Last year we awarded Denon’s S-101 home theater system a Playlist Plays of the Year award for “Best iPod/stereo integration” thanks to its ability to connect to your iPod’s dock-connector port, grabbing audio from the iPod and allowing you to navigate your player’s music contents via iPod-like menus on your TV screen. What we didn’t address was how the system performs overall.
iPod connectivity aside, the S-101 is a “home theater in a box” (HTIB), which means it includes all the pieces you need to set up your own home theater system (except for a TV). The S-101’s main unit, approximately 14.75″ wide by 10″ deep by 3.5″ high, features a progressive-scan DVD player with with component video output and support for DVD, DVD-R/W, Video CD, Audio CD, CD-R/W (JPEG, MP3, and WMA files), and Photo CD discs; a Dolby Digital/dts decoder; an AM/FM radio; an iPod dock-connector input; and multiple inputs for other audio devices. The compact unit is quite attractive, with a brushed-metal, champagne finish, and its front controls are elegant and easy to use — the touch-sensitive buttons are an especially nice detail. DVD performance is good for a HTIB in this price range, although, as with most HTIB systems, you’ll get better AV performance with a quality dedicated player. One complaint several testers had: The S-101 is very slow to load and unload discs.
To take advantage of the S-101’s iPod integration, you use the included cable to connect your iPod’s dock-connector port to the proprietary iPod port on the front of the S-101. (I would have preferred this port to be located on the back of the S-101; having it on the front is inconvenient, as it makes you unplug the cable itself when not using the iPod — unless you don’t mind having a four-foot, white cable dangling off the front of your home theater system. Even better would have been a dedicated iPod dock cradle.) Your iPod is charged while connected to the S-101; however, in an odd design decision, only when the S-101 is actually powered on.
When your iPod is connected and you switch to Aux/iPod input, the Denon logo appears on your iPod’s screen, and a display appears on your TV that looks — roughly — like your iPod’s own Music screen: menu items for Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, and Composers; and indicators for time, track number, total tracks, shuffle, and repeat. (The latter two modes are available via buttons on the back of the remote, described below.) You also see a graphic that indicates which buttons on the S-101’s remote are used to navigate the menus. The onscreen menus look and function much like the iPod’s own menus of the same names. However, a significant limitation of the S-101’s menus is that there’s no navigation acceleration; for example, if your iPod contains 5,000 songs, scrolling through the Songs list isn’t feasible; I found that the S-101 is better suited for choosing and playing playlists and genres.
If you’ve got a photo- or video-capable iPod, you can also use the S-101 to view photos and video on your TV. However, doing so is a bit klunky: Instead of using the onscreen menus to navigate to Photos or Video, you press the Return button on the S-101’s remote, which switches your iPod to “browse” mode. (The Denon logo disappears from the iPod’s screen and you seen the standard iPod menus.) You then use your iPod’s own menus to browse to, and play, photos and videos, just as you would if your iPod was connected directly to your TV using Apple’s AV cable or dock or a third-party AV dock.
In terms of output, unlike most HTIB systems, the S-101 doesn’t include surround or center channel speakers; you get only left and right front speakers and a subwoofer. The sub, 19″ deep by 9.25″ wide by 14″ high and finished in an attractive platinum gray, contains an 8″ driver along with the S-101’s amplification: 50 watts per channel for the left and right speakers and 100 Watts for the sub itself. The left and right speakers are 13.25″ high by 5.25″ wide by 2.75″ deep, feature 4-inch mid-bass drivers and .75-inch tweeters, and can be either mounted on a wall or positioned on the included picture-frame stands (which increase the depth of the speakers to 7.5″). A thick system cable connects the main unit to the subwoofer, and you connect the left and right speakers directly to the sub. (Fortunately, unlike many HTIB speaker cables, you can swap out the left/right speaker cables for longer versions. However, the process is a bit tricky, as you have to disassemble the proprietary connectors at the ends of the cables.)
The S-101’s speakers are decent for two-channel music listening; however, the sound produced by the S-101 is fairly midrange-heavy and lacks treble detail. Even with the treble boosted using the system’s digital tone controls, I found myself wanting more sparkle at the top end. Bass response, on the other hand, is quite good and can be widely adjusted to fit various listening rooms. Overall, although you could easily put together a better sounding two-channel audio system for $999, or even $500, considering all the features included in the S-101, the S-101’s audio quality could be a lot worse. (Trust me on this one; I’ve heard some horrible-sounding HTIB systems.)
I was less impressed by the system’s home theater sound. Don’t get me wrong — bass response and dynamic range are good, and the system adds lots of “oomph” to action scenes. However, since center channel and rear speakers aren’t included, the S-101 uses various “surround” technologies to approximate a 5-channel system. As with most such systems I’ve heard, although some effects sound fairly realistic, a two-channel system is no match for a true home theater system with dedicated surround and center-channel speakers. The S-101’s movie-watching weaknesses are especially apparent when it comes to dialog. Without a dedicated center-channel speaker, those testing the system often found themselves turning the volume up in order to hear people speaking — and then later rushing to turn down the volume during loud action sequences.
The S-101’s remote is nicely designed and one of the better HTIB remotes I’ve seen. Buttons for the most commonly-used actions — power, volume, navigation, source selection, and so on — are located on the front and are easy to find and use. However, if you flip the remote over, a door on the back reveals nearly 40 other buttons — the ones you rarely use that clutter most HTIB remotes. And I liked the fact that when you press a button on the remote that corresponds to a button on the front of the S-101 itself (e.g., Play/Pause, forward, or back), the button on the main unit briefly glows orange. The remote is also a “universal” model that can be used to control many TVs, cable boxes, and satellite receivers.
The AM/FM radio, likely to be the least-used feature given the S-101’s target market, provides decent reception with the included antennas, although attaching a good external antenna improves FM reception significantly.
One other nice feature is that the S-101’s headphone jack, a 1/8″ minijack version, features Dolby Headphone, a processor that can make movies, and even some music, seem more realistic through headphones by simulating surround effects. (You can disable this processor if desired.)
The S-101 is a good system for a particular type of customer: Someone who’s looking to buy a complete home theater system, doesn’t want the clutter of a standard 5-speaker-plus-subwoofer setup, and would appreciate iPod integration. The system is simple to set up and start watching movies and listening to CDs, and the iPod connectivity, although imperfect, is more convenient than most aftermarket dock add-ons. But you do pay for the privilege, as you can likely get a better sounding/performing HTIB system for the same price if you’re willing to forego built-in iPod integration.
(Note that Denon’s $1599 S-301 adds SACD/DVD-A compatibility, more input options — including a USB port for connecting other types of MP3 players — a more powerful speaker and subwoofer setup, and an an HDMI output for upconversion to HD video.)–Dan Frakes