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Equipment Review No. 2   July-August 2001

Kenwood VR-510 Surround Receiver
SRP $600

Kenwood USA Corporation
2201 E. Dominguez St.
Long Beach, CA 90801
310-639-9000 (voice)
800-536-9663 (toll free)
310-604-4487 (fax)
http://www.kenwoodusa.com/

Description and Specifications: THX Select, Dolby Digital (DD), Digital Theater Systems (DTS), Dolby 3 Stereo, Dolby Pro Logic II (DPL II), SRS Circle Surround (CS), DSP modes (arena, jazz club,  theater, stadium, disco), midnight mode, bass/treble controls, input level adjustment for analog sources to prevent clipping, 96kHz DVD playback, 6 channel input, preamplifier outputs, 2nd Zone outputs, IR/RF remote control, A/B speakers, headphone jack, record selector, component/S/composite video switching, phono section, 4 digital inputs (2 optical, 2 coaxial), 1 optical digital out. More info by clicking AVR-510 specs at site.

Equipment Used: NAD T550 DVD player, B&W DM603s2 fronts, B&W CC6 center, NHT SuperZero surrounds, B&W ASW1000 subwoofer, NAD T751 receiver, Monster cables.
  
Setup/ Operation:

I. Manual. The manual is long and fairly detailed. Every function that I wanted to use is mentioned somewhere. The early pages that indicate how equipment should be connected to the receiver are great. I'm sure that most people have more trouble connecting components than anything else. To get the most out of this unit you really have to go through page by page until you've read everything. Otherwise, you may not easily find something important that you'll need to know in order to operate a certain feature later.

II. Speaker Connections. Main and center speaker connections accepted single banana plugs or bare wire, while the surround speakers and 'B' speakers used spring clips. While I was plugging in the main speakers, I noticed a little play with the jack itself. In fact, the back panel would bend in and out. It took its normal shape after the connections were secure, but I would suggest being careful about pushing too hard on the back panel. The unit recommends speakers with an 8-ohm rating or higher.

III. Other Connections. I ran a coaxial digital cable from the DVD player to the DVD digital input. Problem: I wasn't able to get any signal whatsoever. I tried toggling every control I could think of but nothing helped. I tried an optical cable to the same input and got sound. For the reviewing I connected the coaxial cable to the Video 2 jack instead and it worked perfectly. I could only guess that this sample had a defective DVD digital coaxial input. I connected the supplied indoor FM antenna and the antenna needed to use the RF remote capability.

IV. Video Connections. At one point I routed composite video through the unit and used the unit as a video switcher. This unit offers dual component video switching. The only reason I could think that you would use this is to simplify the run to a TV with one component connection rather than two. Every HD-ready television I've seen already offers two component inputs. If you have two devices with component outputs, they are probably a DVD player and an HD decoder. I would be concerned about a loss in video quality when running a progressive video signal (from DVD) and especially an HD 1080i output through a receiver of any type. I did not have an easy way to test this capability, but it may be important if you must use the unit for component video switching. There were no ratings in the manual for video bandwidth.

V. Surround and speaker setup. After having set up a previous Kenwood receiver with a similar remote I figured adjustment would be a snap. For the most part I didn't have any trouble once I realized that the different settings were all changing in the front panel. As far as I could tell there was no on-screen display so you will need to be able to see the front of the unit to set up the unit. There is some remote feedback but otherwise it is necessary to view the front of the receiver. I set the front speakers to large and adjusted the levels and distances of all the speakers. The distances are displayed in both meters and feet for those of us who just quite haven't mastered the metric system. Problem: Even though the subwoofer light was on there was no sound from the subwoofer in stereo mode with the front speakers set to large. In the surround modes it functioned normally. There is no indication of which surround mode is in operation on the display other than a few very small lights. They are DPL, CS, DSP, stereo. Problem: The level adjustments are not independent for the different surround modes. This is a big drawback, as it doesn't allow for fine-tuning of different material. Also, levels are different in the varying DSP modes, especially the Circle Surround mode. Once you change the level in one mode it is affected in all the rest. The unit displays the speakers that are present in the various modes and surround mix (with the exception of the subwoofer problem noted earlier). This is a useful feature.

