Why haven’t we seen anything for a while from Kenwood on the home electronics side? As it turns out, they’ve been hard at work designing a whole new line up of innovative products to meet the demands of today’s home theater. And it shows.
This time around we got our hands on a Kenwood Fineline Network A/V receiver – the VRS-N8100. From its looks to its functionally this receiver is nothing like the Kenwood receiver I had when I was younger. In fact, the first receiver I ever owned was a Kenwood. And yes I still have it – for sentimental value. I never have the heart to get rid of my “expired” equipment.
The VRS-N8100 is really the next generation home theater receiver. Aside from doing all the typical stuff that a modern receiver does, it also connects to your computer and allows you to play computer audio and video files in your home theater. It can also directly access pictures from your digital camera’s memory card via its PCMCIA card slot. The receiver’s power comes from a six channel digital amplifier designed by Texas Instruments and it’s capable of decoding all the latest surround formats including the latest Dolby Pro Logic IIx.
On the outside the receiver also carries next generation aesthetics. Its face features a stunning silver finish with a dark gray lower portion. The VRS-N8100 has a four line (80 character) dot matrix display capable of displaying more information than a typical receiver in a pleasant light blue colour. A high-gloss silver finish of the power button, volume knob, and ring around the multi control joystick top off the design. Many products that attempt to look modern are over done and end up looking cheap. This Kenwood receiver does actually look high tech and very elegant.
The universal remote is capable of operating most other home theater gear. It also looks and feels great in the hand. The well organized hard rubber buttons have a very unique and comfortable feel to them, unlike any other remotes that I’ve played around with in the past. Unfortunately it’s not back lit.
Front speakers connect to the receiver via banana plugs or bare wire. The center and surround speakers connect to the receiver via special connectors supplied with the receiver. Bare wires are inserted into the spring-loaded connectors, then the connectors are plugged into the back of the receiver. Don’t ask me why. This might seem cumbersome at first but it’s actually very easy to do and comes with an advantage – it’s really easy to put the plugs in and take them out if you’re switching anything around the back of the receiver.
I then configured the speaker sizes and distances following simple menus displayed on my television screen. In order to get the On Screen Display (OSD) I had to connect the receiver to the television using an S-video cable. All the setup menus were well designed and were very easy to navigate. An on-screen graphic of a home theater accompanied the speaker configuration. The VRS-N8100 does not allow you to adjust the crossover setting in the setup menu. It does this automatically depending on your speaker size selections.
Next, I installed the supplied Kenwood PC Server software on one of the computers on my network – the manual instructs you to do this before connecting the VRS-N8100 to your home network. I ran an RJ-45 Ethernet cable from the receiver to a router on my home network. On the remote, I hit the Network Server button but after about 30 seconds I got a message that my network server was not found. I hadn’t opened the receiver’s manual yet so I thought I’d give it a try. The manual instructed to disable firewall software on the computer running the Kenwood PC Server software. The software does not support any firewalls. I disabled the firewall and this time the receiver connected to my computer. The OSD menu features some basic and advanced network setup options that enable the receiver to connect to your home network. By default, the IP address for the VRS-N8100 is assigned automatically and this worked for me right away. In some cases, you might have to assign the IP address manually to the receiver. This is a little more complicated and would help if you have some computer network knowledge. Nevertheless, the manual explains all of this very clearly so it’s important to read it. Anyone with general computer skills should be able to do this. I suppose that anyone interested in this option of the receiver would have some computer knowledge anyway. I should note that you could also make the connection between the receiver and your home network wirelessly using an external wireless bridge. You can pick one up for about $50 at most computer stores.
Finally, I connected my Pioneer DV-563A universal player to the receiver with a component video cable and an optical cable.
With everything now connected, I popped Van Helsing in the DVD player and found a comfortable spot on my couch. From the opening scene right to the end of the movie the VRS-N8100 was put through continuous sonic dynamics. The deep pounding bass in the soundtrack of the movie was often accompanied by higher frequencies like rain, bullets slicing through the air, and the breaking of glass. The receiver handled the dynamics very appropriately. Not once did I have to adjust the volume. During scenes that took place inside Dracula’s castle the VRS-N8100 did a great job creating a large soundstage in my room. And what kind of movie would Van Helsing be without bats. The flapping of their wings filled the air many times throughout the movie flying from the rear to the front channels as well as side to side. The receiver shifted the sound from channel to channel very quickly creating realistic flybys.
