Capitalising on the recent surge in popularity of audiophile-grade mini systems, the S-81 is Denon's competition for the more expensive Arcam Solo. It's a CD player and radio with integrated amplifier and an iPod dock. While mini systems are traditionally frowned at by the audio purist, recent improvements mean that a 'bungalow' system, like the S-81, has the potential to generate good sound despite its low-rise chassis and small speakers.
There is a saying among sound engineers that goes, "there is no replacement for displacement". What they're getting at is that large speakers and a strong amplifier stage can never truly be replaced by smaller speakers. The laws of physics dictate that for a 'big' sound, your speakers must be displacing a large amount of air. Despite this, the Arcam Solo we previously auditioned subjectively sounded very good, despite its unassuming looks. So, will the Denon S-81 leave you similarly impressed, or are mini systems still the monkey to the organ grinder that is full-size separates?
The first thing that struck us about the S-81 is its reassuring build quality. It's probably unfair to draw a direct relationship between this and the internal components, but it's always a good sign when the amplifier stage feels somewhat like a tank chassis.
The bundled speakers are similarly weighty. In theory this improves stability and reduces unwanted vibrations. A good solid speaker cabinet ensures that the cones are doing the talking, not the chassis. The cabinets look like little trolls with one massive foot each, and the speaker grille is removable (not recommended if you have children who may put their fingers in the vulnerable cones beneath).
Denon has finally seen the light and the speaker wires are pre-fitted with proprietary clip bindings. This means there's no fiddling about with frayed speaker wire -- the speaker cables just clip straight into the rear of the main unit and then to the rear of the speakers. The front of the unit is wire-brushed and metal-blacked. This gives it an extremely modern look, but it's by no means original. The overall effect is quite masculine and steers away from the more neutral finish popularised by Apple, commonly known as white.
The S-81 plays conventional audio CDs and MP3, and WMA CD-R/RW CDs burnt by your computer. The deck supports ID tag information, so it will display things like track name and album title if your MP3s have this data attached. The LCD is a two line organic LED-style display with a blue backlight.
iPod connectivity on the S-81 is good. The unit includes an AK-P100 dock which lets you plug your iPod straight into the Denon for complete playback control and the highest quality of audio transfer this side of an optical cable. Interestingly, the unit has a 'SKP Optimise' function, which attempts to match the amplifier output stage to the behaviour of your speakers -- this isn't something we've seen before and we can't really vouch for it yet.
The speakers are both power rated at 50W and seem a fair match for the on-board amplifier. Denon says the speakers have been designed to output powerful bass without a subwoofer, and our listening tests bore that out -- more on that later, though.
Finally, there is an integrated DAB radio with fallback to FM or AM. Audiophiles will want to take advantage of FM since DAB offers an inferior sound quality. Aerials for all three bands are included in the box with the S-81.
The DAB tunes itself quickly and efficiently. As with most DABs you can mark station presets and navigate rapidly between stations. The interface here will be familiar to anyone who's used a DAB before.
We auditioned Nirvana's Lithium on the S81 and were pleasantly surprised with how it coped with this punchy, dynamic track. Bass was well represented, although the limitations of a small speaker cabinet design were evident in comparison to the massive 12-inch cones in the Jamo D265 speakers we usually have attached to our lab system. For a bedroom or living room, the Denon is more than enough, but those looking for the club-at-home experience will still yearn for the displacement of a mammoth pair of speakers.
In comparison to the Arcam, the S-81 puts up a decent fight. The Arcam may have the edge when auditioning particularly detailed and dynamic tracks like Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye, but it's subtle. In the end the difference between the two may depend more on the genres of music you listen to the most. If you need a bungalow system with strong, confident output and a build quality to match, the S-81 makes a compelling argument.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield