Denon’s first ‘Smart Life’ 2.1 home cinema systems have garnered plenty of praise and sales since their launch in late 2005, so it’s no surprise to find Denon launching revamped and powered-up versions for 2008.
The new S302 has the better spec of Denon's two new Smart Life systems, with the S102 sticking to built-in Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi. In fact, it’s quite possibly the most highly-specced 2.1 home cinema package ever.
What a lot it’s got
Denon certainly hasn’t left anything to chance in the features department. For starters, thanks to Dolby Virtual Speaker processing, it can play your DVD soundtracks in surround sound, despite providing only two front speakers and a subwoofer.
What makes the S302 special, though, are its multimedia talents. Critical to these is an Ethernet LAN interface allowing it to integrate into computer networks, plus support for all wireless security standards.
The S302 is a fully DLNA-certified network client for streaming audio, meaning it will play music from PCs, Macs and network storage devices whether it’s encoded in WMA, WMA Lossless, MP3, AAC, FLAC or WAV.
It can also play iTunes files using optional TwonkyVision or Eye Connect software, and can access internet radio via its Ethernet port. Yet more multimedia friendliness comes from a built-in USB port and optional iPod integration via Denon’s ASD-1R docking station or AK-P100 cable.
Sockets are plentiful, too. There’s an HDMI output, for instance, as well as three analogue audio inputs and two digital audio inputs, allowing loads of other external sources to enjoy the system’s audio capabilities.
Although the S302 doesn’t carry a Blu-ray or HD-DVD deck, it can upscale your current DVD collection to 1080p. In fact, it has the same upscaling engine as Denon’s impressive £650 DVD-2930 standalone DVD player.
If you’re worried, by the way, that all these features must make the S-302 seriously hard to handle, fear not: its inspired operating system is entirely ‘monkey proof’, with a remote control that’s a stylish masterclass in how to keep things simple no matter how many features have to be handled.
Although ostensibly a home cinema device, the S-302 also has hi-fi on the brain. It’s rammed with stacks of music-friendly features, including Denon’s own AL24 Processing for improved audio reproduction and discrete circuit design throughout to minimise noise and interference.
All the above cleverness is housed inside a cool, modern main unit, two slim, compact and tastefully rounded main speakers and a subwoofer that’s considerably smaller than that of this system’s S-301 predecessor.
So how does it perform? The S-302’s audio ability is truly outstanding. It can pick out every individual element of virtually any style of music, a talent you simply don’t expect to find in an all-in-one home cinema system.
Just occasionally there’s a thuddy drum beat and a minor bit of distortion during a particularly swollen mid-range tone. But for the vast majority of the time, no matter what your musical tastes, this system is good to go.
Predictably, it’s a terrific home cinema performer too. The speakers handle the pyrotechnics of a good action scene with enthusiasm, dynamism and clarity, and deliver a really wide, involving soundstage.
Review continues after the break...
Best-in-class picture quality
The picture quality using the deck’s 1080p upscaling, meanwhile, is a cut above that seen with any other 2.1 system we can think of. Your old DVDs gleam with a whole new level of sharpness and detail, with a tiny bit more dot-crawl noise being the only price to pay for the extra clarity. Colours are rich and natural too, and the deck’s contrast range first class.
With no element of its performance remotely in doubt, the only quibble we might raise with the S-302 is its price – £1,250 does seem a lot to pay for a system which, by its very 2.1 nature, is a home cinema compromise and carries neither video recording nor ‘true’ HD video playback.
Still, it certainly doesn't cut corners on the hi-fi front. And even as a home cinema system it’s about as uncompromising as a compromise system is ever likely to get.