Denon may be best known for top-value entry-level hi-fi components, and of course its massive – and massively powerful – AV receivers and amps, but the company does ‘big hi-fi’ too, especially back home in Japan, where it’s sold high spec CD players, DACs and amps we hardly ever see here in export markets. And its latest arrival in this arena is the PMA-1700NE, a hefty integrated amp with most of the bases covered, from a high-quality moving magnet/moving magnet phono stage for a record player to USB audio input to receive music from a computer, plus the small matter of a 140W per channel output into a 4ohm load, which should be more than enough to drive most speakers. Or indeed two pairs of most speakers, as there are separate, switchable outputs for two pairs.
All that might suggest that, behind the curvaceous top-quality casework – the fascia and even the controls are aluminium, with no corners cut with cheaper plastics – this is something of an ‘old school’ Japanese amplifier. And so it is: it’s built in Denon’s in-house production facilities, and packs plenty of in-house design and technology, from the push-pull layout of the power amp stages, which are designed to keep speakers under strict control while still driving hard, to the dual-mono internal layout, with parallel signal paths to optimise stereo imaging.
It also features the company’s proprietary Advanced AL32 Processing Plus digital technology, which was viewed with some cynicism when it first broke cover back in the 1990s, being designed to improve digital signals by adding back in information lost in the CD recording process. Yes, we all wondered how it work out what had gone AWOL and how it recreated the lost data, but as the ‘Advanced’ and ‘Plus’ bits suggest, the technology has been not just proved to work over the past three decades, but also enhanced and improved along the way: whereas the original version only targeted CD-quality signals, the current one uses advanced digital signal processing to work even on ultra-high-resolution data, all the way up to studio-quality 384khz/32bit – which carries much more information about the sound recorded. And what does AL32 Processing claim to do? Well, Denon says it’s designed ‘to reproduce the low-level signals with optimum clarity that will bring out all the delicate nuances of the music with optimum clarity and natural fidelity.’
The USB input here can also handle DSD files at 11.2MHz – that’s four times the data even of Super Audio CDs – and is isolated to keep any computer noise from getting into the amp, while a neat convenience feature is autosensing, which will switch the amp on when it receives a digital signal, handy for send your TV sound through your system, for example. There’s also a direct power amp input to allow the amp to be combined with an AV receiver, a bypass function for the smooth-acting tone controls, and for ultimate purity when playing analogue sources such as a turntable, the entire digital section can be shut down when not required.
The PMA-1700NE may exist in that difficult frontier zone where mass-market brands give way to the high-end audio companies, but it’s territory Denon occupies with ease thanks to this amplifier’s mix of convenience features and an entirely compelling sound. With its 70W per channel output into 8 ohms, doubling into a 4ohm load, it has more than enough power to drive even demanding speakers, not to mention gripping and controlling even extremely high-quality speaker designs to excellent effect. It’s hard to ascribe a sound to the Denon: it really doesn’t have a sonic signature, but instead delivers music with no shortage of scale and grunt allied to fine detailing and a wide-open, focused stereo image, making everything from favourite vinyl LPs through to hi-res DSD downloads of esoteric jazz and impeccably-recorded classical works both attention-grabbing and massively easy to enjoy. Yes, the PMA-1700NE will drive hard without any signs of compression, thanks to a generous set of output devices, a substantial power supply system and big heatsinks to keep everything in order even when you ask it to show what it can do, but with everything from live rock to full-scale symphonic recordings, the sound has powerful dynamics and unflappable clarity. It’s one of those ‘just gets louder’ amplifiers, and if you want a relatively compact design with both flexibility and a sound combining plenty of guts with excellent refinement, you won’t go far wrong here.
With three line inputs, that excellent phono stage and the ability to interface with computers, TVs and even AV receivers the Denon is a deceptively simple-looking amplifier with everything you could need to sit at the heart of even a complex hi-fi/AV system, Partner it with your source components of choice and a pair of fine floorstanding speakers, and prepare to enjoy your entire media collection.
Denon may not be the first name you think of for an amplifier at this price level, but the PMA-1700NE is both a fine performer and a highly flexible design, despite what looks like a simple, minimalist fascia. It’s also beautifully built and finished, whether in silver or black.
Kate Bush The Big Sky (Meteorological mix)
From the deluxe edition re-release of Hounds of Love, this big, thundering take is a real challenge for any system, simply because there’s so much going on, and a rhythm section seemingly intent on dominating matters. The control and openness of the Denon keeps it all on an even – if slightly bonkers – keel.
David Douglas The Swan
If you tend to run shrieking from the idea of classical crossover, you should still give Deutsche Grammophon’s Summer Tales compilation a go, simply because the musicianship is impressive, as on this take on the Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. The Denon bangs out the basslines while keeping all the layers in order – it’s nothing to get cross over.
Face The West Would the Minister Not Dance?
Opening with scratchy fiddle before slamming into a full-blown ceilidh beat augmented with pulsing bass and slashing guitars, this is a brilliant good-time track from the Isle of Lewis-based electro-celtic outfit. Pour yourself a dram of the hard stuff, splash in drop of water, and let the Denon carry you away.
From its styling to its sound, this amplifier exudes class. The controls are smooth and precise, it will handle almost any source you choose to throw at it, and it has a feel or real quality. From vinyl fans to computer audio devotees, this amplifier has something for everyone