Reviews

Review: Denon Ceol Piccolo N4 (with Q Acoustics, Tangent and Wharfedale speakers)

This week we’re testing the Denon DRA-N4 network player, with no less than three pairs of speakers ? Tangent X4, Wharfedale 220 as well as the famous Q Acoustics Concept 20. The Denon DRA-N4 was, up until now, marketed by Denon with just one pair of home speakers, under the name Denon Ceol Piccolo N4. Now available on its own, the Denon DRA-N4 amp was well worth a test, seeing as how we had been bowled over by the performance of the Denon RCD-N9, from which it directly originates.

Denon Piccolo DRA-N4

The Denon Piccolo DRA-N4 amp and the three speakers used for this test

Denon Ceol N4 and N9: main differences

The Denon DRA-N4 amp is the version without CD player or analog tuner of the Denon RCD-N9. It is smaller, measuring only 20 cm wide, 9 cm long and 24 cm deep. Fitted with a less powerful power supply, but featuring similar amplification which culminates in 2×40 Watts (at 4 Ohms), which is more than enough for compact speakers (or high sensitivity).

Denon DRA-N4

The Denon DRA-N4 is very compact and easily installed

Denon Piccolo N4: functions

The Denon DRA-N4 amp features a USB input, a double network Ethernet and WiFi controller, a Bluetooth receiver, an analog stereo line input and an optical digital audio input. The USB port allows you to connect an iPod, iPhone or iPad to play music. The display takes the information relating to the track being played. The USB port enables MP3 or FLAC files to be played from a USB flash drive or hard drive (FAT32 format partition only). Playing FLAC files with the same resolution (up to 24 bits and 192 kHz) is carried out without any gaps between each file (gapless mode). The Bluetooth receiver lets you listen to music from any computer, smartphone or Bluetooth tablet (SBC and AAC codecs are supported, the apt-X isn’t).

Denon Piccolo DRA-N4

The large remote control is precious as it is very convenient. It comes in the same colours as the amp, i.e. black or white.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: AirPlay

Denon hasn’t left anything to chance regarding network audio streaming. The Denon DRA-N4 amp is AirPlay compatible, meaning that any computer with iTunes, Mac, iPhone, iPod touch or iPad can use the amp as a render device or network sound card. Transmission quality is equivalent to that of a CD and therefore isn’t compressed. This is convenient for listening to any music or online music (Deezer) from an iDevice.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: Spotify Connect

This is a welcome function for those who have a pay subscription to Spotify Premium via the Spotify web site. Using the Spotify app for iOS or Android, users can play music directly on the Denon DRA-N4. To do this, click on the Spotify app speaker icon during playback and choose the Denon N4 as the playback device. Unlike AirPlay, it’s not the smartphone which streams the music but the Denon amp which receives it directly via the Internet from the Spotify servers.

Denon Ceol Piccolo DRA-N4

Using the official Spotify app for iOS or Android, a simple click on the circled green speaker brings up the list of Spotify compatible devices connected to the local network.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: audio servers

The Denon DRA-N4 amp is also DLNA compatible, meaning several things. Firstly, the amp can detect the active DLNA / UPnP servers on the local network. These can be active on a computer, Internet receiver box, NAS or computer (the necessary software is required ? Serviio, Foobar2000 with plugin or JRiver Media Center for example). Various file formats are handled, such as MP3, M4A (AAC and Apple Lossless), WAV or FLAC (from 16/44 to 24/192). A second aspect of DLNA compatibility is the fact that the N4 can be used as a render device or network sound card with many Android or Apple smartphones, either using the official Denon app (free) or with a third-party app (Bubble UPnP). Transmission quality is lossless and HD file (FLAC ? 24/192) playback is possible.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: Internet radio

The integration of the vTuner protocol ensures access to thousands of Internet radio stations in MP3 quality. The wide OLED screen facilitates the file search and playback. The ideal solution is to use the Denon Hi-Fi app dedicated to Denon N4 and N9 amps, particularly for managing your favourites. Don’t hesitate to consult the vTuner site to check what stations are on offer.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: ease of use

We found this little amp elegant and very well finished, particularly the black gloss coating, which is remarkably dense and deep. Control buttons are on the top panel. The remote control is large and really easy to use, particularly the soft rubber buttons. The Denon Hi-Fi control app, which is more recent, is a better choice compared to the older Denon Remote app.

Denon Ceol Piccolo DRA-N4

Control buttons are located on the top panel of the amp

Denon Ceol Piccolo DRA-N4

The small-scale dimensions of the amp reduce the number of connectors. There are, however, an optical input and an analog input. The banana plugs of the Audioquest Star Quad Type 4 cable fit right in the terminals.

