Denon AVR-S960H AV receiver review: Heavy on features, light on innovation

Denon is probably the first name that comes to your mind when you think about it AV receivers, and with good reason. The brand was pumped up excellent models with great sound quality for years. Its competitors are slowing down the receiver’s release schedules – Sony hasn’t created a new model since 2017 and Onkyo will not have a sequel its 2019 products until mid-2021, but not Denon. The AVR-S960H is a recent addition that offers updated features, including HDMI 2.1 connectivity with eARC is 8 THOUSAND video compatibility, while maintaining the performance Denon is known for.

Like it

  • Sound balanced with music and movies
  • Updated feature set and connections

I do not like

  • The design is getting quite long in the tooth.
  • Yamaha RX-V6A offers more for less.
  • No Chromecast

While Yamaha has apparently returned to the drawing board for its futuristic RX-V6A, the updates of the Denon AVR-S960 are more incremental. Comparing the two receivers head to head, the Denon sounded smoother and yet also lacked the dynamic weight. I found myself picking up the Yamaha remote more often than the Denon, and it was as much for the sleek new design as it was for the sound quality. Overall, the Yamaha is simply more fun and that, plus its lower price point, makes it a better choice overall.

With their new releases, Denon and Yamaha have proven to be dedicated to the category, and both products I’ve tried have been very strong. If you don’t care for Yamaha’s whimsical, forward sound, the Denon AVR-S960H is a solid alternative.

What’s in the big black box?

The Denon AVR-S960H looks pretty much the same as every other receiver: black color scheme, LED display, selector / volume knobs, and a handful of shortcut buttons for the most used inputs. Okay, but it pales in comparison to the sleek futurism of the Yamaha RX-V6A.

denon-avr-960h-2

Ty Pendlebury / CNET

The Denon is a Dolby Atmos receiver whose main update is the HDMI 2.1 specification that is 8K ready. As traditional 8K TVs are still out of production for a few years, the receiver also adds a lot of things that are now actually useful. The first is eARC, which is the ability to transmit high quality audio streams (Atmos in particular) from the TV to the receiver. Other noteworthy HDMI 2.1 features are game-related variable refresh rate (to reduce frame tearing) and low-latency Auto mode, both of which are useful for gamers who want to get the most out of the game. PS5 and Xbox Series X.

The receiver has six HDMI inputs (including one with 8K capability) and two outputs (one with eARC). The Denon is capable of decoding Dolby Atmos and DTS: X in addition to upscaling technologies such as Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization Technology e DTS Virtual: X. On the video side it also supports Dolby Vision and HDR Plus video codec.

denon-avr-960h-5

Ty Pendlebury / CNET

Seven amplification channels are available. The official rating is 90 watts per channel (stereo, 20Hz-20KHz), which makes it slightly less powerful than the Yamaha RX-V6A (100 watts per channel) even though the difference is indistinguishable in real terms. By doubling the power you’ll only get 3db more volume, which is barely noticeable. The receiver offers the company’s HEOS multiroom system (but no Chromecast integrated) and a 32-bit AKM DAC. There is also AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and Bluetooth streaming and the receiver can be controlled by voice with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Josh.ai and Apple Siri.

The remote is more or less identical to the one Marantz and Denon have been using for years. It’s a cheerful little clicker with easy-to-read buttons and handy shortcuts to all of your inputs at the top.

How does it sound?

Denon and his stablemate Marantz have a “house sound” when it comes to receivers, which tends to be more relaxed than the Yamahas and World Pioneers. While this usually means they perform better with music, I found that the Yamaha RX-V6A was more readily able to get the heart rate accelerated without tipping over hard. By comparison, the Denon offered a state of the art approach to whatever I was listening to – it didn’t gloss over some details or glorify others. It just introduced me to my music or movie, which would make it a great match for brighter speakers.

I started with the relatively laid-back He Lays In the Reins by Iron and Wine and Calexico. The Denon offered a pleasantly balanced sound, but with the Yamaha I was able to pick up more hidden details in the song such as the percussive noises of the tongue during the bridge. With the more challenging You Got Yr Cherry Bomb more challenging and tambourine-centric, the Yamaha again sounded fuller than the Denon, but the Denon arranged the parts in a more logical order, braking the tambourine thrash and attenuating by tapping the fingers of the feet.

It was with movies that Denon’s ability to set a scene really came to the fore. Watching Avatar, he presented the jungles of Pandora with plenty of spaciousness – every bug and breath of wind brought the dense atmosphere to life. The footsteps of the monstrous fauna were more heard than heard, and the bark of Jake’s gun boomed in the listening space. The Yamaha was not that keen on detail, favoring a heavier mix of bass but it was just as (pardon the pun) impact. It’s harder to separate these two models just in the movies, as they both did a great job.

Should you buy it?

Yamaha has opted for something new, leaving Denon as a reliable option. Very little has changed from previous years, but as they say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The Denon delivers bold home theater sound, subtle and big musicality, great receiver energy.

In the end, however, that’s not enough. The Yamaha is not only cheaper than the Denon, but it offers better specs – more power and more HDMI inputs – and has a more pleasing sound as a whole. If you don’t have the HEOS multiroom or have some other reason to buy Denon, the Yamaha is a better bet for a modern 8K receiver.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *