Denon has been developing surround sound and multiroom systems for some time – and AV receivers since 1988. Over the last decade, new competitors have emerged to accelerate the transition to wireless surround sound. Denon took stock of the situation and introduced its wireless HEOS system in 2014.
In late 2017, the company introduced a new generation of Heos with improved sound, a refined app, and wider selection of speakers. There are now four different speakers, a subwoofer, two soundbars, a surround receiver, a stereo amplifier, and lots of accessories. The multiroom functionality of Heos has also been added to Denon’s conventional AV receivers.
It is a comprehensive line-up but how good is it compared to Sonos, Sony, Samsung, and others? We have been testing the Heos bar, Heos 1 HS2, and Heos subwoofer in a 4.1 surround setup. We have also had at hand Heos AVR, Heos 3 HS2, and Heos 5 HS2. The HS2 label means that these are revised 2017 models.
For this review, we will be focusing on wireless TV surround sound but will also share some thoughts on the Heos system as a whole.
Heos Bar specifications
77 x 110 x 14,8 cm
4x HDMI (2.0a), 1x Ethernet, 1x USB, 3,5mm jack
1x HDMI out (ARC)
3.0 speakers 8x Class D amplifiers Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS
WiFi (ac standard)
User manual Remote control HDMI cable 3.5mm cable Ethernet cable Feet
The box contains everything you need to get started with Denon Heos, including Ethernet, optical, and HDMI cables for connections. This is not unusual with these types of products. Denon is giving the customer choice by offering a selection of speakers in a modern look.
The speakers are available in black or white where both fabric and plastic conform to your choice of color. The black version has black fabric and the plastic has some lighter grey tones in there. The white version has light gray fabric, while the plastic is creamy white. We are talking matte plastic here, which is a nice break from the glossy plastic that seems to have been trendy for a while.
I like the overall look and design. It is neutral and discreet mostly because of the compact design and choice of plastic.
There are a number of connection ports available on the speakers – more than needed. Heos are active and wireless speakers so they obviously require power. You can connect them to your home network via either WiFi or Ethernet. The latter will ensure stability but somewhat undermines the idea of a wireless speaker setup. There is also AUX – or 3.5 mm mini jack – for connecting a phone or computer.
The USB port can (besides being an audio connection option) be used to charge a smartphone or similar devices but it offers very slow charging.
You connect the soundbar to the TV via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). The soundbar has a total of 4 HDMI ports, which should cover most users’ needs. These are HDMI 2.0a ports, meaning that they support 4K pass-through from sources such as UHD Blu-ray and Apple TV 4K.
It is also possible to connect the TV to the soundbar via the digital optical port. While there are lots of connection options, Heos bar lacks support for the best audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. The soundbar still supports Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS.
One can debate the advantages of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X in a soundbar but it means that you are missing out on the most advanced sound available on UHD Blu-ray. To be clear, you can still input Atmos and DTS:X feeds to the soundbar as these are backwards compatible but you will not get the object-based sound. The companies like to emphasize that Atmos and DTS:X are not designed only to add additional speakers to the setup but rather to offer sound with better definition and 3D perspective through object-based technology.
Again, it is entirely fair to say that Heos Bar is not an optimal solution for these types of audio technologies in the first place. It may even be a conscious choice by Denon to keep the costs down (and avoid paying addition licensing fees to Dolby and DTS).
Once all the units have been powered on, you use the included AUX cable, connected to a smartphone, to set up the system via the Heos app. The set-up process involves setting up WiFi and connecting the speakers via the wireless protocol.
I was unlucky in the sense that I received one defective unit but for rest of the units set-up went smoothly. Besides the somewhat clunky idea of using an AUX cable, the steps in the app were easy to understand and follow. However, setting up Heos Bar and AVR required some further steps.
Setting up Heos Bar and AVR further requires you to connect the rear speakers and the optional subwoofer to each unit (Bar and AVR) via the app. Lastly, you must connect sources such as a game console, set-top box etc. This process is largely unproblematic but takes a little extra time as it is meant to ensure that you can control audio volume as intended. And this concludes the set-up process.
In addition, the app offers a range of adjustment options for each separate speaker and for each audio format, including how surround sound effects are reproduced. You can also – if you want to – force a stereo input to be up-converted to surround sound, or vice versa.
App and remote
As you may have gathered, the app is central to how you set up and control the Heos system, so we wanted to expand a little on how it works. It can perhaps best be described as an app based on a modern user interface paradigm, meaning that it centers on easy-to-find touch elements.
It uses a conservative mix of elements in mostly black, white, and grey shades. Red is used to put special emphasis on some of the elements. Denon is trying to navigate in a customer segment that is transitioning from classic Hi-Fi products to modern audio systems, so the user interface has to appeal to both through a simple set-up process with advanced setting options available in the deeper menus as well as the option to let kitchen or second-room speakers enter into a classic Hi-Fi setup. I think Denon has found a good compromise here that allows everyone to participate.
