Denon has a long tradition of high-end products that set a new direction for mainstream manufacturers to follow. The DVD-2910 set the standard for upscaling DVD players such as Samsung's DVD-HD850 and Toshiba's SD-350E, while the D-M35DAB showed how to do quality digital radio properly. These products are high quality, premium items that aren't bettered by their cheaper counterparts. In an industry that's preoccupied with lowering price, Denon's products can still be good value if you want the products you buy to last.
The S-101 isn't going to damage Denon's stellar reputation. It's more expensive than most 5.1 systems, but this 2.1 DVD system has speakers and features that are good enough to merit the extra investment. The big selling point is its direct iPod integration -- plug anything but a Shuffle in, and the Denon system will hijack the device to play music and photos. With a system that's as stylish and powerful as this, the two products go hand in hand.
The Denon system is gorgeous, with plenty of small touches that you'll want to show off to your friends. Press the Play button and the button itself lights up and then gently fades out, for example. The main DVD player is relatively small, sitting above the table on four rubberised feet. The two speakers must be screwed into stands as they don't stand up on their own, and the subwoofer is large and heavy. The whole package is finished in a silver plastic -- smooth to the touch and likely to go well with most flat-screen displays.
The system ties together beautifully -- apart from a little sweat lifting the subwoofer, we had it set up in under five minutes. Speaker setup can sometimes be fiddly, but the included cables are colour-coded and slot together without needing to tie bared wires around terminals. The subwoofer itself acts as the central amplifier as well as a central hub for connectivity. The power cable goes into the subwoofer and then ties umbilically to the DVD player link-up via a proprietary Denon connector. The two speakers are coded red and white and lead from the sub, which is a nice way of keeping most of the cables out of sight.
AV connectivity is surprisingly good for such a small player. The back of the DVD unit has RGB Scart and component video outputs, which are the best options if you're using a CRT and flat screen, respectively. There are also S-video and composite outputs for sending video to a display, plus a digital optical output on the audio side. There's also a stupidly generous array of video inputs, with two S-video and composite connections and two digital coaxial, plus an optical audio input. This means you can run a games console through the Denon if you've run out of inputs on your TV.
The remote control also deserves mention for being remarkably simple to use. It's the first time we've seen the advanced functionality buttons hidden on the rear of the remote behind a flap. Key buttons on the remote glow in the dark, which is perfect for home cinema use, plus it can control your TV and cable box. It's the classiest remote we've seen for some time.
As a DVD player, Denon's system is a perfect accompaniment for a flat-screen TV, as the component video outputs support progressive-scan video. This means that each line of video is shown simultaneously instead of being interlaced -- something that can cause an annoying flicker. Anyone who moves up to component video will see such an improvement in colour and image stability that it will be hard to go back to Scart.
Plug your iPod into the S-101 and it becomes even more interesting. The Denon system will jump onboard the iPod and show off the Denon logo to let you know it's the daddy in this relationship. It will then take the familiar iPod interface and display it on your TV, so you can play the media from your iPod directly from Denon's remote. The other great thing about Denon's iPod integration is that you don't need to buy Apple's AV cable to display photos on your TV. It's not quite as integrated as music playback -- you have to enable TV Output on your iPod, set the Denon system to Remote mode and then use the iPod to browse the slideshow. But we suspect this is a limitation of the iPod itself rather than Denon's design.
The iPod connector on the front of the machine is a proprietary terminal, so you have to use the cable that's included in the box instead of the USB included with the iPod itself. If you have an iPod Shuffle or another MP3 player, you can still use the stereo input connector on the front, but you won't be able to control the playback through Denon's remote control.
Denon is a company that waxes lyrical about audio fidelity, and the compressed MP3 and AAC music stored on your iPod isn't what its engineers would play, if they had any say in the matter. That's why the S-101 houses a number of audio processors and filters that improve the quality of this compressed music. We found that as long as you're recording tracks at 192Kbps or above, you don't need to worry about quality when playing the music loud (and this is a system that will reach an eardrum-bursting high). The system copes very well, and even hardened audiophiles will probably choose the convenience of the iPod over their CD collection once they get used to it. It's a shame, then, that the system doesn't offer users the choice of DVD-A and SACD playback as well, because the aural performance of the system would suit high-definition music perfectly.
Denon's Virtual Dolby functionality has taken a backseat in this player in favour of the much-talked about iPod connectivity. However, this system still offers Denon's peerless surround sound functionality. If you don't have the room or the patience to set up a full 5.1 system, then the Denon system will make you feel like you're being enveloped in sound. We usually cringe at the idea of 'Virtual' surround sound, but Denon's take on the concept once again shows others the way forward.
Denon's system is a real star perfomer in both audio and visual categories. DVD playback is a solid, reference quality through component outputs -- images were detailed and colourful and showed little noise even when they were blown up on Samsung's massive LE40R51B 40-inch LCD.
However, it's in audio fidelity where the Denon system flies, justifying the price tag with a hugely enjoyable aural experience. Playing Coldplay's X&Y through the system from our iPod was nearly as good as the original CD, with an upbeat and tuneful performance that fully realised the stadium-anthem sound of the album.
One CNET reviewer showed off a movie he'd shot in high definition, and we swore the sound was originating from behind us. Denon is one of very few companies to integrate virtual surround-sound technology with any success, and while we usually discount such half-measures, in this case it will certainly improve movies experienced in a smaller room.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide