These days anyone can cast music like a graduate of Hogwarts. With wireless and multiroom hi-fi du jour, a simple swipe can throw an entire discography to multiple rooms. It’s enough to make spinning a humble CD seem positively prehistoric.
But while a seductively compact, convenient and expandable multiroom hi-fi setup has obvious appeal, until now it’s not been clear just what a system can offer patrons of multichannel home cinema. HEOS by Denon seeks to change that. Using it, you quickly get the sense that there’s a universe of interweaved functionality up for grabs.
Of course HEOS can function as a simple mobile-to-speaker wireless hookup too, but it can also be something infinitely more complex that embraces all manner of home entertainment. Naturally this piques our interest.
The HEOS system has launched with three active speakers, the £250 HEOS 3, £350 HEOS 5 and £500 HEOS 7, along with the £300 HEOS Link pre-amp and £400 HEOS stereo amplifier. Of the former, the HEOS 3 is the entry-level carrot. Like its siblings, it’s a well-made piece of kit with a slightly wacky design. Unlike the others, it can be aligned either horizontally or vertically. The HEOS 5 is a relatively small, but extremely well-balanced mid-range model, while the 48cm-wide HEOS 7 is a thumpingly potent tabletop speaker distinguished by silver trim and a casual disregard for the laws of physics.
Of the two system boxes, the Link pre-amp is key to integrating the HEOS ecosystem with your existing AV kit. The accompanying HEOS stereo amplifier needs only be paired with conventional (passive) speakers of your choice and source components. While it can be run independently, perhaps in a games room or den, its birthing in the HEOS gene pool means that you can route whatever is playing elsewhere to the amp as well.
The entire system is driven by the HEOS app (currently available for iOS and Android). This is used to connect hardware to your network – simply link the device to your smartphone by 3.5mm cable (supplied) and follow the Add Device prompts – as well as casting music to whatever speakers/rooms you fancy. It's a well-designed piece of software, and getting used to it won't take you long.
Sharing content between devices is straightforward. Whether you have music on your smartphone, networked on a DLNA NAS or lurking on a laptop, the app will discover it all. Every HEOS device also has a USB input, which can be used to play content locally from a thumbdrive or across the network, and streaming services currently supported by the HEOS ecosystem include Spotify, Pandora and Tunein radio.
Denon isn’t actually publishing any technical specifications for all its HEOS hardware, much like rival Sonos, so like-with-like comparisons are tricky. However, I certainly never felt for lack of volume. Indeed, the HEOS 7 wears such heavy boots, the temptation is to see just how much of a kicking it can deliver. Suitable for larger rooms, it’s capable of prodigious bass. But this deep end is also tempered by a really rich mid-range.
While I can’t vouch for its performance with the Best of Bach (because, well, I don’t want to), it sounds outrageously good with ballsy soundtrack albums like A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Love-Hate, by satin-looned rockers Angel, may be outrageously overblown but the big HEOS is up to the job. The somewhat more sedate Blondie classic Rip Her To Shreds sounds equally satisfying, the HEOS evangelising Debbie Harry's silky mid-range and Jimmy Destri's beatnik keyboards.
The Iron Maiden OST to rocky-documentary Flight 666 features a similar selection of rock anthems. Pretty soon, I was streaming Can I Play With Madness into HEOS zone one (aka my kitchen), Run to the Hills in zone two (the living room), and Fear of the Dark into zone three (my theatre). The neighbours must have thought I was holding an Eddie fan convention. The system can officially support 32 HEOS-equipped rooms, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if it managed more. Thankfully, the synchronicity between units is excellent, so if you want to shunt the same source to all connected zones, for a real headbangin’ party, there’s no timing echo. You can, incidentally, custom name these zones to suit your own domicile.
Note that the system doesn't support high-res files – try and stream them and you'll get an unsupported playback error. But it proved happy with MP3, AAC, ALAC and 16-bit FLAC from my library.
Intriguingly, the tiny, defiantly monophonic HEOS 3 can be partnered with a second 3 to form a stereo pair. Of course, to achieve this will set you back more than £500, which isn't much of an incentive. Could you use a pair of HEOS 3s flanking a flatscreen TV? The setup certainly looks cool, but in practice it transpires to be a non-starter because there is simply too much lag. Because the audio is buffered by the HEOS speaker, the output is significantly out of sync with the video. Recognising this, Denon is now prepping a HEOS-enabled soundbar (with wireless subwoofer) designed to operate without lag.
Denon has teased us that it is also working on a multichannel whole-home audio amp that’s HEOS-enabled. This will presumably serve up distributed audio to in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, making them HEOS audio zones in the process. Such kit should appeal to the custom install industry.
What we don’t yet have word on is a HEOS-enabled AV receiver – although that will almost certainly come. In the meantime, however, you can integrate an existing AVR using the HEOS Link pre-amp. If you have a post-2010 networked Denon or Marantz AVR you can even use the Link to control the receiver over IP for power, input selection and volume control. There’s also a 12V trigger, for compatible component integration, and an IR control option for non-networked AVRs and stereo amps.
Just like the speakers, the Link features dual-band Wi-Fi, supported by Ethernet. Connectivity includes USB (the port can also function as a charger for USB devices); stereo phono input and output; coaxial and optical digital outputs; and one digital audio input. There’s also a subwoofer output for connection to a powered bassmaker. With an AV source connected to the Link, you can play that source in other HEOS rooms when they are grouped. This is pretty cool if you want to have your favourite TV channel relayed to the office or kitchen – there’s nothing like listening to the zombie-munching antics of The Walking Dead when you want to pop to the kitchen to get a quick bite.
With easy-to-accommodate speakers, versatile Link and Amp units to expand the HEOS ecosystem into your AV listening room or a standalone two-channel system, not to mention the promise of more interoperability to come, HEOS proves to be an exciting new product line for Denon. Like its well-known competitor Sonos, it thinks of multiroom audio as more than just a collection of one-box speakers dotted around the house, and I rate it as a good alternative.
Installation simplicity and ease-of-use are high, and following the latest round of DSP tuning tweaks delivered via firmware, performance is stonking. I’ve come to love the grunty audacity of the HEOS 7 and the mellow power of the HEOS 5. I'll be keeping a very close eye on where Denon takes its new audio range next.
HEOS by Denon
Price: From £250 approx
Highs: Easy to install and expand; exciting audio performance from the HEOS 7; useful AV interoperability via the HEOS Link; effective app
Lows: Not high-res audio compatible; HEOS 3 is pretty average
Drivers: 2 x tweeters; 2 x midbass drivers; 1 subwoofer; 2 x passive radiators for additional bass augmentation
Power: 5 x Class D amps
Dimensions: 203(h) x 479(w) x 164(d)mm
Drivers: 2 x tweeters; 2 x midbass drivers; 1 x passive radiator
Power: 4 x Class D amps
Dimensions: 209(h) x 294(w) x 166(d)mm
Drivers: 2 x full-range drivers
Power: 2 x Class D amps
Dimensions: 130(h) x 272(w) x 165(d)mm (horizontal alignment)
HEOS Speaker Features:
iOS and Android app controller; Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and Tunein support; MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV and FLAC file playback (32kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz); bass/treble controls; dual-band Wi-Fi; Ethernet; USB; 3.5mm line-in; headphone output on HEOS 7
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