Denon HEOS HomeCinema 2.1 Soundbar Review

Soundbars embody a compromise between price, performance, aesthetics, and convenience that many consumers are willing to make. For someone who is used to listening to a TV’s speakers, a soundbar is a serious sonic upgrade. On the other hand, jaded AV enthusiasts with powerful surround systems look at today’s soundbars with disdain.

If sound quality is your priority, an AVR-based system with carefully chosen speakers and subs is the ideal solution for achieving audio immersion. However, if space limitations, cost, and appearance are all factors in choosing an AV system, then a soundbar offers a reasonable compromise between lifestyle and performance.

Denon’s HEOS HomeCinema is a networked 2.1 soundbar system that comes with a wireless sub. It is compatible with Denon’s HEOS (Home Entertainment Operating System), which allows it to be a part of a multi-room audio system by serving as a HEOS zone. The MSRP of the HomeCinema is $800, which is a substantial sum for a soundbar, but the current street price is around $600, which is quite a bit more attractive. Read on to find out if Denon’s HEOS soundbar is right for you.

Features

The HomeCinema is a 40″ 2.1 soundbar system that comes with a wireless sub. The enclosure is made of plastic and features a cloth grill. It contains a pair of 2-way speakers, each consisting of a 20mm soft-dome tweeter (featuring a neodymium magnet) and 5.25″ rounded-rectangle Kevlar mid/woofer that’s designed to provide maximum surface area while allowing the cabinet to keep a low profile. The soundbar itself is 40″ wide, 3.23″ high, and 3.7″ deep, and it weighs 6.17 pounds.

The system’s ported wireless sub measures 12.3″ x 6.75″ x 13.07″ and weighs 14.6 lbs. The sub sports dual forward-facing 5.25″ bass drivers with a tuned port located on the rear. The subwoofer has no controls; you plug it into the wall and it connects to the soundbar automatically through a dedicated 5.8 GHz wireless connection—no Bluetooth pairing required.

Compatibility with Denon’s HEOS multi-room networked-audio ecosystem is a headline feature of the HomeCinema. It includes Wi-Fi connectivity as well as an Ethernet port, and you control it using the HEOS app on a mobile device. The soundbar also includes IR-learning functionality, so you can control it with a TV remote. However, the HomeCinema does not come with a physical remote of its own. Also, it lacks Bluetooth connectivity, although a USB adapter that adds the capability is available as part of the $100 HEOS GOPack.

In addition to HEOS network connectivity, the HomeCinema offers HDMI, digital optical, digital coaxial, and 3.5mm analog stereo inputs. The soundbar also has an HDMI output that supports ARC (Audio Return Channel) functionality. Additionally, you’ll find a USB 3.0 port that can provide 1 amp of power—perfect for streaming sticks such as Roku, Fire TV, or Chromecast—and you can also use the USB port to read files that are stored on a USB thumb drive.

On-board DSP includes virtual surround sound, a night mode (dynamic-range compressor), and a dialog enhancer. The HEOS HomeCinema can decode a wide variety of audio formats and streams, but is limited to 16-bit resolution and a maximum sampling frequency of 48 kHz.

The system includes a box of accessories that contains every type of cable you need to connect the HomeCinema to a TV, stereo system, and network, as well as a corded IR blaster. It also includes removable feet for the soundbar in several sizes for placing it on a TV stand. You can also hang the soundbar on a wall.

Setup

The HomeCinema setup process is an app-based affair that was familiar to me because I have set up other HEOS devices in the past. Keep in mind that you absolutely need an iOS or Android mobile device to complete the setup process, as well as to use all of the soundbar’s features.

The first setup step involved connecting the HomeCinema to the mobile device—in my case, a Samsung Galaxy Note 5—with a provided 3.5mm stereo cable, then pressing the Connect button on the soundbar, and finally entering my Wi-Fi network password into the app. The phone sent the network password to the soundbar through the cable, and within a few seconds, the whole procedure was finished. The wireless subwoofer connected to the soundbar automatically, and I was able to stream music through the system right away using the HEOS app.

Most people will use the HomeCinema in conjunction with a TV, and making that work requires a physical connection using a cable; Denon recommends using HDMI for the highest quality. If HDMI is not an option, the optical and coaxial digital inputs are available. I tried out all the inputs, but for my listening sessions, I used the HDMI input.

Performance

After completing setup, the first thing I did with the HomeCinema was play some music, which helped me gauge the overall fidelity of the system. I launched into “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses, which came through loud and clear. The sub did a credible job giving the drums some impact while the tweeters added sparkle to the guitar riffs. I even heard stereo imaging coming from the system, and at modest volume levels, there was not much to criticize about its performance, at least as far as soundbars go. Playing a few more tracks from Sly & Robbie, The Orb, and The Creatures confirmed that the system had a nice, detailed sound to it that was neither too bright nor too dark—the default tonal balance was in the Goldilocks zone.

From a usability standpoint, the HomeCinema’s performance was outstanding. The HEOS app makes configuring and operating the soundbar intuitive and easy. I used it in conjunction with a HEOS Amp and a HEOS 1 speaker to stream synchronized music to three different zones in my home, and everything worked like a charm.

When I played movies through the HomeCinema, I was surprised by how effective the simulated surround sound was. While watching Ant Man, I heard sounds coming from all over the place, not just the front of the room. The same thing happened when I screened American Ultra and Terminator Genisys—the surround mix came through despite the HomeCinema being “only” a 2.1 system. Denon says its virtual surround processing uses “advanced psychoacoustic DSP processing algorithms to deliver an immersive surround sound experience”; all I know is, it works—it can even create the illusion of sound coming from behind you.

Pushing the HomeCinema to high output levels revealed some limitations in its performance, mostly in the subwoofer’s ability to dig deep while playing loud. The sub’s processing includes what Denon calls “dynamic range tailoring” whereby the sub ramps down its output when faced with bass it cannot hope to accurately reproduce. This is not a huge surprise; the sub itself is very compact, so its low-frequency extension is bound to be limited. A few quick and dirty in-room measurements confirmed what my ears were telling me—the system starts to strain when it gets much below 40 Hz or so. At 35 Hz, THD is 24% with 88 dB of measured output at the main listening position, whereas at 40 Hz, THD drops to 4.2% with 90 dB of output. At 100 Hz, THD coming from the sub drops below 1%.

Conclusion

Overall, the balance of features and performance in the HEOS HomeCinema make it an attractive option for someone who needs a competent, connected soundbar. Its strengths include a very clear, natural, detailed presentation of audio content, plenty of input options including HDMI with ARC, and integration with other HEOS devices for multi-room audio. The primary weakness of the system is the modest wireless subwoofer, which doesn’t quite cover the low-frequency range needed to handle the sound effects of modern action-oriented movies, at least not at higher volumes.

At its current street price of $600, I consider the HomeCinema a good deal. At its MSRP of $800, the question becomes whether HEOS is worth the premium over some other soundbars that come with larger subs but forsake the HomeCinema’s connectivity. There are a ton of soundbar options on the market, but there’s one thing I am certain of—if you are putting together a HEOS-based multi-room audio system and need a good soundbar for a TV, the HomeCinema fits the bill. It offers a satisfying, immersive listening experience that takes up very little space—which is exactly what you want from a soundbar.