Second product review: After a quick test of the Arcam FMJ A-19 integrated stereo amplifier over the summer, we decided to apply this process to several other products in order to shed some light on the technical aspect of the material we carry. Just to make things clear, let’s first insist on the fact that the goal is not to ?force? such and such a product on people in order to increase sales, but to share knowledge as well as show the strengths and practical aspects beyond what is already explained in the technical specifications. What we really want to do is to discuss a test in a home environment, my own living room, to be precise. An environment in which I have my bearings as far as the audio and visual settings are concerned, I also have access to audio and video material I am already familiar with and all of this in the most relaxing situation possible.
We chose the Denon Ceol N8 because this mini-hi-fi system is considered to be an example in terms of design, functions and sound quality. It seemed almost too good to be true and deserved a closer look. The Denon Ceol RCD-N8 has grabbed our attention since its release for numerous reasons. First of all, its functions have not changed a lot compared to the Ceol N7, released in 2012, which makes us think that the previous product released by Denon was already really comprehensive. Yet, one question was still on our minds: what is this small Ceol worth once paired-up with floor-standing speakers? Are its 65 Watts at 4 Ohms enough to obtain balanced music rendering when listening to more challenging audio files such as 24 bits / 192 kHz FLAC files, for instance? With a price tag of 599? for the model without speakers ? which is slightly costly ? is it possible to expect audiophile performances from the finest of the mini-hi-fi stereo systems?
First and foremost, here is a quick summary of the characteristics of the Denon Ceol RDC-N8: Integrated CD player, WiFi and Ethernet controls, compatible with audio streaming from Last. fm, Spotify, and Internet radio, streaming audio AirPlus from a computer with iTunes, iPhones, iPod touch and iPads, streaming from a NAS (DLNA), USB audio, iDevice via dock. It is compatible with WAV, FLAC (up to 24 bits/ 192 kHz), ALAC (24/96), MP3 or even AAC audio files. It also features a gapless mode with no silence between the tracks. On paper, the Ceol can do pretty much everything.
For this test, we used the Ceol in a 20m2 room, with correct sound insulation and a hard wood floor. It wasn’t a dedicated listening room but more of a typical configuration for this type of electronics. We used the Denon Ceol RCD-N8 with its own speakers (optional) for the test, as well as a pair of Klipsch RB-51 and Q Acoustic 2050i column speakers (rewarded by a 5 star label by What HiFi?). We tested the Denon Ceol RCD-N8 with 16/44 and 24/88.2-192 FLAC files (USB, NAS), as well as cinema formats (Dolby Digital, downmixed DTS) via the optical S/PDIF input, or via the analog input with a DAC Pioneer N-50 network player. In this case we used the NorStone RCS-500 cable. For this test, we used the Denon Remote App (control app) from an iPod Touch and two tablets: an iPad and a Google Nexus 7.
In the box
Two boxes in one for our test product, since our model was shipped with a pair of Denon SC-N8 speakers. These are neatly packaged in a cushioning plastic and come with small section speaker wires. The Ceol comes with an FM antenna wire. Once out of the box, I was surprised by the dimensions of this mini-hi-fi system: it’s not as small as one would think. On the other hand it is much lighter than its size leads us to think, which is normal since we are dealing with a class-D amplifier with a switch-mode power supply, therefore rather light. As we’ll discuss later, Denon’s choice is far from being a bad one and a class-AB amplification would have resulted in a (much) less convincing result. The remote control also came as a surprise because of its size. It is rather bulky but happens to be very convenient whether your hands are big or small. Note that a CD-ROM containing the user manual in PDF format is included.
Design & ergonomics
Aesthetically speaking, it is clearly a success. The plastic of the chassis is not outstanding but the layout of the buttons and connectors is flawless. It is difficult to see any negative feature. The terminals at the back are well placed, with a comfortable spacing. The screw thread is solid. The other connections are pretty basic, although sufficient, as it is possible to plug a digital PCM stereo source (TV, console, DVD or Blu-ray player) and two analog sources. The front panel is also fitted with a 3.5 mm mini-jack line input ? for a portable device, for instance ? a headphone output and USB host port for flash drives, iPod and iPhone. On the top of the device is a removable cover which conceals an Apple dock port. The OELD display (not OLED) is of excellent quality: wide, bright (you can adjust this feature via the dimmer button) with clear writing and the text flows smoothly. What’s not to like?
