Performance - Music

I like to keep my stereo listening in a dedicated room. This is mostly due to the (negative) effects of having multiple “idle” speakers in a room during 2-channel listening. Although I don’t have any data to back this up, I’ve done plenty of listening tests. Aside from only two speakers being active, there are minute movements in the drivers of the other eleven speakers as the music plays. The consequence of this is a higher noise floor and a more congested soundstage. 

That said, listening in Pure Direct mode with the Denon AVR-X8500H was more fun than I expected. I actually didn’t feel anything was musically astray from hours upon hours of listening.

Before we get into the impressions, I want to mention a little bit regarding setup. So before performing the Room EQ, I made sure the left and right channels were set up properly – with a perfectly placed phantom center.

There are three stereo modes:

  • Stereo (with room correction)
  • Pure (no room correction)
  • Pure Direct (no room correction)

As far as 2-channel listening goes, Pure Direct is leaps and bounds better than the other modes. Even Pure mode sounds flat and veiled in comparison. Pure Direct shuts down anything not related to sound quality – including the video path and screen. And it makes a huge difference.

Google Assistant and Alexa

I did all my listening with Tidal and Spotify. With the free HEOS app, you could tie in all your music services. Including Tidal and Spotify.

The AVR-X8500H supports Spotify Connect so you’re able to stream directly from the app on your phone or computer.

For Alexa, all you have to do is add HEOS as a skill. For Google Assistant, the trick is to set the “Device Name” to one of the canned names in the HEOS app. Google Assistant actually looks for this name, and not the name set in the Google Home app. This will also be the name that Spotify Connect will see.

Once I’ve set the name to “Theater” volume and playback controls work perfectly with voice. 

  • Hey Google, play the next track.
  • Hey Google, lower the volume on Theater.

I usually end up just controlling playback through my phone anyway. Although voice commands through a Chromecast Audio came in handy at times. 

Currently, Alexa functionality is more extensive in comparison to Google Assistant (changing inputs, playback control, and specifying the music service), but the Google Assistant portion will be getting an update soon.

Stereo Upmixers

There’s something to be said about using stereo upmixers to take you into the music. As a “purist” I wasn’t too interested in listening to my Tidal or Spotify streams with more than two speakers. Then I scrolled through the red “music” button on the Denon remote. Nothing really caught my ears until I entered Dolby Surround mode. Whoa.

The first thing I noticed was how enveloping the music was – in a nonintrusive way. The effect wasn’t artificial-sounding but was instead mesmerizing and addictive. The eleven speakers (wides are off) disappear and you’re able to visualize and feel the scale of the performers and instruments.

The way the algorithm decides how to pan certain acoustic cues and nuances was nothing short of “intelligent.” For example, The Weeknd’s Dark Times. That rhythmic strum of the electric guitar passes from behind you and thins out towards the front as his voice comes in solid from the center. You can’t quite localize it to the center channel – which wasn’t a bad thing. It sounds more like it’s coming from a floating hologram. A visceral experience with tangibility and weight. Even a hardcore audiophile could smile at something like this.

Moving back to the Pure Direct mode and the illusion goes away. Although there is more solidity, coherence, and texture in 2-channel listening – you kind of miss being bathed in the theatrics of the Dolby Surround upmixer. I would highly recommend a listen of your favorite tracks in this mode – even for audiophiles.

External DACs and Amplifiers

As far as the DAC, I’ve found the built-in AKM to be both very resolving and musical. An external DAC improves sound quality, but you’d have to spend a nice chunk of change. In Pure Direct mode, I found 2-channel listening to be enjoyable with no glaring faults.

As I swapped in and out a few DACs, it’s clear the AVR-X8500H is able to handle amplification duties with finesse. The dynamic drive of the AVR-X8500H complemented the B&W CM9s with ease. It also brought in a layer of clarity and depth I don’t recall hearing previously on this system (with the AVR-X7200WA and others). Denon has done a fine job with the output stage of this receiver.

I didn’t find myself itching to use an external stereo amplifier. The AVR-X8500H supplied more than enough power for my room. It’s transparent and provides an ethereal sense of space and air. As long as you’re not trying to drive giant speakers with built-in subwoofers, you should be more than fine. If you are looking for something with a lusher sound – the Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier ($2,995) is fantastic.

Listening Notes

Lossless Tidal streams were played without any hiccups and it sounded superb – way beyond what my expectations were for an AVR. I never felt the sound was analytical or sterile. It had nice sweetness in the treble, a detailed midrange, and a surprising level of tonal contrast. This culminated in a great sense of depth and speed. Bass was punchy and exhibited some nice textural cues. 

Eva Cassidy’s Take Me to the River is one of my favorite toe-tappers. Rapid cymbal taps had the proper shine and vibrancy while snappy drums and guitars never obscure the beautifully textured vocals. Imaging was pristine and the soundstage was layered out naturally.

The rendition of The Scientist by Corinne Bailey Rae was played with buttery smoothness. The leading edges and heft of the piano notes were made apparent while the midrange was presented with control, focus, and delicacy.

Overall I felt the AVR-X8500H struck a difficult balance between resolution and tangibility. I’m a bit of a stereo snob and I was able to listen for hours without fatigue or disinterest. The engagement factor was pleasantly high.