The back panel features two pairs of push terminals which are compatible with exposed cables (2.5 to 4 mm²) and some banana plugs. The Viard Audio banana plugs and those from our test cable, the Audioquest Star Quad Type 4 were inserted without any difficulty. Two auxiliary inputs are also present, one analog (RCA format) and the other digital (Toslink optical). An RCA mono pre-out output enables an active subwoofer to be connected. Two little red buttons allow connection to a WiFi network (WPS and iOS protocols).

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: amplification

The Denon DRA-N4 amp uses a switch-mode power supply (high sensitivity) and Class D amplification. The digital audio signal is converted in modulated PWM signals depending on the desired volume and converted directly in the output stage as analog sound. This technology is used in models such as the Denon PMA-50, Denon RCD-N9 or NAD D3020 and NAD7050.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: implementation

We connected the Denon DRA-N4 amp to our local network using a WiFi connection. Press the SETUP button on your remote control to carry out a quick configuration. Typing in our WiFi code took the longest, with over 40 characters to type using the remote control.

NB: before listening, we advise you to access the amp’s SETUP menu in order to deactivate the optimization for Denon speakers, activated by default.

If this is not carried out, the volume of low frequencies will be abnormally high. The same goes for the Denon RCD-N9 amp.

Denon Ceol Piccolo DRA-N4

The Denon N4 is full of good ideas. Here, volume adjustment is possible to take up listening again after music is muted

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: enjoyable features

  • The headphone amp, breathtaking power and precision, thundering bass. Big surprise!
  • The creation of favourites from Internet radio stations and any other shared file
  • Tone settings ? super bass, as well as -/+ 8 dB for bass and/or treble frequencies
  • Network control ? allows the amp to be switched on with the Denon iOS or Android application
  • Adjustable display lighting using the remote control, time display with time zone selection using the Internet
  • Alarm once a week/day with input selection or audio favourite
  • Mute ? allows users to adjust volume before starting up again
  • Headphone output. Not just there to look pretty but leaves listeners speechless thanks to its excellent performances
Denon Ceol Picollo DRA-N4

The headphone output: surprising control and power

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: our listening impressions

After the ten-hour break-in period, during which listening was slightly muddled and dry, we found the same sound signature as that of the Denon RCD-N9 amp. Bass is solid from the lowest volume and the sound stage is wide, deep and precise.

Denon Piccolo DRA-N4

The Denon Piccolo DRA-N4 with Tangent Spectrum X4 speakers

Denon Ceol DRA-N4 and Tangent Spectrum X4 speakers

The Tangent Spectrum X4 speakers are small 2-way bass-reflex bookshelf speakers with a 4″ driver and 1″ silk dome tweeter. Their sensitivity is 86 dB for 1 Watt at 1 metre distance and their power handling is approximately 80 W. Tangent declares a frequency response ranging between 70 Hz and 20 kHz. In other words, this speaker is designed for close listening and is not meant to reproduce very low frequencies with an incredible precision.

Despite their soft characteristics, the Tangent Spectrum X4 aren’t, in any way, deficient and express themselves with energy. Balance is steady with energy centred in the medium range. Immediately charming, listening to the Denon DRA-N4 paired up with Tangent Spectrum X4 will suit those listeners looking for an uncomplicated audio message. Although they’re not excellent, these speakers do the job but no more. Their strong points is their small size and appealing design.

Denon Piccolo DRA-N4

The Denon Piccolo DRA-N4 and Wharfedale Diamond 220 speakers… a winning pair.

Denon Ceol DRA-N4 and Wharfedale Diamond 220 speakers

The large format Wharfedale Diamond 220 speakers with a 5″ bass/medium driver in a bass-reflex enclosure with a down-firing port. The 220 is fitted with base supports which allow it to be placed on any surface without any obstruction to the port.

From the very first notes, we realise that the Denon DRA-N4 and Wharfedale 220 are made for each other.

This speaker stands out for its linearity in the medium range and the airiness of high frequencies. Volume is well adapted and the level of low frequencies is appropriate. Tone signature is solid and the delivered message is always appealing.

Denon Piccolo DRA-N4

The Denon Piccolo DRA-N4 amp and Q Acoustics Concept 20 speakers

Denon Ceol DRA-N4 and Q Acoustics Concept 20 speakers

A move up in range with the Q Acoustics Concept 20. The double cabinet is injected with a cushioning gel placed between each panel. Stocky and heavy, the Concept 20 features a 5″ bass/medium driver and a 1″ silk dome tweeter. The specific nature of this tweeter is that it uses ferrofluid in the mobile equipment, thus reducing heat and any dynamic compression at a supported volume. The Q Acoustics Concept 20 can play hard without going overboard nor reducing the range of the music playing. Paired with the Denon Ceol N4 amp, it shows character and displays energy, from upper bass to treble. We find the stunning sound placement of its big brother, the Q Acoustics 2050i. This little speaker has all the attributes of a larger model minus the infra-bass extension.