A piece of cake! First, we added the Ceol to our home network with an Ethernet cable, then connected the speaker wires to the screw terminals. The cabled network is fast and the configuration is automatic (our router automatically distributed an IP address to the Denon Ceol N8). The firmware update is offered right away and the download/installation took us a little less than 10 minutes. After rebooting, the Denon Ceol N8 is updated and ready to go. Before we start listening to anything, we install the Denon Remote App (works with iPod touch, Samsung Galaxy Note, iPad), the Denon Ceol N8 is instantly recognised and the app is quickly operational.
Playing music from a NAS
Everything is so neatly done that we can’t help but expect a lot from the Denon Ceol N8 right away, like reading a FLAC 24 bits/ 192 kHz file from the Synology NAS that is connected to the network. By pressing the Music Server button on the remote control, we can see a list of available DLNA servers and our Synology NAS can be found in the list. If we press the button once more a list of shared folders appears, once again with no waiting time. If a folder has a longer name, the text will scroll when selected and is easily readable on the OELD screen. The Ceol starts playing music quickly, everything is perfect so far.
We are miles away from the straining exercise involved in setting up other network devices: Denon hits the nail on the head.
Our next test will be to use the Denon Remote App. Pretty good surprise, the app shows that the device is switched on and even displays which source is currently used. The menu is easy to navigate as we go through the various folders with visible album covers. The song titles are also displayed on the OELD screen on the Ceol front panel.
This playback mode doesn’t require you to chose any input on the Denon Ceol N8 : it does it for you automatically. We used an iPod touch with lossless ALAC files and we selected the Ceol N8 as our AirPlay reading device via the iOS reading app. The OELD screen directly displays that the AirPlay mode is on and reading starts within the next five seconds. Not a single problem was heard during our listening session, whether we used the Ethernet or WiFi connection. Pausing and playing a song from our iPod touch was immediate. The sound volume can be adjusted via the iPod or with the remote control.
Web radio streaming
A piece of cake, once again. Internet radios are arranged by country, genre and popularity. Whether we use the remote and OELD display or the mobile app, the menu is easy to navigate. We quickly found our preferred radio stations and added them to the favourites of the Denon Ceol N8. Note that it is possible to add up to 30 internet or FM radio stations of files from a NAS (or shared by a DLNA server).
Is FM reception outdated’ Quite the contrary. Denon clearly didn’t overlook this feature with the Denon Ceol N8. We got really good reception with the included wire antenna. The RDS support allows you to see the name of the station and the track being played. Besides, the FM analog sound gives a very enjoyable warmth to the sound.
The CD tray is swift and pretty quiet. Once loaded the CD is quickly read in a very enjoyable and silent way. At the most, you will hear the sensor head for a few seconds while it’s analysing the disc. No vibration and no excessive rotation: everything is under control and meets our expectations. After experiencing the network mode, we can’t help but feeling slightly disappointed that the Denon Ceol N8 doesn’t display the title of the CD tracks, especially since there is an internet connection available. But if we think this through, we quickly come to realise that importing titles from the internet would slow down the loading process, besides it is not unusual to experience detection errors. We’ll just be happy knowing that the Eric Clapton MTV Unplugged CD is playing and not André Verchuren’s greatest hits.
Once you insert a flash drive, the Denon Ceol N8 will quickly detect it and analyse it. Once again the OELD screen comes in handy, although using a screen or a tablet is even better. MP3, M4A (AAC and ALAC) or FLAC are read perfectly, with no latency. Connecting an iPod triggers its indexing and charges it. Note that even in standby mode the Denon Ceol N8 can charge an iPod, iPhone or iPad, the power being delivered with sufficient intensity to allow a fast charge. Once the iDevice connected, it is possible to control it via the Ceol remote control or Denon Remote App.
Note that the app takes into account the volume set with the remote control and displayed on the screen. Several iOS and Android devices can control the Denon Ceol N8 simultaneously.
The Apple dock
Concealed by a cover, it works as a classic dock. Once docked, our iPod Nano and iPod touch were charging and usable. Accessing their content was fast, although reading files from a NAS or in AirPlay mode is much more convenient. Music extraction is digital.
