There are few things in the world I enjoy more than a good bit of pedantry, and frankly I couldn’t care less whether I’m the source or the target. To wit: when Denon originally offered to loan me a review sample of its new flagship AVR-A1H 15.4-channel 8K-capable A/V receiver ($6499; all prices USD), I initially demurred. I’ve set a soft budget cap for integrated amps and speakers I review on Access, and the A1H blows the hell out of anything resembling that cap. But SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider quickly chimed in, and although I can’t recall his exact words, they were something to the effect of “The formula for Access isn’t ‘attainable (hi-fi + home theater)’; it’s ‘(attainable hi-fi) + home theater.’” Rawr. Talk nerdy to me.
To call the AVR-A1H an aspirational AVR wouldn’t be inaccurate. It isn’t merely a hoss in terms of expense; it’s also outright overkill in terms of sheer amplified channel count. The 15.4-channel designation isn’t misleading in this case, as the receiver has 15 speaker-level outputs and four independent subwoofer outputs that can be configured as either summed mono or discrete low-frequency channels. The specs also boast an insane-sounding 150Wpc of output, but come on. Let’s be serious about this. That, unsurprisingly, is with two channels driven (into 8 ohms, full range, 0.05% THD+N).
So what does that mean in terms of real-world performance with more than two channels driven? For that, we have to look at the power supply and topology of the power section and make a few educated guesses, since we probably won’t be able to afford to ship this 70-some-odd-pound beast from Alabama to Canada for Diego Estan, our electronics measurements specialist, to bench-test it.
I did include him in my quick back-of-napkin calculations, though. The A1H has a gargantuan power supply rated at 900W. With no sound playing, power consumption is rated at 70W in Eco mode and 125W normally. Given the usual inefficiencies of class-AB amplification, I think a reasonable first approximation of the receiver’s output with all 15 channels driven simultaneously might be somewhere around 30Wpc (likely more for the front left and right channels), and Diego didn’t think my math sounded too suspect, although it’s hard to be certain without actually measuring the output.
That may not sound like much, especially if you’re in the habit of gauging what a healthy amount of power is based on the specs posted by AVR manufacturers, but it’s a staggering crap-ton of wattage, especially across 15 amplified channels. And when you consider that no Atmos mix—no matter how aggressive—is going to come anywhere near sending a peak-amplitude signal to all speakers at once for anything more than milliseconds at a time, you quickly realize that the actual power output is going to be somewhere between those two extremes, which, in most rooms that can accommodate a speaker system this expansive—and with most speakers that would fill such rooms to the brim—is way more power than you likely need. The real answer is probably much more than 30Wpc, given how well-engineered the power supply looks and the insane amount of capacitance on board, but even if it’s not, that’s a lot of power.
With this being Denon’s new flagship AVR, it’s no surprise that there’s as much emphasis on input as output. The A1H boasts seven HDMI 2.1-compliant inputs and three outputs (two main-zone, one second-zone), all of which support 8K/60Hz AB, 4K/120Hz AB, HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG, along with Auto Low Latency Mode, Variable Refresh Rate, and Quick Frame Transport (though, oddly, no Quick Media Switching), plus eARC and Auto LipSync.
There are, all told, five stereo audio inputs (four of which are single-ended RCA only and one of which accepts either RCA or balanced XLR), four digital audio inputs (two coaxial and two optical), a phono input (MM), an AM/FM radio tuner, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and an ethernet connection. The latter two support the receiver’s built-in HEOS multiroom audio platform.
Oh, and did I mention that it supports two wholly different room-correction systems in the form of Audyssey MultEQ XT32 and Dirac Live?
Installing and configuring the Denon AVR-A1H
Before we get to that, though, let’s go ahead and get something out of the way right up front. There are a stupid number of ways you can configure the AVR-A1H’s 15 amplified channels or its 17.4 processed channels. None of these setups, as best I can tell, uses every available channel at once, but you can have setups that employ up to 15.1 channels for Dolby Atmos and up to 13.1 channels for Auro-3D. You can configure a system with 7.1 channels bi-amped. You can configure a system with 11.1 channels in the main zone and two amplified channels in the other two zones.
The manual dedicates a full 21 pages to all the possible speaker configurations, and I didn’t try anything even remotely resembling most of them. Nor did I ever max out the A1H’s speaker output connections. It simply wouldn’t make a lick of sense in my house. There isn’t a room therein where I could justify more than four ceiling speakers, mostly because adding any more would result in such blatant interference as to significantly degrade sound quality.
I started off, actually, with a simple 5.2-channel setup in the 12′ × 15′ media room at the front of the house, where I do most of my AVR testing. A 5.2 setup is my preference for evaluation and enjoyment alike for home cinema, as it allows me to appreciate the fidelity and dynamics of a good movie without being distracted by whizzy-bangy overhead surround effects. I knew the channel count would be rising to ridiculous levels throughout the course of the review, so I wanted to start on more comfortable footing.
