Denon Home Wireless Speakers Review
Michael Darroch auditions Denon's new Home 150, Home 250 and Home 350 wireless loudspeakers…
Denon Home 150 (AUD $529), Denon Home 250 (AUD $849), Denon Home 350 (AUD $1,299)
If you've ever taken so much as a passing glance at the wireless speaker market, then two big contenders spring to mind. Sonos is a name ubiquitous with those sort of products, and Bowers & Wilkins has shaken the top of the market with its highly regarded Formation Duo speakers. For those of us who can't quite justify spending the price of a second-hand car on this sort of thing – but don't want to buy into the cult of Sonos – could Denon have the answer?
It's a name more often associated with quality AV receivers and hi-fi separates than wireless speakers, but the company has also been heavily involved in wireless audio with the HEOS series of speakers since 2014. HEOS functionality has since made its way through the Denon (and Marantz) AVR range with soundbar and subwoofer options also available. Here we look at its new Home Wireless range, comprising three new speakers – the Home 150 ($529), Home 250 ($849) and range-topping Home 350 ($1,299).
For those new to wireless formats, HEOS stands for Home Entertainment Operating System and is the brain of Denon's wireless speaker platform. Working from your smartphone or tablet, it lets you link the main streaming music platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc., then play this content either singularly or as a group to any HEOS speaker connected to your home network. There are many secondary benefits too, such as using HEOS speakers as surrounds for your HEOS soundbar or HEOS enabled AVR. With this degree of customisation, you can enjoy different sources in different rooms, or fill your whole home with sound.
So far, so good – but we aren't breaking much new ground here compared to the competitors. That's where we come to one of the features that sets the Home Wireless range apart, namely the ability to process high-resolution 192kHz/24-bit audio from WAV/FLAC/M4A files, and also up to 5.6MHz DSD streams. Worth noting before you start eagerly queuing up your Tidal Masters playlist; HEOS does not currently support MQA, so those of us in Australia will need to have our hi-res audio stored on a USB or network drive to get the benefit. I applaud Denon for giving us the option to use a higher format at all – it puts this range above some notable competitors which top out at 48kHz/16-bit and don't support DSD in any form. This range also supports Bluetooth and Apple Airplay2 as well as Ethernet and USB, with 3.5mm line inputs completing the picture.
Leaving behind the teardrop-like wedge of the outgoing HEOS speakers, Denon's new Home speakers share a family aesthetic; a smooth, round-edged cuboid with much of the design covered by a smart-looking woven fabric. It's a sleek and simple approach that sits comfortably for a variety of tastes. All have a tactile build quality that speaks to the premium nature of the range.
Each model features a capacitive-touch control panel with controls to play/pause, adjust volume or choose from either three or six (depending on the model) presets, which you can easily set up and save by holding down the preset button while in the desired operation. All are available in white or black options, making them a clean and understated addition to your home space – aside from the blue light on the speaker front, it would be easy to forget it's even there when not in use.
Opening the box, you'll find a well-packed speaker unit, a power cable and a quick start guide. Once out, plugged-in and switched on, simply download the HEOS app from your preferred app store and use it to set up the speaker. It's a reasonably straightforward process that centres around making sure you have your Wi-Fi password handy, and that the coloured light on the front of the speaker is doing what it should according to the setup steps in the app. Once connected, the speaker begins a firmware update process which takes about ten minutes. When completed, your Home speakers appear in a list, and you can select each one individually or click and drag them together to create specific groups, set up matching Home speakers as a left/right stereo pair, or group them all together to create a whole-house environment.
Once grouped, you can control the volume individually or use a universal slider that adjusts all speakers in that group up or down (maintaining the relative volume for each speaker). Playing music to a group or speaker just requires you to select that group or room in the list, go to the Music tab to choose your source and playlist, and off you go. The HEOS app is also where you will be able to make adjustments to your speakers, such as bass and treble adjustment, status light brightness, and speaker name changes.
I tested the HEOS app using both Tidal and Spotify, and the user experience is generally familiar, but there are some differences. One example is that HEOS will use Spotify's own app and require you to select the wireless speaker within Spotify's playback devices to then take over control. Tidal, on the other hand, runs within the HEOS app itself as a separate and simplified version compared to the standalone Tidal app. Ultimately if you're familiar with your streaming service, then HEOS isn't going to change how you operate or listen to your tracks drastically. This means it's straightforward to get comfortable as a new user, but if you are new to Tidal, it's easier to set up your playlists and favourite albums within the app itself, before you get into HEOS. The simplified Tidal view is a little less friendly to navigate.
Being a loudspeaker family, these Denon Home Wireless speakers have much in common. For example, all have a warmish tone and a definite lean towards the low end of the frequency spectrum. This trait is particularly noticeable as you move up to the 350, which we'll touch on shortly. Despite this, the overall balance is pleasing. Contributing to the warm character is what appears to be a slightly rolled off top end which softens overly bright recordings. If you're used to a more forward sound, you might find things a little too polite.
Spatial performance proved quite limited – even the stereo outputs of the larger 250 and 350 models could not create a great sense of depth across either axis. If this is a critical point for you, then it might be worth considering dual Home speakers as a stereo pair. That aside, each was able to reproduce a robust dynamic performance that was energetic and satisfying. It sat well above a traditional wireless speaker, but not at the lofty reach of a quality floorstander as you would expect – for a small package like this though, it's a commendable enough place to be.
