Denon AVR-X5200W Dolby Atmos AV Receiver Listening Tests
I set up the Denon AVR-X5200W A/V receiver in the two listening rooms: 1. The Audioholics Showcase Theater Room, which is an acoustically controlled listening space roughly 6,000 cubic feet with 8’ flat ceilings and 2. The Audioholics Family Room system which is a large untreated open room with 10’ flat ceilings.
Audioholics Showcase Theater Room Listening Tests
Unless otherwise noted, the bulk of the listening tests performed on the Denon AVR-X5200W was in a 5.1.4 speaker configuration utilizing four Definitive Technology A60 Dolby Atmos Elevation speakers. The SVS Ultra bookshelf speakers were used as the main front channels, Status Acoustics 8C for the center channel and RBH 41-SE/B bookshelf speakers for the surround speakers, with a small but potent Velodyne MiniVee subwoofer for the low frequencies. The source was the Oppo BDP-105 Universal Blu-ray player and all speaker cables and interconnects were provided by Blujeans Cable. With the exception of my über expensive center channel, I tried to test with speakers consistent with a $2k A/V receiver. The SVS Ultras matched my RBH speakers extremely well as confirmed via pink noise and program material, but the Definitive Technology A60 Atmos speakers were a different story. The pink noise revealed the A60s were extremely narrow band limited and I will get into how this affected the overall timbre match of the system via the listening tests.
5.1.4 Dolby Atmos Set up in Audioholics Showcase Theater Room
After running the Audyssey calibration, I did comparisons with it on and off and found that I preferred the sound with Audyssey engaged. The Atmos A60 modules’ sound was significantly improved with Audyssey room correction. Without Audyssey they sounded more congested and boxy, with the sound seeming to radiate directly from the speaker instead of projecting an elevated sound field.
Sadly the only Dolby Atmos Blu-ray released at the time of writing this review was the miserable Transformers 4 movie, which not only do I refuse to add to my collection, but had a difficult time finding online or at local retail stores even if I wanted to. As a result my Atmos demonstration was limited to the Dolby demo disc and applying the Dolby Surround Upmixer (DSU) to discrete 5.1/7.1 and two-channel sources.
This is a wonderful-sounding clip and it’s a shame it’s so short (1 min long) as I could just listen to the sounds of nature all day long. The echo effects at the very beginning as well as the cricket and bug sounds produced a pleasing elevated effect. It was quite an immersive experience. However the rain just didn’t quite sound like it was coming from up above me, hitting against trees in the forest. It sounded more like it was around me, though it lacked the clarity and detail I’d expect to hear from a natural event. Turning off the Atmos modules and allowing the rain sound to fold back into the surround speakers helped to clear this sound up considerably. While I enjoyed the elevation sound of the Atmos speakers, I also enjoyed the more precise sound of them being off as well. I was quite amazed at how well the ear level surround speakers produced an elevated effect with the Atmos modules turned off. This is truly an incredible recording both in TrueHD and Atmos.
Enrique Iglesias Music Video: Bailando
The transient sounds like the snare drum hit or claps did project an elevated sound, but the male vocals sounded like they were coming from the Atmos companion speakers. Only the little kid at the beginning of the song shouting “Bailando” sounded as if his voice was elevated near the ceiling. However, I found if you sat too far away from the Atmos modules, the elevation effect evaporated and if you sat too close, the speaker was too easily localized. In my two rows of seats, only the primary row pulled off an acceptable elevation effect. When I turned off all the speakers but the Atmos modules, I could clearly identify steady state sound from any seat such as the male vocals.
Switching off Audyssey, I wanted to hear the difference between Auto and Direct to see if the 48kHz downsampling that the AVR-X5200W does with ALL digital signals (unless you’re in Direct or Pure Direct mode) was impacting the sound. I found I preferred Direct mode by a considerable margin. The sound was clearer and more precise. Conversely, in Auto mode I felt I did hear a few height details slightly more elevated, though blurred. I ran this as a blind test on my younger sister-in-law and she conveyed the same experiences that I observed. After a couple of switches, I realized Direct mode put the Denon in TrueHD processing mode. So in fact, we were preferring music in TrueHD without the Atmos modules engaged because the sound was more cohesive and balanced. It was then that I started to realize that the A60 Atmos modules were simply no match for the rest of my speaker system, and in fact were downgrading the sound quality for critical music listening.