Subsequently, I choose to watch my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring DVD. All three of the movies in this trilogy put audio and video gear through all the tests you could imagine. Again the VRS-N8100 performed very well handling the dynamics and channel to channel transitions of the heavily demanding soundtrack. The sound of the orchestra together with various sound effects of the movie filled my medium sized room with clean power and enough oomph with the volume at less then two-thirds of the way up. The receiver clearly had enough power to fill a much larger room.
The receiver did not exhibit any hiss even with the volume turned right up and no source playing. The digital amplifier also did not pop at all when navigating the controls of the DVD player such as moving through the chapters, pausing, stopping and playing the disc – nuisances that some digital amplifiers are prone to.
I concluded my DVD session with some scenes from the Chronicles of Riddick which the receiver handled in the same manner as the first two DVDs.
Next I proceeded on to listening to some music CDs including Collective Soul’s new Youth album, Women in Songs 7 for my softer side, and Guns’n’Roses Use Your Illusion II album. Through the mids and the highs the VRS-N8100 delivered spectacular performance. The width and depth of the soundstage was also great. Various types of instruments were easily recognizable and their positions on the stage could be pointed out. As with most digital amplifiers the bottom end of the frequency was -lightly anemic. However, most home theater enthusiasts might not even hear this difference.
Now it was time for me to move on to the convergence part of this receiver – the Network Server. I wanted to save this for last so it wouldn’t skew my opinion about the receiver’s sound performance. I won’t lie, I was very excited to play around with this section of the receiver because I haven’t had a chance to fiddle with any audio video streaming products until now. Hitting the ‘Network Server’ button on the remote brought me to a screen on my television that asked me to select a server. Installing the supplied software on a computer on your home network would add that computer as a server to this list. Since I only installed the software on one computer, I chose PC Server 1. This brought me to the main menu of the network server offering three main options: movie, music and photo. At this point I walked over to my computer and I quickly imported some movies, music and photographs into the designated folders in the Kenwood PC Server software. The software’s interface is clean and intuitive to use. I navigated to the music option on the screen and then selected the rock folder. Here I found all the songs that I imported through the software. Seven songs were listed in alphabetical order on each screen and I could move through the list one song at a time or by sets of seven (up or down). All menu selections and song names were also displayed on the receiver’s display (so while listening to music you could turn the television off). Navigating through all of these menus and songs was smooth without a noticeable delay. I won’t talk about the sound performance of playing mp3 or wma files because it clearly depends on the quality at which the song was encoded (the quality of these files is generally much lower than that of a CD).
Viewing photographs also went very smoothly. The receiver displays six picture thumbnails on the television screen at once and refreshes them quickly. It allows you to view the pictures through the thumbnails, full sized picture by picture or through a slideshow. It also loads full screen pictures on the screen with a good speed. The VRS-N8100 can display pictures in JPEG, BMP, GIF and PNG formats.
Watching movie files from my computer in my home theater was now also a breeze. The loading time of each movie was just as quick as on my computer. The VRS-N8100 is capable of playing MPEG1, MPEG2, and Xvid encoded movies. The popular Divx encoding will be available soon as a firmware upgrade from the Kenwood website.
I couldn’t be more satisfied with the overall performance and long feature list of the VRS-N8100. With a price tag of $1099 (MSRP) this receiver offers some serious bang for the buck with next generation styling and functionality.
MSRP: $1099.99 (Canadian)
Kenwood VRS-N8100 Features:6 channel digital amplifier
32-bit SHARC floating-point DSP processing
weight: 10.1 lb (4.6 kg)
dimensions (HxWxD): 3-1/8” x 17-5/16”x 14-5/16” (79 mm x 440 mm x 364 mm)
power consumption: 95 watts
Amplifier:100 watts x 6 channels (1 kHz, 0.7% THD, 6 ohms)
6 channel Pure-Path digital amplifier built by Texas Instruments
Decoding:Dobly Digital EX, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic IIx, Dolby Virtual Speaker, Dolby Headphone, DSP Mode
Inputs/Outputs:2 component inputs / 1 output
2 S-video inputs / 1 output
2 composite inputs / 1 output
1 auxilary input (stereo)
2 digital coaxial inputs
2 digital optical inputs
subwoofer pre out
surround back (l,r) pre out
PCMCIA card slot