Provides: CD/iPod playback and network audio streaming
Compatibility: Any iPod with a dock connector, CD-R and CD-RW, audio formats including AAC, WMA, MP3 and lossless FLAC, and any device with standard 1/8″ headphone jack via a 1/8″ input jack
Price: $485, $620 with optional SC-N7 Speakers
Denon is known for producing exceptional audio gear, like its AH-510R headphones. Apple’s recent introduction of AirPlay has enabled iTunes and iOS device users to stream the audio from their devices to remote speakers with nothing more than a quick click or a tap. Denon’s RCD-N7 receiver, like all of its networked audio products, has the ability to access media over the Internet, from services like Pandora and Napster, and is definitely a budget-friendlier alternative to Denon’s serious A/V receiver products (some of which cost over $7,000!). With the addition of AirPlay, the RCD-N7 becomes even more versatile, but is it worth the price?
The review unit came bundled with Denon’s suggested-but-sold-separately SC-N7 speakers, which sound fantastic but add over $100 to the price. The fit and finish of both the speakers and receiver have been panned by other reviewers, who find the use of plastics unacceptable on gear this expensive, but overall Denon’s plastic is much like the white MacBook’s: solid and well made, but not quite the same as the MacBook Pro’s sleeker aluminum skin.
Clear instructions are provided for connecting the power cable, speaker cables, and external Wi-Fi antenna, which is somewhat incongruous given that the plastic case would not be detrimental to the inclusion of an internal antenna.
Once you turn on the unit, a cheerful greeting and a setup process await you. Here is where things go amiss, as the setup process assumes each step will be completed successfully, and if not, it dumps you at the main screen, leaving setup unfinished. If you type your wireless password in wrong, you will have to access the settings from a rather daunting menu, and choose the option for Network First Connect (even though it is technically the second time you are trying to connect).
Repeated attempts to get the test unit up and running on wireless networks were futile, and it was eventually just easier to bridge a connection from an old AirPort Express over an Ethernet cable. Be forewarned: the setup process requires that you know exactly what kind of wireless security protocols are in use on the network, something that most devices nowadays negotiate automatically. This goes against the Apple “It just works” philosophy that differentiates AirPlay from other music streaming solutions, and makes the inclusion of AirPlay and an iPod dock in the N7 feel a bit like kitschy add-ons.
Once a network connection is established, further setup is required to configure the various accounts that are accessible from the unit, including Pandora, Denon’s vTuner services, Napster, and Rhapsody streaming services. Inputing a username and password is cumbersome with the remote, but Denon has thoughtfully included a numeric keypad that functions like a cell phone for text entry.
The CD drive accepts both regular 12 cm and miniature 8 cm discs, and a full array of inputs including composite, optical, USB, and coax audio are available for integrating other audio sources into the receiver. Denon’s suggested SC-N7 speakers sound excellent, but serious listeners will need to include a powered subwoofer in the setup.
All the built-in streaming sources work flawlessly and are well integrated, with dedicated buttons for accessing various content and simple directional arrow navigation. In addition to the Internet streaming options, the RCD-N7 is also DLNA-certified, providing wireless streaming from other DLNA-certified devices on your network (an alternative to Apple’s AirPlay).
The remote is well laid out and easy to use, though very button intensive, and provides for quick navigation and selection of content. This text entry capability really shines if you use the RCD-N7 as your primary Pandora or Napster listening device, as you can search for songs, create stations, and perform other tasks such as Liking a song with relative ease.
iPod control is available in two modes: Browse mode (which overrides the iPod controls and allows control of the iPod via the Denon remote) or Remote mode (which allows control both with the iPod controls and the Denon remote). Browse mode is clunky when scrolling through long playlists, as it does not offer any search function and does not implement inertial scrolling (faster scrolling the longer you hold down an arrow key). Be sure to switch the controls in the Settings as soon as possible to avoid excessive wait times to play any song, album, or artist that comes after “B”.
Audio playback is smooth, and the RCD-N7 supports audio out when a video is playing on the iDevice—not useful for such a small screen in portrait orientation, but useful if you have music videos.
AirPlay functionality works as expected, with the RCD-N7 showing up as a remote speaker in iTunes, a valid AirPlay destination from an iDevice, and also as a remote speaker in the iOS Remote app for controlling an iTunes library. Although the DLNA standard currently enjoys broader industry support, Apple’s more user-friendly AirPlay technology will likely drive the adoption of whole-house networked audio.
Audio quality was outside the strict bounds of this review, but the RCD-N7 is an impressive performer. With the SC-N7 speakers, the sound reproduction was crisp, accurate, and truly delightful for all kinds of listening. For genuine audiophiles, a powered sub is a necessity, which adds complexity.
The RCD-N7 taken as a whole presents a slight logical challenge with its sticker price of almost $500, a thick manual oddly reminiscent of early 1990′s VCR manuals, and a complicated setup that seems to have been borrowed straight from the Windows 95 era. With its exceptional performance comes equally exceptional setup requirements, which are likely to intimidate the very market that is served by Apple’s easy to use AirPlay and iDevice software.
The people who are likely to complain about the plastic housing are likely the same ones who are undaunted by the task of setting up a full rack of A/V equipment, while users who are happy to accept audio that is a step below THX-certified are unlikely to pay a high price for complicated equipment. The RCD-N7 sits on the brink of a divide between the set-it-and-forget-it crowd and the no-pain-no-gain audiophiles, and the definitive factor in choosing a device will be ease of use when comparing Denon to competing AirPlay enabled solutions.
Denon would be better served making an integrated iPod speaker dock, rather than adding AirPlay to a network-enabled receiver. Apart from existing customers, the lure of AirPlay compatibility in a device that can stream Pandora and internet radio is virtually nil, for one very simple reason: AirPlay makes network streaming irrelevant. If you can get an app (for free) that lets you listen to Pandora, and then shuttle the audio to your speakers via AirPlay, why would you buy a receiver that duplicates the Pandora functionality?
If you need to integrate AirPlay into a home theater system, a $99 AppleTV is a much cheaper way to get audio in to your existing components (or, go with one of Denon’s higher-priced A/V receivers that includes AirPlay). A speaker dock would make use of Denon’s existing strengths in excellent speaker and headphone design, and appeal to the audio-only crowd the N7 is attempting to lure.
As a network-enabled audio receiver for use in moderately high-end home A/V setups, the RCD-N7 is a solid contender. To the average user for whom simplicity trumps bullet point feature lists (the ones who have given Apple such a commanding lead in digital music and smartphones), the RCD-N7 is simply too complex.
Buy the RCD-N7 Network Audio Receiver