VI. Direct Access. I didn't like the fact that I did not have direct access to source or surround modes either by remote control or on the face of the receiver. I complained about this problem in the previous Kenwood 4090 review. When you want to listen to a particular music source, you are required to hit the "music" button, and when you want to hear a movie source, you must hit "movie." There are about 10 different surround modes so you have to push the "listen mode" button as it cycles through all of them one by one. It would have been nice to have the option to delete the ones I didn't use, or just be able to get there directly. If you are only using one of the DSP modes and you're watching DVDs, then it isn't a problem because the unit will auto detect a DTS or DD data stream and switch automatically. However, if you want to listen to different modes, then you will be forced to cycle through each one. There are 51 buttons on the remote and generally I used about 13 of them.

VII. The Remote. The remote is identical to the remote used in the previous Kenwood 4090 review so all my previous comments apply. When you want to listen to a particular music source, you are required to hit the "music" button, and when you want to hear a movie source, you must hit "movie." There are about 10 different surround modes so you have to push the "listen mode" button as it cycles through all of them one by one. It would have been nice to have the option to delete the ones I didn't use, or just be able to get there directly. If you are only using one of the DSP modes and you're watching DVDs, then it isn't a problem because the unit will auto detect a DTS or DD data stream and switch automatically. However, if you want to listen to different modes, then you will be forced to cycle through each one. There are 51 buttons on the remote and generally I used about 13 of them.

An operational quirk: The fact that the remote was already in a menu long after I had used it was bothersome. If I pushed the "sound" button so I could change levels, I had to remember to hit "home" or the other buttons on the remote would not function at all. This was frustrating. When I'd check the front of the unit it would say "Video 2" and everything looked normal. However, when I attempted to change the volume, nothing would happen. Pushing "home" always fixed this, but I think the remote should default back to this position after a certain amount of time. The remote has a list of components it controls but the NAD DVD I used was not listed. I tried a couple of codes from other manufacturers but couldn't find the right one.

Listening- Tuner: After connecting the supplied FM wire antenna, I draped it over the top of the center channel and was able to tune 88.1 KLON. This is the local public radio jazz radio station and is usually a difficult station to receive. There was some background noise but otherwise the quality was fairly good. Other stations had some background hiss, but the quality on almost every station I tried was surprisingly good. A separate outdoor antenna would probably have given improved performance. I didn't listen to AM.

Listening- Surround Modes: Since this unit is one of the few to incorporate DPL II, I thought it would be worthwhile to test the other surround modes on the VR-510 and do a little comparing. Click here for Dolby Pro Logic II info. I listened to The Rolling Stones, tracks 5 & 6 from Voodoo Lounge; Karl Denson, track 3 from Dance Lesson #2; and "Disorderly Conduct" from Andy Narell on a Paradigm Sampler specifically to test these modes. Throughout the review I would occasionally jump back and forth to hear other types of music with the different surround settings. The modes are as follows:

I. Stereo. No explanation necessary here.

II. 3 Channel Stereo. Two fronts plus center. This would help in systems where left and right speakers are far apart or seating is not between the two front speakers. I can't imagine using this mode if you have surround speakers. But for someone who is just starting and doesn't have surrounds, or very good surrounds, this is a viable mode. [This also was the minimum speaker layout envisioned by Alan Blumlein when he invented stereo reproduction - not just two speakers!...Ed.]

III. Arena. This mode sounds like a large reverberant environment. It might be good for a basketball or baseball game, but it didn't sound very good with any of the music I tried.

IV. Theater. This mode is similar to arena but with slightly less echo. I didn't really care for this one either.

V. Jazz Club. This setting had the feeling of a much smaller venue. The vocals were more immediate (with less processing) and the environment sounded much dryer in comparison with the other previous DSP modes. This mode might be a good choice for jazz and other types of music that you would normally find in small club environments.

VI. Stadium. Stadium had processed the front similar to Jazz Club but the surrounds were more active and reverberant. This mode isn't too bad and it gives more echo in the back. This mode would work well on large-scale concerts and possibly sporting events.

VII. Disco. This mode was somewhere between stadium and jazz but had bass added that made the sound thump and throb.

VIII. Circle Surround (Cinema, Music). This mode is similar to a matrix mode on many units. Fans of 5 channel modes (or the like) will enjoy this one. It was the most aggressive in terms of getting direct unprocessed sound coming from every speaker, and it also happened to be the loudest mode by far.

IX. Dolby Pro Logic. Standard Dolby Pro Logic.

X. Dolby Pro Logic II Music. A music enhancement mode that I preferred over plain DPL on all the music pieces I listened to. This mode offers panorama on/off, dimension, and center width adjustments. See listening section below.

XI. Dolby Pro Logic II Movie. An enhanced movie mode that I preferred over plain DPL on all movie material. See listening section below.