Q Acoustics Concept 20

The ferrofluid tweeter in the Q Acoustics Concept 20 speaker

Denon Ceol DRA-N4: some tracks we listened to

We listened to numerous FLAC files with three different pairs of speakers, often changing model during playback for a better comparison. Here’s a selection of tracks we listened to and our thoughts on each speaker used with the Denon DRA-N4 amp.

Urgent (live, The Best of 4 and more), Foreigner, FLAC – 16/44
This live album is remarkably balanced. Drums are credibly mixed. In other words, it thuds very hard in the infra-bass. The sound take is exceptional even though the final mix is relatively compressed.

  1. Tangent Spectrum X4: lively, direct but short in bass and lacking broadness. We like it but we’re not blown away by it.
  2. Wharfedale Diamond 220: more open listening experience. Higher and wider sound stage. The saxophone starting at 4:35 is delivered with intensity but without being projected forward. Bass and treble ranges are better.
  3. Q Acoustics Concept 20: clear sense of scale and macro-dynamics. Direct but subtle delivery with a slight coloration of the medium which serves as a guide for sound placement. Upper bass is brash.

Foreigner Urgent live

Same to You, Melody Gardot (FLAC – 16/44)
This track benefits from a neutral tonal balance without any modification.

  1. Tangent Spectrum X4: the speaker adds clarity, admittedly not neutral but the X4 makes the track easier to listen to for those who prefer gentle listening. Bass is short, which makes sense, given the size of the speaker. By activating the amp’s low frequency improvement function, the track gains in depth.
  2. Wharfedale Diamond 220: the 220 impresses with its bass articulation, not overpowering but well presented. The softness of the tweeter and its bright nature in the treble range brings a permanent brightness to the sound message. The singer’s voice is well placed.
  3. Q Acoustics Concept 20: the structuring of sound patterns in depths is eloquent. The Concept 20 plays in another category. Softer in the treble, it’s not as easy to listen to as the Wharfedale on this track. The upper bass is bold and beefs up the sound of the saxophone.

A Sky Full of Stars (Live At The Royal Albert Hall), Coldplay, FLAC – 16/44
Not the best sound take but great atmosphere and a really good test for turbulent tweeters as the synth plays loud.

  1. Tangent Sectrum X4: the right balance, energetic delivery but well controlled. Chris Martin’s distant voice is well presented. Hats off!
  2. Wharfedale Diamond 220: faultless, easy to listen to, soft and subtle. Capitivating listening experience.
  3. Q Acoustics Concept 20: once again, the different sound patterns benefit from a better structure. Listening is a bit frustrating in the bass range as we would prefer more magnitude.

I love you Porgy, Nina Simone (FLAC – 16/44)

  1. Tangent Spectrum X4: the artist’s voice is to the fore. The piano is quite rightly highlighted. This type of recording is ideal for the X4.
  2. Wharfedale Diamond 220: the sound take lacking in high frequencies benefits from the attention of the tweeter, which, without adjusting the message, adds an undisputed brightness. The double bass and piano ?go down’ correctly in the low frequencies. Great balance.
  3. Q Acoustics Concept 20: excellent delivery. The artist’s phrasing is sensational.

5055779348759_600The ecstasy of gold, Ennio Morricone (FLAC – 16/44)

  1. Tangent Spectrum: risky exercise for this little speaker whose cabinet isn’t adequately large to deliver the epic breath of this track. Infra-bass notes at 1:48 are lost completely.
  2. Wharfedale Diamond 220: it can do everything. Edda Del Orso’s voice floating on the left, the bells ringing at the end are easy to perceive despite the instrumental surge. More than convincing.
  3. Q Acoustics Concept 20: great power for such a little speaker with great structuring of sound patterns. Slight coloration of the medium range to the advantage of a precision which is difficult to find fault with.

Conclusions

The Denon Ceol Piccolo DRA-N4 amp is of the same calibre as the Denon RCD-N9 and is at ease with all types of music. We liked its ease of use, the different listening options on offer and its ability to establish a credible sound stage at a low volume. In a 30 m² living room or for close listening, this amp should satisfy those listeners wanting to listen to digital music from a computer or smartphone. The headphone output is of a very high quality.

Of the three speakers, the Wharfedale Diamond 220 was the easiest to listen to thanks to its subtle balance and the excellent filtering qualities of its tweeter. The Q Acoustics Concept 20 has more control and energy and will delight those listeners looking for precision.

For improved bass, we recommend the use of a subwoofer connected to the Denon N4 amp (specific RCA output).

Wharfedale Diamond 220

The bass/medium driver in the Wharfedale Diamond 220, a safe bet with the Denon Ceol N4 amp

This post is also available in: French

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

Tristan est rédacteur chez Son-Vidéo.com. Passionné de musique, d'acoustique et de high-tech, il réalise notamment les tests matériels pour notre blog.

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