I wired up my RBH E41-B speakers as Dolby elevation speakers and found the detail of sound was greatly improved. However, because the RBH speakers have such excellent dispersion characteristics by design, they were also more easily localized than the Dolby Atmos speakers. Thus I went back to using the A60 Atmos modules for the rest of this review. You can try to experiment with making your own Atmos elevation speakers perhaps with a horn loaded driver to limit its dispersion, and this is something we reserve for further study.
Dolby Surround Upmixer (DSU)
The Dolby Surround Upmixer has been completely redesigned according to Dolby. It now incorporates the Atmos height channels, but ironically leaves out wall mounted height/width channels if you employ them in your system. Unlike Dolby Pro Logic IIx (PLIIx), the new DSU doesn’t have a separate Cinema or Music mode, nor does it have any configuration options at all other than on/off.
I was curious to see how the new DSU performed so I cued up a few different albums in my hard drive to get a taste. The DSU was producing a nice enveloping effect compared to just listening to regular two-channel. I initially felt the DSU bested DTS Neo by a good margin though I could understand that some purists may still prefer to listen to regular two-channel with no upmixing. PLIIx Music Mode was always my favorite upmixer and was in my opinion a big step up from regular PLII. I’d say the new DSU has at least equaled if not exceeded PLIIx from my preliminary listening tests. Still, a more thorough analysis with a wider variety of music to really understand the differences was in order.
After hours of flipping back and forth through various program material, I my initial assessment altered and I now either preferred regular two-channel or DTS Neo because DTS Neo emphasized the center channel less than the DSU. This was particularly noticeable on high quality two-channel recordings with predominantly acoustical instruments such as the SACD from Rebecca Pigeon on the song “Spanish Harlem”. The older PLIIx upsampler offered the ability to control center width or turn the center off altogether. Unfortunately there is no such feature with the DSU. Coldplay Parachutes sounded better to me either in two-channel or DTS NEO in this instance as well since the DSU seemed to collapse the stereo image by dumping too much into the center channel.
I hope Dolby expands the DSU in the future to better customize sound for more discriminating listeners like myself as I feel that its plane vanilla approach hindered its true potential. Many folks prefer to turn the center channel off when using a multi-channel upmixer. I find it ironic that Dolby doesn’t provide effects to the width channels in favor of “preserving the front stereo image”, yet they engage the Atmos elevation speakers that in fact can and actually do distort the stereo image by limitation of design due to their close proximity to the front speakers.
Dolby Surround Center Spread (recommended to turn on for two-channel sources)
Editorial Note: Dolby Surround Upmixer Center Spread Feature
At the time of evaluating the AVR-X5200W, I was unaware of the adjustable parameter called "Center Spread" buried in the user manual on page 176. As such, I had it set in the default (off) position during all of my two-channel listening tests with the DSU engaged. If you prefer to route the center channel signal to the left/right front channels to expand the front soundstage you will want to turn it "on". Unlike older Denon products that had a hot key on the remote called "para" for easy access to this adjustment, the AVR-X5200W involves going into the OSD via Setup > Audio > Surround Parameters.
Thanks to batpig at AVSForum for pointing this out.
Having the DSU on was far more forgiving for multi-channel music. On recordings like Diana Krall Love Scenes in DTS, overlaying Dolby DSU was a pretty cool sight to witness. I felt with DSU on, more ambience was brought to the already ambience-filled recording. It allowed the front channels to expand their vertical soundstage a bit, but at a slight penalty of clarity. I suspect audio purists would prefer running just regular DTS in this case, but I didn’t find the DSU to be objectionable. The Dolby Atmos modules were in fact expanding the soundstage front and back in this case. However, for high resolution recordings like Mando Diao's Aelita from Pure Audio (96kHz/24bit), I ultimately preferred pure Direct mode. This almost reminds me of the scenario of DSP processing in Yamaha A/V receivers. Depending on program material and how much one would dial down the DSP effect, I would often find the DSP processing pleasing, but with critical music listening I would usually prefer to disable all effects and just enjoy the purity of the recording. My advice is to try it both ways to make the determination for yourself, and evaluate each specific recording you are listening to.
Blu-ray: Dark Knight Rises
With DSU engaged, most of the sound emanating from the Dolby speakers was background music. An occasional bullet ricochet was heard from a Dolby speaker which provided a somewhat elevated sound but not from a precisely defined location. There were subtle differences between DTS Master and engaging DSU. There certainly was nothing that would have me jumping out of my seat or believing we’ve achieved a sonic breakthrough worthy of an upgrade. If you’re upgrading to Dolby Atmos with Atmos Elevation speakers thinking that the DSU will breathe new life to your existing Blu-ray collection, don’t get your hopes up.