We should also say that the app is very stable. We never once experienced network dropouts. While this may sound trivial, it is far from the norm today.
Once set-up has been completed you can bypass the app. Heos Bar and AVR come with a small remote. It is fairly simple and has only the most essential buttons but it is so small and made form such poor materials that we had rather been without it. It looks – and probably is – something that you can buy in China for $3 dollars – including shipping. The remote is functional but Denon’s Heos system is not cheap so surely Denon can do better.
Luckily, Heos is compatible with universal remote controls so lets move on to what matters most; sound qualtiy.
Sound quality: HEOS Bar
I started out by connecting only the Heos Bar to the TV to evaluate its performance and was immediately struck by its impressive sound. I felt no urge to adjust bass or mid-tones as it manages to reproduce neutral sound with added emphasis on human dialog. This is certain to please many buyers.
The bass is well-aligned, without sounding muddy. Few other soundbars can claim to deliver this kind of bass performance. Of course, the bass is not super deep but taking the physical structure and price point of the soundbar into mind, we had not expected that to be the case.
Denon has decided to put some added emphasis on reproduction of human voices, and we found the soundbar’s performance great for day-to-day TV watching, meaning news, TV programs, and entertainment. Vocals are reproduced accurately and Heos Bar manages to even preserve the nuances in human voices. When watching a movie, voices are perhaps a bit too dominant but this can be adjusted in the app.
We would rather have good sound with clear vocals than vocals that tend to fade out into a complex audio mix, partly because it is easy to tone down vocals, when the rest of the sound is balanced. For deeper bas you can always add a subwoofer and other effects can be improved by adding rear speakers to the mix. A soundbar on the other hand must not only reproduce the left and right channel but also the center channel, so how it copes with human voices in the mix is one of the most important tasks.
I was surprised to find that Denon Bar delivers on this level for movies, but perhaps even more surprised that it also delivers when it comes to music. I threw my usual test tracks at it to challenge it in a numbers of areas and must conclude that it handles vocals, drums and guitars very well and with high precision.
It struggles somewhat with the deepest bass and lacks some depth but at the same time it knows its limits. It is not trying to reproduce the deepest tones by compensating in strange ways like many other speakers do, which always leads to muddy bass that simply does no good. Trying to compensate too much can even hurt the lower part of the mid-tones.
In that way, Heos Bar differs from most other soundbars on the market. Soundbars have a tendency to be too heavy on bass and too light on the upper treble area. The Heos Bar on the other hand is well-balanced and is more comparable in its style to soundbars from Sony or Libratone that we have reviewed in the past.
You may consider adding a subwoofer to get this added depth in the sound space. The app will let you adjust cross-over and my preference is to set at around 100 Hz. As a soundbar, Heos Bar gets our thumbs up.
Sound quality: HEOS subwoofer
Adding a subwoofer to the Heos system gives you a classic 2.1 setup. The subwoofer’s sole purpose is to relieve the soundbar from handling the lowest frequencies. However, I found the subwoofer sound to be somewhat muddy. It quickly turned into a rumbling mess without precision or speed.
In this price class, you can get wired subwoofer that can go far deeper and deliver far better precision. In this regard you sacrifice performance to gain flexibility, and while this enables some users to add a subwoofer in the first place, I must point out that you pay a lot to gain this flexibility. Without having done a side-by-side test, my experience tells me that you can buy comparable performance with a wired subwoofer for half the price.
If you are considering added the Heos AVR to the setup that allows you to add wired speakers, the subwoofer will be the weakest link in the system. If you are planning to place the subwoofer next to the front speakers, you would be mad to buy the wireless Heos Sub rather than a wired subwoofer from another brand. In this price class, you can get great value for money subwoofers that deliver deep and accurate bass.
Sound quality: HEOS surround sound
Switching to a wireless audio setup is what gives you the flexibility to add rear speakers without pulling wires across the living room, and it allows you to fairly easily expand you listening experience from 2.1 stereo to 4.1 surround. So we added Heos 1 HS2, meaning the 2017 model, to the setup. The rear speakers are designed to highlight effects and add ambiance, and they manage to do that reasonably well.
However, we immediately noticed some issues in the high-pitched treble area, which meant that some music pieces lacked soul. We often use Deadpool to evaluate music and sound effect performance on various speakers. It is evident that Heos 1 lacks the muscle to match the Heos Bar’s audio quality – pistol shots lack crispness and intensity.
This also means that some details and sound effects get lost in the mix. The speakers are simply not capable of reproducing what the film director intended, and it is crystal-clear to me that Heos 1 is not up to par with the Sonos Play or Sony SRS-ZR5 speakers.