My review unit surprisingly came with a license for Dirac Live, but after running through the completely intuitive and thorough initial setup guide, which walks you through every step of connecting speakers and sources and assigning amps and such (not that I needed the help, but it’s always nice to see if the setup wizard is well done, and this one is), I started by running Audyssey via the MultEQ Editor app (a very worthwhile $19 add-on) and setting my maximum filter frequencies about two octaves above the room’s Schroeder frequency, which in my room is around 200Hz. So I then ran Dirac Live on the same setup, using the same max filter frequencies, i.e., around 800Hz.
Comparing the two directly, I have to admit that the results surprised me. MultEQ XT32 actually did a better, more refined job of controlling standing waves in that room than did Dirac Live. Not substantially better, but better nonetheless. And granted, the A1H, best I can tell, doesn’t support Dirac’s $499 Live Bass Control (for now, Dirac licenses are $259 for the bandwidth-limited version that corrects up to 500Hz or $349 for full-range without DLBC), and that may make a difference eventually. But for now, for myself, after having compared the two, I think I’d just stick with the free MultEQ XT32 plus the $19 MultEQ Editor app.
It must be said, though: my opinions changed when I started adding overhead speakers. At this point, I was using an Aperion Audio Intimus 5B/5C speaker system at ear level, with four RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers hanging from the ceiling and a pair of RSL Speedwoofer 10S subs. With such a mismatched speaker system, I really felt the benefits of moving to full-range room correction for the whole system, and at this point, with a good bit of poking and prodding and customization, I thought Dirac did a better job with the upper frequencies, but only after I threw away one of the measurement positions—which you can do with Dirac if the response you’re seeing from one mic position looks ooky. There’s just no denying that Dirac gives you a level of flexibility and customization that Audyssey MultEQ XT32 doesn’t, but I’ll admit that, even when Dirac did a better job with the upper mids and highs, I still preferred Audyssey due to its superior handling of my subs. Your mileage may vary, though, and nobody is more surprised by this subjective analysis than I am.
After a good bit of critical listening with movies and music alike, I moved the A1H from my media room in the front of the house to my 17′ × 19′ home theater in the back, which is normally home to a Marantz AV8805 and oodles of Anthem amplification, and in which I’ve never employed a receiver for long. I started by setting up another 5.2.4 setup (this time with my GoldenEar Triton One.R towers, GoldenEar SuperCenter Reference center, and two SVS PB-4000 subs, along with a quartet of GoldenEar SuperSat 3s overhead). Once I was satisfied with the sound, I added two more subs (Paradigm SUB 12s) and then started throwing speakers at the A1H with no rhyme or reason, just to see how it would handle being fully loaded.
Just to reiterate: yes, I had speakers connected to the Front Wide terminals, but they weren’t positioned where front wide speakers go, because that’s where the walkways into my theater room are. And so on and so forth. The test here was just to see how the A1H would handle itself when loaded down to full capacity.
Sources throughout the review consisted of two different Roku Ultra streaming media players, an Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, an Oppo UDP-205 universal disc player, my iPhone via AirPlay, and some extensive use of the HEOS app.
In both locations, I added the A1H to my Control4 control system with a drag and a drop, since the receiver supports Control4’s Simple Device Discovery Protocol. Routing sources and output was straightforward, and I had the receiver up and running with every remote in the house in less than 30 seconds.
How does the Denon AVR-A1H perform?
Before we get to the sonic performance of the A1H, there are a few other factors to consider with day-to-day use. The first is the issue of heat, of which the receiver generates a lot. A very lot. That’s not uncommon for Denon and Marantz receivers, but nothing quite prepared me for just how much energy this 15-channel powerhouse adds to the air in the room.
My first real taste of this was during setup. I had connected a 5.2-channel speaker system and gone through the initial amp assignment and network setup, etc., when I realized it was time to record an episode of the SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast. New host Jorden Guth knocked that one out quickly, so the A1H only sat idle for about 80 minutes—no sound playing, nothing but the Roku aquarium screensaver passing through it. But when I walked back into the room, the heat legitimately startled me. I had to turn the ceiling fan to its highest speed and turn the thermostat down to 70 and let it run for a bit before I was comfortable in the room again.
This shouldn’t be construed as a criticism; it’s merely an observation. During my time with the AVR-A1H, I learned quickly to turn down the thermostat before sitting down for a movie or TV show. I should point out that in my smaller media room, all of my home-cinema gear sits atop a credenza below the screen, so the receiver is exposed to open air on the top, sides, and front, with approximately 11″ of free space behind.