 

Listening- Dolby Pro Logic II Music: Perhaps you've heard the claims to the superiority of DPL II. Being that this is the first component that I was able to test with this capability, I was anxious to see what it could do. There is a list of recommended recordings to hear the benefits of DPL II on the Dolby website. I had a few of these recordings in my collection so I began with these and some other surround and stereo recordings that I thought might give me an idea as to the possibilities with typical material:

(1) I began with track 3 from Cibo Mato's Stereotype A album. I toggled the Panorama control on and off, but didn't really notice any difference. In fact I tried this with a few different recordings and didn't hear much, if any, effect. Perhaps it was my setup or the material that didn't bring out the difference, but I'm not sure what it did. The manual claims the Panorama mode "extends the front stereo images to include the surround speakers for an exciting 'wraparound' effect with side wall imaging." This seemed to be the case in most of the recordings whether it was on or off. The Center Width control widened and shortened the width of the front image and/ or soundstage. With the control set to the right, everything seemed to come from the center. With the control set the other way, the image was spread all the way between the front speakers. Adjusting the Dimension moved the soundfield slightly forward and backward. It wasn't as obvious as a balance control and frankly I wish it had more range. You can always compensate by adjusting the relative levels, but as I mentioned before, these levels alter everything!

(2) Next I listened to the Doobie Brother's "Minute By Minute"-one of the suggestions from the Dolby site. I played with the controls again, but felt this song did not benefit much from DPL II. The center control didn't add much when it widened the image and it made everything sound mono when squeezed. The Dimension option didn't do all that much, and the sound was hardly improved over stereo.

(3) At this point I listened to track 1 from Jan Garbarek's Visible World (ECM). The editor sent this disc to me because there was a lot of innate surround on the standard stereo CD. The DPL II setting stretched instruments from front to back. The saxophone was placed in the front of the soundfield and echoed to the back of what felt like a large spacious listening environment. The Circle Surround Music mode played louder, was more diffuse in terms of the imaging, and had more activity in the rear. Clearly it would be up to personal preference to decide which mode was appropriate (which goes for all these recordings as they are mixed for stereo). On the surface, it seems the DPL II mode is very adjustable, but in the end, I usually left the settings in one place and wouldn't have been disappointed if there were only factory presets. The biggest problem was still the lack of memory settings for the individual surround modes.

(4) Another telling recording was track 7 from Blue Chip Orchestra [Erdenklang]. With DPL II the sound was coming from all around and at about 1:46 the sound was circling around my head. In stereo the sound didn't go around my head, there was not as much space, and overall the sound was not as sonically impressive. The DPL II mode was more effective in the recreation of an acoustic space. With Circle Surround, there was explosive sound coming from every direction, with wider imaging and sense of space, but the sound didn't go around my head as convincingly. The Circle Surround gave the feeling of swimming in the sound (which some people may like), while the DPL II setting was better at making you feel that you were sitting in an acoustic environment and listening.

(5) I wanted to try a few CD's that were recorded with surround sound. I tried some old classical electronica originally recorded in quadraphonic sound-Tomita's version of Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain" in Dolby Surround [RCA Red Seal]. The DPL II Music setting worked well as this recording was encoded with Dolby Surround. I tried listening in the Circle Surround mode, but didn't feel that it served the music as well as the DPL II mode. I didn't like the stereo setting at all. Instead of hearing an expansive soundfield, all I got was sound imaging inside my head that was making my head hurt!

(6) I also tried Bob Mintzer's Big Band Trane [DMP] which is recorded in Circle Surround. In this mode, I was reminded of the fact that I couldn't trim the rear levels (which I felt was needed) without affecting all of the levels in other modes. There was just too much information coming out of the surrounds for my taste. I would occasionally hear instrument sounds coming out of the back speakers and this was bothersome. This is obviously a completely subjective evaluation and others may like the feeling of being "surrounded" by the music. I thought it was unrealistic. [So does DMP's engineer-producer Tom Jung, so the problem was not in the CD...Ed.]