As a complete package consisting of Heos soundbar, subwoofer, and 2x Heos 1 rear speakers, you get a decent surround experience. It takes a little longer to set up than competing products but you gain more advanced audio setting options.
As I mentioned, you can add a wired subwoofer to the system for improved bass. Denon also has a pair of more capable rear speakers in the form Heos 3. These will obviously cost more but deliver more balanced sound that actually adds to the experience rather than pulling down like the Heos 1 units tend to do.
Another approach could be to add the Denon AVR to the system that allows you to add additional wireless speakers to the setup such as four Heos 1 or 3 acting as front and rear speakers, along with a Heos Sub for 4.1 surround sound. Based on my experience, this is not something I would recommend.
Heos AVR feels like a strange cross between a stereo amplifier and an AV receiver with wireless capabilities. After having tested the various configurations, I think it mostly appeals to buyers that own wired front speakers and a wired subwoofer who wish to add wireless rear speakers to the mix. This kind of flexibility certainly has value and will allow you to adjust the system via Denon’s app.
The Denon AVR delivers what you expect from Denon, meaning sound with detail and velvety treble.
Music playback: HEOS 1, 3 & 5
Besides surround sound, the Heos system support multiroom features, allowing you to enjoy music throughout the home. It will even beam TV audio around, if you want it to. So, we wanted to add some comments on audio quality in regards to music.
While Heos 1 can serve as a rear speaker in a surround setup, it is seriously lacking in the area of music. Despite it being bigger than some of its competitors’ small-size speakers, it delivers poor treble and bass performance.
It never accurately hits the high tones because every time it tries, you get distorted sound. The bass is too dominant in the low end of the midrange frequencies, which significantly affects the balance of sound. Not even the Heos app can be used to compensate for its shortcomings. Heos 1 sounds as if it was standing on a wet cardboard box. This is not a speaker designed for music listening and it is not even close to matching other speakers in its price class.
Luckily, Heos 3 does a better job. The bass is still too dominant but it is more bearable. These kinds of wireless speakers rarely deliver neutral sound and Heos 3 is no different. It handles high notes markedly better than the Heos 1 and is a decent speaker for kitchen or second-room use. Nevertheless, there are better speakers to be found in the same price class.
Just as an example, Heos 3 lacks nuance in human voices. Chris Cornel’s characteristic voice in Sound Garden’s classic Black Whole Sun sound somewhat wrong. This is not unique to Heos 3.
Heos 5 is, obviously, another step up in the Heos family and as expected it delivers better performance but is also noticeably bigger. It sound more like Heos 3 than 1 but its performance is a little more refined. It obviously has better tweeter, mid-tone, and bass units built-in. But again; it cannot match competing the best speakers in its price class.
I think it is fair to conclude that the Heos range of speakers, as music speakers, are either too expensive or just not good enough. Heos 1 is not even in the same league as Sonos Play:1. Heos 3 is better but still one of the least convincing in its price class. Heos 5 is average for a speaker in its price class but still lacks precision compared to Sony SRS-ZR7.
Denon Heos has been a mixed bag. The soundbar delivers impressive and wide sound with clear vocals whereas the subwoofer lacks depth and above all precision, considering its price tag. The Heos 1 rear speakers were weak, especially for music, and simply not in the same league as competing speakers.
Denon’s app is the glue that holds the system together, and not only is it user friendly, it offers advanced audio settings to customize the sound in an easy way.
The Heos system comprises several small speakers (Heos 1, 3 and 5) and the latter two are decent but not on par with the best in the price class. I would say that they rank below or around average on a scale when comparing them to wireless speakers from Sonos, Sony, Dali, Samsung, and the likes.
The company has a trick up its sleeve, namely the Heos AVR. It is a slim version of an AV receiver that is significantly smaller than conventional AV receivers. It allows you to add wired speakers to your wireless Heos setup, meaning that you can put your passive speakers into a modern context. Even better; it allows you to add a wired subwoofer for much improved performance. Heos AVR delivers excellent sound – soft and accurate– for its size and has good control over the low notes.
The AVR is a bridge between the old world of Hi-Fi and the modern world of wireless audio, and together with the updated soundbar, it is the highlight of Denon’s Heos system.
Audio quality is assessed as overall audio quality, including treble, midtone and bass, as well as precision and balance. We also evaluate to what degree supported audio formats affect the overall audio experience. Features is assessed based on functionality (ports, format support, wireless audio protocols etc.) as well as the applicability. User experience is evaluated on the basis of user friendliness, speed, realiability, build quality, choice of materials, and day-to-day use of the product. Total score is weighted: 50% Audio quality, 25% Features, 25% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. Each score is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better products set new standards. This allows you to compare product scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available product in this category to date.