In my home-theater room, by contrast, all the gear is rack-mounted, with a Sanus thermostat-controlled CAFC01 1U rack fan over the spot where I installed the A1H—normally the spot where my amp is housed.
The racks are in a Sanus Cadenza75 A/V stand in the room, and in early-to-mid May here in Alabama, I can generally expect the fans to kick on two or three times during a film, depending on the aggressiveness of the mix and how loudly I play it. With the AVR-A1H in the rack, the fans ran nearly constantly as soon as the system got warmed up, whether I was watching The Lord of the Rings or video essays by Alice Cappelle on YouTube.
Again, none of this is to pick nits with the A1H; it’s merely to point out that this much class-AB amplification with a 900W power supply results in, effectively, a ~400W personal space heater. If you can’t deal with that kind of heat but you need this much power and this many channels, you might want to shop instead for class-D or class-H amps and a pre/pro that operates at this level, such as the Marantz AV 10.
Enough with the consequences of physics; let’s talk about sound! Because it should come as no surprise that the A1H puts out a lot of that, too. How do I sum up the sonic performance in as few words as possible? Great dynamics, great transient response, great tonal balance, good control of the speakers, excellent decoding and D-to-A conversion, excellent processing, great imaging, and a wonderful soundstage, no matter how many channels I connected to it.
As mentioned above, I began my evaluation with a simple 5.2-channel setup, and the first disc I reached for was the UHD Blu-ray release of Almost Famous, mostly because I was in the mood to watch it. There isn’t a lot of high-intensity surround mixing going on in this one for most of its 161-minute runtime, but when it cranks, it cranks hard.
One such scene is when Stillwater takes the stage and belts out “Fever Dog,” a song that never fails to get my blood pumping. The A1H did a wonderful job of filling the room with crowd noise, and when that iconic drumbeat kicked in, I nearly felt pinned to my seat. When Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) followed that up with the howling wail of his Les Paul, it stopped being a movie and turned into a full-blown concert experience. The Denon did such a wonderful job with the dynamics of these scenes, not to mention the transient response required to get the spatial aspects correct, that it practically disappeared.
I went back to this disc a few times as I expanded the setup and moved rooms. Even though the soundtrack is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 only, the A1H upmixed it quite nicely into Atmos, although, again, it’s only really the concert and other musical sequences that make much use of the expanded channel count. With “Fever Dog” in particular, the reverberation of the concert venue felt more authentic with Atmos processing added and four overhead speakers in place. Interestingly, the size disparity between my two rooms was diminished significantly—mostly because I think both started to feel a lot bigger than they actually are.
That’s upmixed Atmos. What about the real deal? As I’ve said any number of times, I’m not a huge fan of the format—not for movies, at least. I like a well-done Atmos music mix, and it adds something to video games, no doubt. But I tend to find it very distracting with films.
There are exceptions. Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a perfect example of a film whose effectiveness is actually enhanced by its immersive audio mix, so I fired up the Apple TV+ app on one of my Roku Ultras and let it stream. In the first act, the Atmos mix is used quite a bit to create the impression that there’s a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon, and the beauty of it is that if everything is properly dialed in and transient response is good, the mix can create the sort of aural illusion that tears down the walls of your room and replaces them with a desolate Depression-era landscape. The A1H did an exceptional job of this, making the rolling thunder sound miles—not feet—away.
Toward the latter part of the film, the mix evolves a bit and becomes a sonic exploration of the differences between interior and exterior spaces, and with the interiors, sounds like the hum of mercury-vapor lamps in particular did an excellent job of creating a sense of space that was out of proportion with my listening environment. The ceiling sounded twice as high, the reverberations twice as long.
Satisfied that the A1H could handle native Atmos just fine, I started throwing pots and pans at the system, hooking up speakers willy-nilly that had no logical place in either of my listening rooms. Again, the point wasn’t to evaluate sound quality, but just to see how much abuse Denon’s new flagship could take. In my 17′ × 19′ home theater, I ended up connecting 13.4 channels’ worth of speakers and cranking “Fever Dog” again, and my handy Radio Shack 33-2050 informed me that I was consistently hitting average SPLs over 85dB with no problem whatsoever. I gave up long before the receiver did, but I should note that the A1H behaved as if it had a volume limiter in place, even though I had that setting turned off in the menus. On the default setting, max volume should be 99, but it wouldn’t let me crank the levels past 86.5. Again, that was way too loud for my ears, but this behavior still struck me as odd, given that the volume limiter was turned off. I double-checked.
One last thing worth mentioning is that the AVR-A1H, as I said above, can be configured such that its four LFE outputs are discrete, and if you connect four of them in Directional mode, the receiver effectively splits the room into quadrants and sends any low-frequency information below your crossover point from speakers set to Small in that quadrant to the appropriate sub.