Use of Dolby Pro Logic with music sources has always had mixed results. The list of complaints has included the following: too much center information, weird out of phase effects, lack of separation, different frequencies shifting back and forth and front to back (unnaturally), and a loss of fidelity. The Pro Logic II Music mode basically fixes these problems. It enhances stereo recordings to multichannel with minimal side effects and allows adjustment to compensate for some of the other complaints. DSP modes were created to simulate different sonic environments in an effort to make use of more speakers, to attempt to recreate certain soundfields, and to allow user participation to try and achieve a more realistic and enjoyable sound. The problem was that most of these modes would take too much away from the quality of the recording or have too much effect to be acceptable by most people. This is not a perfect music simulation mode by any means. In fact, there are modes by other manufacturers, including Nakamichi's "Natural Mode," and NAD's "EARS," (as well as others) that do an excellent job of creating multichannel sound from stereo material with minimal loss and minimal processing. The material that sounded the best tended to be encoded with Dolby surround to begin with. There was always a compromise with natural acoustic recordings and when examined critically, there was always an unnatural alteration to the sound.

 

Listening- Stereo: I wanted to compare the sound of the Kenwood receiver to another receiver I'd listened to for a while previously. The receiver was the NAD T751 and it lists for $750.

(1) With track 4 on Blame It On My Youth by the Holly Cole Trio, I noted a slight increase in bass response while listening to the Kenwood. The NAD sounded slightly less nasal on the vocals. With the B&W speakers it was incredibly difficult to tell the units apart. At least in comparison to the NAD when used with these speakers, the Kenwood fared very well in stereo. However, I did confirm a problem that I had suspected earlier. **When using the digital input the first second or so of the signal is lost when a CD starts up and tracks are changed! I can't imagine that anyone would think this is acceptable. It was very noticeable when I went to match levels with Stereophile Test CD #1. On track 1 you are supposed to hear "This is Sam Tellig." The Kenwood would take out "This is." If you are planning on using this unit to listen to CDs then I have to recommend an analog connection. I tried a CD player just to check if this was a strange interaction with the NAD DVD player, but I had similar problems. [Some other receivers/processors also have this problem - must be in the chips...Ed.]

(2) Next I listened to a Saint-Saens: Fantaisie excerpt from a Delos Sampler disc. The Kenwood offered a richer, thicker, and denser presentation of the music. The NAD exhibited a sense of finer details, especially on the flute, and breaths between blowing were more delineated. I'd say it had just a tad more resolution.

Differences between these two units were so small in stereo mode with the B&W speakers that I just gave up this testing. There wasn't a huge difference, although for some, the difference I heard might be worth it for extended stereo listening. Otherwise the feature list leans heavily towards the Kenwood.

 

Listening- Movies: One of the statements made on the Dolby website implies that DPL II is competitive with DD and DTS. I didn't really believe this claim so I ran a comparison using Chapter 2 from The Gladiator. I connected the analog outputs from the NAD DVD player and connected them to Video 1. This allowed me to switch between "video 1" and "video 2" and listen to the difference between the DD version and the matrixed surround version played back using one of the various DPL modes. This is not an entirely fair comparison because the 5.1 soundtrack is downconverted to 2 channels in the NAD and how well this is done is unknown. There was a difference in volume, so I compensated using the volume indications on the front panel. First I listened to the differences with standard Dolby Pro-Logic. There was no contest. The DD version had better dynamics, dialog was more intelligible, there was improved separation, there was less noise, and there was clearly higher resolution and better definition.

Everything changed when I switched to the DPL II Movie mode. I listened to chapters 1 and 2 from The Messenger and was very impressed with the sound. Although it wasn't quite DD, it was definitely improved over standard DPL. I unplugged the front and center speakers and did a comparison between the surround channels. I put the NAD T751 receiver back in use and used it in the DPL mode. The difference was night and day. There were high frequencies clearly present in the rear channels and the sound was much more "5.1." When they were on with all the speakers, there was a not-so-subtle improvement in sense of space and presence in the room.

I also listened to Chapter 6 from Goldeneye. After listening to the DPL II Movie mode I can't imagine anyone wanting to go back to standard DPL. It didn't detract from the movie in any way and helped to improve spaciousness and the feeling of being in the movie rather than just watching it.

 

Conclusion: There are so many features packed into this one receiver that I didn't even get to try some of them. Once the Kenwood was properly set up, using it was a breeze. Even though it wasn't explicitly mentioned in the review text, I spent a good amount of time listening to both DD and DTS movies and had nothing to complain about. The problem I had with the digital input while listening to CDs can be avoided by simply using an analog connection. I wished the receiver had independent level adjustments for every surround mode, and it would have been nice if the remote would default back to the "top" in terms of its menu system. Given the price of this unit the combination of features and performance was quite impressive. If you are in the market for a surround receiver in this price range then it is definitely worth checking out.

- Brian Bloom    big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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