REVIEW: Heos 7 by Denon
Sonos has for years dominated the space for consumer-installable, multi-room network audio. But challengers are coming thick and fast, not least from Heos.
Properly known as ‘Heos by Denon’, this is a system largely developed in Australia. At least the networking side of things emanates from Sydney, while I understand the audio things – speakers and amps and such – were contributed by Denon, which is of course eminently qualified to do so.
What it is
The Heos system is a set of components designed to deliver network audio throughout a home, or some other area covered by a local area network. You can mix and match from five different components in the Heos range (there’s also a WiFi range extender on offer). In addition you will need an Android or iOS device because the whole thing is operated from a free Heos app. No app and the system’s going to be almost useless.
The five devices consist of three powered speakers, one stereo amplifier and one preamplifier. The Heos 7 (reviewed here) is the largest of the speakers, yet is quite compact at less than 480mm wide, 205mm high and 165mm deep. Inside it packs five digital amplifiers, one for each of the five drivers. There are two tweeters, two bass/midrange and one subwoofer (the sizes aren’t stated), along with a passive radiator. In addition to network audio – via Ethernet or dual band WiFi – the unit can also play audio from a 3.5mm auxiliary input or USB storage.
The Heos 5 and Heos 3 speakers are smaller still, and the Heos 3 can be set up in stereo pairs.
The other device included in this review is the Heos Amp. This has two 100W amps, proper binding posts for stereo speakers (and a subwoofer line level output), two sets of analogue and one digital audio input, plus the USB, Ethernet and WiFi.
The Heos Link is much the same as the Amp, except without amplifiers, but with line level and optical/coaxial digital audio outputs.
Setup was startling.
I usually expect some level of complexity with network audio systems. I had plugged the Heos 7 into power and network. When I downloaded the Heos by Denon app to a Samsung Tab and fired it up, I expected it to, with luck, present the Heos 7 for me to select. Without luck, I expected to find myself searching through forums on how to make it work.
What in fact happened was that in less than a second after opening the app for the first time, it had found the Heos 7, determined that a new firmware was available for it and offered to download and install it. It was so fast that for a moment I thought it was claiming that the app itself – which I’d installed seconds before – required updating.
When I realised what was really going on, I told it to go ahead, and over the next minute or so it downloaded and installed the firmware, a soft amber light on the underside of the speaker blinking as it did so. When complete, this changed to a steady blue.
And that was it. The setup was complete. Done. I touched the ‘Music’ tab on the app. Touched ‘Local Music’. Touched my NAS. Worked down the menus to the music I wanted started playing it. The only reference I’d made to the documentation – only a Quick Start Guide is included – was to check the order of connecting stuff. The system was so intuitive nothing else was needed.
Of course this was smoothed by having Heos 7 connected to my network via cable. I usually start this way to remove one potentially complicating variable.
So that being successful, I decided to install the Heos Amp with a WiFi connection. I wired up a pair of lovely KEF R300 compact loudspeakers and followed the instructions in its Quick Start Guide. Those instructions were to tell the app to ‘Add Device’ and then follow its instructions.
Those instructions were to connect the tablet to the auxiliary input on the Heos Amp using the included 3.5mm cable. Closer inspection revealed that this wasn’t fitted with regular TRS type plugs, but had two rings rather than one for a total of four conductors. Once plugged in the app told me to enter the password for the WiFi network to which it was connected. It passed this down the cable to the Denon Amp, and after a few moments it was connected to the network. The app then instantly requested permission to update the Amp’s firmware, which again only took a few minutes.
And then I had two devices to which I could play different streams of music. Or the same stream. You can link two or more Heos devices (up to 32 are supported in up to eight groups) by dragging within the app one of the devices onto the other or others. I did that, started some music going, and could only hear the Heos 7. The Heos Amp needed to be turned up, but how?
Just fiddling soon revealed how. The ‘Now Playing’ tab is where you adjust the playback volume. Touch the slider and a panel pops up with individual sliders for each Heos device. From there you can adjust the respective levels if you have more than one speaker in your room, or adjust the overall level in your room without changing other speakers in other rooms that may be grouped.
More commonly you’ll be having two or more independent streams, so in this case it’s just a matter of picking which speaker you want to adjust from the ‘Room’ tab.
You can control things with several iOS/Android devices at once. Changes in volume levels and streams are reflected in the apps operating on other devices. Each speaker (and amp) has a physical volume and mute control on the side. Adjust the volume using these and the slider volume in the app also changes.
So what can be played? First, there are a number of internet options: Pandora, TuneIn, Deezer and Spotify. The last is a little different because you run this from the Spotify app (the Heos app will open it for you) and choose any of the connected Heos devices as Spotify Connect speakers from within the app. (Or choose a group of them if you’ve already set up the group.)
You can also play music that’s residing on the control device, of course, or plugged into the Auxiliary input of the Heos device, or music on an attached USB device.
Here’s where things get rather surprising. You can also play music plugged into the auxiliary input of any Heos device on the network, or on the USB storage plugged into any Heos device, on any of the other Heos speakers. If the analogue device is connected by one of those four-conductor 3.5mm cables and supports Play/Pause, then you can control this function as well from the app.
Finally, the units will play music from any DLNA sources on the network, including material served up by Network Attached Storage.
There is one fundamental limitation to audio performance in this system. High resolution audio is not supported. You can of course play MP3, WMA and AAC (including the iTunes M4A version). And you can play lossless FLAC and WAV, but only material encoded at 16-bit and no more than 48,000Hz sampling.
This limitation probably won’t much effect the musical quality of what you’re hearing, but it does mean that if some of your music is only in a high resolution format you’ll have to convert it to roughly CD standard in order to access it on this system.
So that aside, the sound of the system was very good. The Heos Amp did a good job of powering the KEF speakers, producing high levels of smooth, clean sound.
The Heos 7 sounded particularly impressive for its size. Except for one anomaly, it is nicely balanced tonally with an even upper bass/midrange/treble that sounds natural and smooth. The anomaly is the deeper bass, which sounded significantly higher in level. Because it was the deep stuff, and not the mid or upper bass it didn’t make the sound seem lumpy or unpleasant. Indeed, on a lot of music it added a very satisfying underpinning, allowing bass guitar to add a fitting grind to the music, and making the speaker sound quite a bit bigger than it actually is.
I measured the response to check my impressions and indeed from 50Hz to 120Hz the output level was six to nine decibels higher than the midrange. Below 50Hz the output fell off very rapidly to be down by over 20dB at 40Hz. Not that one should complain about that. Solid output at 50Hz from such a compact unit is extremely impressive.
At the other end, the unit produced output right through to 20,000Hz.
The Heos 7 produced a much wider stereo spread than indicated by its physical dimensions, suggesting that there’s some processing going on it there. The sound delivered by its headphone output was also smooth and controlled.
The Heos by Denon system – at least the elements tested – is exceptionally easy to set up and use, very powerful and quite reasonably priced.