Starting with the Home 150, this is the smallest of the trio at 120x187x120mm. Its compact size means it can be placed in almost any room, although it's not waterproof so don't leave it outside or drop it in the bath. Construction quality is impeccable – this 1.7kg speaker feels more solid than you'd expect, giving the feel of a small bookshelf speaker hiding as a wireless model! It's the only speaker in the Home range which isn't stereo; sporting a single 25mm tweeter partnered to an 89mm mid-bass driver, both powered by a single two-channel Class-D amplifier. Denon has been coy about the power output across the range, but bass and clarity are abundant – especially when placed up close to a boundary wall to boost the low end. Compared to its larger siblings, the 150 has an obviously more mid-forward sound, as you'd expect.
This helped to make vocals stand out. Whether it was the raw edge of Nick Cave singing Red Right Hand, or the smooth caress of Ella Fitzgerald wooing through Dream a Little Dream of Me, I found myself continually going back to vocal-led tracks to enjoy. Instrumentally the 150 doesn't fall backward either; listening to Muse's Stockholm Syndrome was a faithful display of the rolling toms and bass kicks and incredible pick-work from Matt Bellamy on the guitar. The Denon also does a good job of keeping crash cymbals under control, preventing fatigue from setting in. There is a limit, however, and if you start asking too much from the volume control, the mid/bass driver begins to struggle – absolutely to be expected in a speaker this size. What's notable is the depth of the frequency response when you aren't trying to defy physics.
For those needing something a little bigger, the Home 250 steps things up across the board. With a larger footprint of 295x217x120mm and weighing in at 3.7kg, the design includes an integrated carry handle. Making the jump from mono to stereo, the Home 250 includes two slightly smaller 19mm tweeters but raises the stakes with a pair of larger 100mm mid-bass woofers, and a back-firing passive 133mm radiator powered by a four-channel Class-D amplifier. This package creates a nice middle point in the range with a balance of bass performance and sheer output while being easier on the hip-pocket. I would also say that given the driver layout, the 250 probably has the most neutral sound of the range.
Dialling up Dare by Gorillaz, you are instantly greeted with a deep and smooth synth bassline, with clear vocals and snare overlaid. The hi-hat is the only part of this track that sounds a little muffled but is easily overlooked in the whole performance. Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden also manages to highlight the strong points of this package, the bass drum stands out against the resonant bass guitar, while the Denon works its magic on the incredible vocals of the late Chris Cornell. It's not all rainbows, however, as some softness crept in here, leaving the cymbals lacking in definition, and letting the accompanying guitar blend into the background. There is certainly sunshine for rock-lovers though, as Nirvana's Lithium from the album Nevermind represents the band in all their glory. Guitar riffs are raw and sharp but never fatiguing, crash cymbals are suitably grunge without being overpowering, and you can't resist a bit of air-guitar work while listening to Kurt Cobain's unwavering vocal “Yeeeaahh”.
Last but most certainly not least is the Home 350 – the flagship speaker is relatively huge in wireless speaker terms, 380x229x180mm. Tipping the scales at a portly 6.7kg, this behemoth shares the same pair 19mm tweeters as the 250 but has smaller 50mm mid-bass drivers. Twin 165mm subwoofers join the party, all running from six channels of Class-D amplification.
Despite being weighted to bass performance, the 350 shares the same strengths as the other Home speakers – smooth, clear vocals and a generally balanced frequency reproduction, but quite positively on steroids. The subwoofer size and cabinet design mean it's impossible to ignore the low-frequency performance of this speaker. In fact, it has more low-end kick than many full-size designs can pull off, even in a 2.1 configuration. Queueing up Talk by Khalid, the synth notes are clear and defined, vocal reproduction flawless and the bass has a solid punch which seems bottomless. Drive-up the volume and you have to be brave to find the limits of this package, and it's a level above what my neighbours would be happy for me to sustain.
A Perfect Circle's The Nooseis another excellent example of the balance and warmth in this speaker – the bass drum kicks in the opening sequence are managed tightly. When the rest of the drum-kit is called to action along with the guitars, it is restrained nicely so that even at high volume levels it does not sound fatiguing or too aggressive as can be the case on a lesser transducer. The Home 350 is not a one-trick pony by any stretch, and Dolly Parton sounded like she was in the room as she pleads with her love-rival in Jolene – another tick in the vocal column for the Home. For those looking for a more instrumental experience, it's no slouch when it comes to the classics – Elissa Lee Koljonen's rendition of Nocturne No. 20 in C-Sharp Minor allows the 350 to show off the mid-bass and tweeters with a haunting violin performance that's both razor-sharp and balanced against the melodic piano accompaniment. Ultimately the Home 350 gives full-size speakers a run for their money, in a package that's a fraction of the size, and at a much lower price point.
Whichever model you choose, the new Denon Home Wireless range proves to be a musical powerhouse, with enough grunt and quality in even the smallest model to stand out in the wireless market. Also, the HEOS system almost seamlessly integrates whole-home audio at a price that isn't going to break the bank.
For more information, visit Denon.
With a 20 year passion for home cinema ensuring he will never be able to afford retirement, Michael’s days involve endless dad-jokes and enjoying the short time before his son is old enough to demand the home theatre becomes a temple to Frozen II.