Like the beleaguered headmaster who’s been at the school for too long, we see a lot of families pass through our office.
Many names are prefixed with a sigh of, ‘Oh, not another …” - that very same sigh our thankless professors must have breathed while wearily eyeing yet another Bloggs, Smith or Jenkins on the new term’s register.
But there are also those names that elicit a lift in the spirits for the coming term or, in our case, the next few weeks.
As far as its AV receivers are concerned, Denon is a example of the latter for which we're thankful. Not only due to the company’s prestigious lineage, but this current crop of siblings in particular.
Two samples does not make for an entirely comprehensive experiment, but the shared characteristics and talents of these first two siblings lead us to believe our hopes for the AVR-X3400H are fact-based rather than merely hopeful.
After noting that the X3400H costs around a third of its Award-winning relative, the next most immediately obvious difference between the X3400H and the Award-winning model is its fewer speaker connections.
The X6400H can cope up to an 11.2 configuration, including four height channels - on the X3400H this is stripped back to a more mainstream/realistic 7.2.
After the staples of centre-channel, front- and surround pairs, it means the final two channels are assignable either as surround-rear speakers or to use as a pair of height channels.
Denon has stripped back the features to offer a more affordable amp, but has also doubled down on versatility to ensure those features are customisable options, rather than lost.
In terms of your viewing experience, each of the X3400H’s eight HDMI outputs feature HDCP 2.2 compatibility, meaning that they are able to support 4K Ultra HD, High Dynamic Range and even 3D content (if you’re one of the latter's remaining supporters).
For a modern AV amp hoping to be taken seriously, connectivity ought no longer exclusively mean cabling - even so, at this price Denon’s inclusion of wi-fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect and HEOS (for potential multi-room action) on its list of wireless features is to be expected rather than applauded.
Those anxious to use the X3400H as a dual-purpose amp for home cinema and traditional two-channel duties will be pleased to find it's able to decode high-resolution audio files including ALAC, FLAC and WAV at up to 24bit/192kHz, along with compatibility for 2.8/5.6MHz DSD files.
We lift the X3400H from its box, but stop somewhat short of staring in slack-jawed astonishment. Much like other peoples’ babies, AV amps do tend to look much the same: at least Denon is one of the finer-looking families.
Denon’s genes are sturdy and broad-shouldered, with a face blessed by symmetry of its bold features.
The X3400H doesn’t require a flip-down lid to conceal its minimal front-facing controls: a few slim buttons underline a familiar display, and separate the headphone, HDMI, USB and set-up mic inputs below its midriff. It is the kind of aesthetic and build quality that, in this realm, is near-flawless.
The automated set-up is straightforward, in the same pleasingly intuitive vein as other Audyssey routines we have encountered with Denon.
Ensure you have your speakers correctly assigned with the X3400H, as it's a faff to go through it again if you later realise you’ve set your height channels to act as surround back or the other way round - and it's a far simpler mistake to make than merely plugging cables into the wrong terminals as you might on the larger models.
Ready to go, we select a Blu-Ray - of the Coen Brothers’ unparalleled Fargo - and once the film’s iconic titles play out, the Denon’s combination of power and expression helps envelop us in the prelude music’s portent of the bleak narrative to follow.
It’s a tremendous soundstage, almost on the scale of the snowdrift all-but whitewashing our projector screen.
There are gunshots, moments of sonic excess where the X3400H is let off the chain and proudly presents its muscle, punch and whiplash timing - but what is truly impressive about this amp, which so evidently prides itself on those abundant talents, is its remarkable ability to deliver the story and not just the sound effects.
While much of it is wonky slapstick, the true beauty in Fargo’s black comedy is found in those offbeat speech patterns, the flapping panic implied rather than hammered home by the cast.
Without a delicate understanding of dynamics that expression is lost, and it’s the kind of thing we are used to experiencing with heavy-hitting AV receivers such as this.
Not in the X3400H’s case, though. Each quavering lilt is delivered wryly, and with a gloss coating, thanks to a wonderfully rich midrange and dose of bass weight giving voices their natural tone.
We're always unlikely to find a product that beats all rivals in every single respect, but Denon’s focus – for this entire family, in fact – has evidently been on a coherent performance that hits the mark in every aspect and excelling in as many as it can.
As an example, we put the X3400H side-by-side with the Sony STR-DN1080, our 2017 Product of the Year, and run through a number of our favourite test discs.
The Sony is stunningly agile, insightful and, in terms of overall dynamics, reveals marginally more emotion in each performance. But it lacks the power, the drive and the warmly convincing balance offered by the Denon’s low-end that, for many, will render the latter more listenable over prolonged periods.
But the point isn’t that one of them is better than the other, rather that here are two truly exceptional amps in the roughly same price bracket - yet they have immediately recognisable differences in character.
So that’s now three of Denon’s AVR-X amps we’ve seen and, given the results so far, we’re sure we’d only delight in hearing the others. Why can’t all of our students be like this?
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