Objectively speaking, the Denon compact speakers do not allow the Denon Ceol N8 to express itself at its fullest. Even though an optimal adjustment of response curve can be selected in the menu, the delivery of these compact speakers, although still quite pleasant, doesn’t compare to a pair of Eltax Monitor III, Klipsch RB-51 or Q-Acoustics 2050i floor-standing speakers. If you really wish to have a pair of ultra-compact speakers paired with the Denon Ceol N8, the Denon SC-L8 will be perfect for you (since they have a similar lacquered finish). Yet I have to mention that you would be missing out on a really exciting musical experience. We tested the Denon Ceol N8 at the same time as the Q Acoustics 2050i column speakers for an extended period of time. Paired up with such speakers, the Denon Ceol N8 was definitely a really good surprise. Let’s be clear: the 2×65 W amplification cannot rival integrated amplifiers equipped with a strong power supply delivering 2×60 W. Yet, the Ceol rises to the task and is definitely not put to shame. The 2×65 W are announced into 4 Ohms at 1 kHz and with high distortion, which actually corresponds to 2×20 W at 8 Ohms with hi-fi distortion. At a reasonable to high listening level (~ 90 dB/1w/1m) the Denon Ceol N8 delivers performances beyond what some mid-range home cinema amplifiers have to offer. Right from the start, we can hear solid, nuanced, swift, deep bass, no bluff here. It makes no doubt that Denon is about to grant us true hi-fi sound.
The sound delivered by the Denon Ceol N8 is full, with a slight treble sharpness, a really good channel separation and a great sound stage structure. The dynamic margin is clear and the bass is unquestionably solid.
The aforementioned sharpness in the higher end of the spectrum is likely to be caused by the 24/192 DAC. The fact of the matter is that analog sources (FM or inputs for instance) do not seem to be affected by it. As we proceeded to some tests in comparison with the Pioneer N-50: the same FLAC file seems milder with the N-50 as the Denon Ceol N8 offered more glimmer to the sound while still keeping things under control.
With Daft Punk Giorgio by Moroder, for instance, the sound was very spacious through the whole track. This song might very well become a reference track for our reviews as it offers such an interesting variety, from the bar interview to the grand finale mixing electric guitar and ?turntable scratching?. The Qobuzz version in 24/88.2 has more breathing room than the 16/44.1 CD version, which sounds a little short-winded; at least it is the impression given by the Ceol. In both cases, vocals and instruments clearly stand out with no problem, the bass is easy to follow and Moroder’s voice is very distinct as his Italian accent and rolled ‘R’s are well delivered. Low frequencies are under control and do not dive too low, everything is well articulated. It’s clean, detailed, the music takes you on a journey, we really liked it.
What about home cinema?
Why not? We connected the Denon Ceol N8 to a plasma screen via an optical S/PDIF connection while making sure the source (a Zappiti Player Mini) and the TV were sending stereo PCM to the Ceol. This type of test is very interesting since the audio track for films is usually skillfully mixed. They offer a wide dynamic range and a plethora of details (as opposed to CDs which are often too conventional). A few films and series later, the verdict is clear: it sounds really good! The dynamic range is never short of breath, the channel separation is exemplary and we can perceive many recording details, especially with voices. For instance, while watching the English show Downton Abbey, it seemed like the sound recording in the kitchens encountered a few technical issues, later fixed during the mixing phase by reinforcing high frequencies. It is unmistakable. Well mixed audio tracks are delivered with great accuracy as the stereo sound stage is particularly wide.
The Denon Ceol N8 is currently the best mini hi-fi network stereo system on the market. Well designed, perfectly manufactured, it suffers no major flaw. The only slight drawback would be the lack of progression in the sound level with high sensitivity speakers (> 92 dB/1w/1m) and that it’s necessary to make sure you do not turn the level up too high when listening to music. Our advice is to use the Ceol with high quality speakers such as the Monitor Audio MR2, Q Acoustics 2020i, Dali Zensor 1, Boston Acoustic A26, Elipson Prestige 2i or Focal Chorus 706V. Pairing it up with column speakers is absolutely possible, for instance with the Focal Chorus 714V, Highland Audio Oran 4305 or Q Acoustics 2050i. We even used it with the Focal Aria 926 which delivered a very convincing performance. There are also alternatives to the Denon Ceol N8, namely his almost identical twin-sister the Marantz M-CR610, the Marantz M-CR510 (a version fully dedicated to network) and to a lesser extent the Marantz M-CR603 and Marantz M-CR503.
EDIT: Just a quick word to mention that the Ceol N8 exists in a more compact version, without CD player and tuner, under the name Denon Ceol Piccolo N5. The amplification is completely similar. The Ceol N5 is only sold with its speakers yet deserves to be used along with more ambitious models.
This post is also available in: French