Frankly, I felt I got better results with the subwoofer mode set to Standard in every speaker setup but one. When I briefly experimented with a setup using my RSL CG3 bookshelf speakers in a 5.2-channel configuration, I actually liked the Directional mode a little better, since it allowed me to raise the crossover point to 150Hz, resulting in better integration between subs and sats without having to worry about sub localization as much.
I wish the A1H had a 140Hz crossover point, since I think that would have been ideal, but it jumps from 120Hz to 150Hz. Truth be told, I might not have heard a difference between 140 and 150Hz. But theoretically, it would have been a better fit.
The point is, for most people with most systems in most rooms, the Standard subwoofer mode is probably going to be a better option, but it’s nice that the A1H has discrete bass capabilities, just for those weird corner-case scenarios where it might help.
Unsurprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly, depending on your biases), the A1H also excels at stereo reproduction, even when you turn off all the upmixing and processing and what-have-you, and simply let two speakers (and, well, two subs) do their thing. With “Blue As We Like It” from The National Bank’s eponymous album (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Press Play Recordings / Qobuz), the receiver really captured the intimacy and immediacy of the mix, the very forward presentation of instruments and vocals, and all of the little nuances of the recording and production that sometimes fly under the radar: the doubling of Thomas Dybdahl’s voice, the subtle pitch-shifting of the same on the chorus, the fret noise of the acoustic guitar, the weird growling synth in spots that lies just underneath the surface, the occasional sympathetic resonance of the percussion. If, for whatever reason, all my stereo gear died and Denon forgot to ask for the A1H back, I wouldn’t be mad at all if I had to use this ridiculously overengineered surround-sound monster as the heart of my two-channel system.
What other AVRs in this price class should you consider?
You want 15.4 channels of home theater excess, and you don’t want A/V separates? Guess what? The AVR-A1H is the only game in town, at least at time of writing. That said, there are quite a few 15.4-channel A/V pre/pros out there if you’re willing to bring your own amplification to the party. The aforementioned Marantz AV 10 is one option at $7000. There are also the Anthem AVM 90 8K ($7499.99) and the Trinnov Altitude16 ($18,500). Any of the above will also require the addition of thousands of dollars’ worth of amplification, which is something to keep in mind when you’re making your own mental calculations about value.
TL;DR: Should you buy the Denon AVR-A1H?
Do you need a 15.4-channel A/V receiver? Let’s be honest about this for a second: you almost certainly don’t. But as I’ve said before, when has our hobby ever been about need?
The fact of that matter is, I think the AVR-A1H’s insane channel count almost detracts a bit from some of what makes it such a beast. It’s really the over-the-top power supply, insane capacitance, and robust connectivity that thrust it into flagship territory. It honestly wouldn’t be out of order to buy it and only hook it up to, say, a 5.2.4-channel speaker system, or a 5.4.4 setup, or any other immersive setup that falls short of using every binding post on the back of the A1H. Simply put, that big power supply is going to put to shame those built into lesser receivers, even if you don’t need nearly this much output.
The A1H challenged some assumptions for me. For one thing, I’d assumed based on past experience that I would prefer Dirac Live to Audyssey MultEQ XT32 in every respect. But being able to A/B them in the same unit made me realize how much XT32 has going for it in the bass department, especially when listening at anything less than THX reference levels.
I also figured that by the time you maxed out the channel count of a receiver like this, even a big, beefy power supply of the sort the A1H boasts would struggle. But it didn’t.
The long and short of it is that most people don’t need anywhere near this much receiver. But if you simply want this much receiver, the AVR-A1H has little working against it, aside from the eye-parching levels of heat it generates.
. . . Dennis Burger
- Speakers: GoldenEar Triton One.R; GoldenEar SuperCenter Reference center; GoldenEar SuperSat 3; Aperion Audio Intimus 5B and 5C; RSL CG3 and CG23.
- Subwoofers: SVS PB-4000; Paradigm SUB 12; RSL Speedwoofer 10S.
- Speaker-level connections: Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG.
- Interconnects: Monoprice 8K Ultra High-Speed HDMI Cables.
- Sources: Roku Ultra 4802R; Roku Ultra 4800R; Oppo BDP-103 Universal 3D Blu-ray Player; Oppo UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Audiophile Blu-ray Disc Player; iPhone 12 Pro Max.
- Power protection: SurgeX SX-AX15E Axess ELITE Power Management System; SurgeX XC18 Space Saver Surge Eliminator.
Denon AVR-A1H 15.4-channel A/V receiver
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
5541 Fermi Ct.
Carlsbad, CA 92008
Phone: (800) 497-8921