HDTVs are natively progressive, this process usually happens automatically in your HDTV, but how well your HDTV can actually do it varies from model to model. That's why 1080i deinterlacing could be useful on the AVR-3808--if your HDTV or HD DVD/Blu-ray player has poor 1080i deinterlacing performance, perhaps you can have the AVR-3808 handle it instead, theoretically sending a better image to the screen.

Unfortunately, the 1080i deinterlacing performance of the AVR-3808 wasn't up to snuff. We used Silicon Optics HQV test suite on Blu-ray in the Panasonic DMP-BD30, outputting a 1080i signal via HDMI to the AVR-3808, and with HDMI-to-HDMI scaling enabled--which means the receiver was responsible for the 1080i deinterlacing. The AVR-3808 failed both the Video Resolution Loss test and the Film Resolution Loss Test, unable to deliver full 1080p resolution and instead displaying a strobe-like effect on the most detailed parts of the image. On the second part of the Film Resolution Loss Test, the panning shot across Raymond James Stadium looked significantly softer than when the 1080i deinterlacing was properly implemented.

We confirmed our observations from test patterns by looking at some actual program material with the same signal chain. In Mission Impossible: III, we saw the video-processing images crop up in the notoriously difficult sequence at the beginning of Chapter 8 as there was moir� and flickering in the stairs in the background. We also saw issues in Chapter 11, with flickering apparent in the blinds in the background. Switching over to Ghost Rider, we also saw moir� at the end of Chapter 6 in the grille of the RV as the camera tilts up. When we switched the DMP-BD30 to 1080p mode--meaning the Blu-ray player, not the receiver, is responsible for 1080i deinterlacing--these issues were not apparent in any of the scenes. The takeaway is that you're best off leaving 1080i deinterlacing to your HDTV or source, instead of the AVR-3808.

We looked at the same program material using a component-video connection from the DMP-BD30 in 1080i mode and the results were nearly identical, with component-video looking just a tad softer than HDMI.