Just to get a feel for how the Denon AVR-X5200W sounded for critical two-channel listening, I wired it up to my $50k Status Acoustics 8T reference speakers and ran them full range in Direct mode. I know this is not a typical scenario, but my reference speakers are a difficult 4 ohm load and it’s a good test to see if the Denon could deliver stable power even though I was using it in the default 8 ohm mode. I popped in a two-channel SACD from Patricia Barber called Café Blue. Track #1 “What a Shame” starts out with a powerful standup bass and lyrics. The Denon was able to drive my reference speakers to very satisfactory levels and belt out plenty of bass. Patricia’s vocals sounded clear and overall the experience was quite enjoyable. Track #2 “Morning Grace” gets a bit more complicated with all of the cymbal crashes. I found this to sound a bit mushy compared to my reference gear. The cymbal crescendos just weren’t as lifelike as I recalled on my gear. Let me be clear that this is not a knock on the Denon but a justification to high end separates when listening to very high caliber, power-hungry speakers. The Denon simply couldn’t match the stereo separation or finesses of my 2kwatt Emotiva XPR-1 Monobloc amplifiers. That being said, the AVR-X5200W sounded incredibly good for a $2k multichannel does-everything A/V receiver. Next up, I ran a torture test with Muse 2nd Law, track #2 “Madness”. As I turned up the volume to feed the six 10” sub drivers of my reference speakers with bass, the AVR-X5200W eco power meter went up to 65-70%. I never saw it go nearly this high even when running a nine channel speaker system during my Atmos tests. That being said, the Denon didn’t falter or threaten to shut down. During my entire listening session, the internal fans under the heatsinks didn’t even turn on. This receiver is 4 ohm stable even in the high impedance setting. Listen to me now and believe me later, NEVER switch it to the low setting!
Audioholics Family Room Listening Tests
I repeated my suite of multi-channel tests with the AVR-X5200W and my speaker system setup in our family room. In this setup, I was able to directly compare the Atmos A60 elevation speakers to discrete RBH MC-615 in-ceiling speakers.
The first thing I noticed in this room was that the A60 elevation modules seemed to be a bit more effective and convincing at delivering elevated sound. I believe this has to do with the room being much more reverberant and thus increasing the masking effect that multiple sound sources can produce with more dominant reflections. In addition, the ceiling in this room is untreated whereas my ceiling in our Showcase Theater Room has diffusive elements incorporated by design. I found the sound from the Dolby elevation speakers to be a bit less localizable especially if I kept at least 4-5 feet away from any particular speaker module. But, I was still never full immersed into a three-dimensional soundstage like Dolby claims you could be using their speaker technology.
Denon AVR-X5200W Dolby Atmos Speaker Mix
After a quick reconfiguration in the Denon OSD and level tweak, I then proceeded to switch over to my discrete in-ceiling speakers for the rear Atmos channels. Replaying the Dolby Atmos demo tracks was quite a revelation. The rain sounds in the Amaze demo sounded much more natural and realistic with the discrete ceiling speakers. This time I truly felt enveloped into a three-dimensional sound field. The rain sounded lifelike instead of just a dull unfocused projection like I heard with the Atmos speakers. The sound quality of the Enrique Iglesias music video was greatly improved with the discrete ceiling speakers too. The child shouting “Bailando” projected a real elevated sound as if he was standing on top of the nearby building watching the whole dancing event. The accompanying vocals didn’t sound distracting and instead provided a nice vertical ambient fill. This is Atmos like I remembered in the cinema!
Playing back standard Blu-ray movies like Dark Knight Rises through the DSU slightly expanded the sound field without drawing too much attention to itself. I did find I preferred turning down the in-ceiling speakers about 3dB lower than the five main channels to really allow everything to sound natural and not overdone.
Using high quality in-ceiling speakers proved to be a superior listening experience over Dolby Atmos elevation speakers in my listening tests. I couldn’t imagine anyone NOT preferring discrete ceiling speakers over the reflective Atmos speakers. This is especially true if you have a very high quality five or seven channel speaker system already installed. I believe it’s paramount to add similar quality speakers for the Atmos height channels. Otherwise, you do this technology and your sound system a disservice.
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