New year’s resolution
With the arrival of 8K resolution, this year’s AV receivers are arriving with compatibility built-in. But for most users it’ll be the sonic upgrades that make this entry point to Denon X-Series such an useful and authoritative streaming sonic hub.
Several television manufacturers are leading (and pushing) the leap to 8K resolution — four times 4K or 16 times full-HD — in the hope you’ll upgrade your TV. But really there’s virtually zero 8K material yet to watch; indeed few people spend much time watching even 4K, unless you’re picking movies carefully from the premium plans of streaming services or are building up a collection of lovely 4K Blu-ray discs.
The one exception is gaming, with the new generation of PlayStation and Xbox promising to support 8K gaming output. AV receivers, then, need to follow, to offer those who are persuaded a complete path from source to display.
Denon has just released its first 8K-compatible models with its 2020 X-Series, topped by the $6199 AVC-X6700H with its 13.2-channel processing and 11 channels of amplification. Three models below this is the lowest rung of the X-Series, the $1999 AVR-X2700H.
Lowest rung of the series it may be, but don’t be thinking that means the X2700H comes under-equipped. It brings all the fire-power of its predecessor, the AVR-X2600H; indeed there’s little to separate the new model from old as far as looks and feel go. This is again a sturdy device that needs a solid shelf and room to breathe.
Specs-wise the headline addition over its predecessor is the single 8K/60Hz HDMI 2.1 input, which can also pass through 4K video at 120Hz, so opening the way for the demands of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Interestingly it drops to six HDMI inputs overall (from eight in the predecessor), and also loses an AUX1 on the rear and the quick access AUX2 that was on the front face next to the powered USB 2.0 socket, which remains.
The channel configuration is unchanged. There are seven power amplifier channels available (alongside undifferentiated outputs for two subwoofers) which can be set for anything up to 7.1 or 5.1.2 arrangements, and still rated at a headline 150W per channel, though it’s stated as 95W into 8 ohms at more hi-fi specifications, .
There is no front ‘trap door’ as found on the higher Denon AV receivers, and there’s a less rich selection of easily accessible on-device controls. You can still switch inputs, tune the radio and operate a second listening zone with the hard buttons on offer, but you’ll need to use the fully-featured remote for the majority of your set-up and playback options.
And given it carries Denon’s HEOS streaming multiroom platform within, you also have the option of app control via HEOS, plus voice control through a choice of Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri-enabled devices. All the wireless standards for music found in the previous model remain — AirPlay 2, Spotify, Tidal, and Bluetooth, this last having been revised to deliver Bluetooth out as well as in, so the AVR-X2700H can direct audio to a set of wireless headphones at the same time as your speakers — handy for privacy, for any hearing impaired family member, or perhaps if you just like things rather louder than everyone else in the room.
Another addition is that all of Denon’s 2020 X-Series AVRs are now ‘Roon Tested’ devices, meaning that you can have Roon music playback through your speaker package as well.
There may be just the one fully HDMI 2.1-certified input, but the other five are all 4K-compatible with the Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), Quick Frame Transport (QFT), and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM) lag-minimising technologies to fit with the demands of nextgeneration and gaming content.
They can also cope with the full suite of HDR standards, with HDR10+, HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision all represented. Both of the HDMI outputs are also 2.1-certified, so should you have both a TV and a projector in your system you can send 8K@60Hz and/or 4K@120Hz out to them both. The eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel) is supported on both sockets as well.
The AVR-X2700H decodes Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, although for the (much) lesser-used IMAX Enhanced or Auro-3D you’d need to step up to the Denon AVR-X3700H or beyond.
Setting up is as easy as most of the best consumer receivers today, including the onboard Audyssey speaker calibration technology, which is here a slightly lighter version than on its bigger brothers. The MultEQ XT measurements needed only a few tweaks to the levels before we were happy with the set-up. You can also switch between two sets of Audyssey measurements if you can’t quite make up your mind.
If we had to use one word to describe the sound of this receiver, it would be ‘confident’. The sonic improvements over its predecessor were marked, the 2700 having a maturity of presentation which didn’t try too hard to impress (as a nervously underpowered budget amp might) with huge blasts from the front pair or the subwoofer during the space dogfight in
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Rather the Denon presented the whole soundtrack with authority and a complete lack of strain. It’s an easy and effective listen, the subwoofer outputs underpinning crystal clarity of soundtrack music, voices and surround effects. No matter how hectic the action, the Denon never missed a beat, passing the laser blasts from speaker to speaker in a coherent manner and creating a genuine sense of place.
‘Virtualised’ height effects are available through Dolby and DTS processing technologies for that added dimension. While this certainly lifts the lid a little, you inevitably lose some of that clarity of insight and excitement. Our preference was to stick with the less processed ‘Direct’ mode.
Playing Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we enjoyed the Denon’s delivery of scale as the UFOs came joyriding through the quiet Indiana countryside. It layered an excellent ebb and flow of hum behind the chaos and confusion as the alien craft picked up Roy Neary’s truck for a good shaking, with wonderful detailing of the bottles, cans and newspapers spilling out of the glove compartment, the revving engine and the maniacal ringing of the railway crossing bell — and then just the still of cicadas in the night when the clamour suddenly stops.
Good for movies, then — how about music? We need little excuse to load up Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and the Denon continued to deliver, the acoustic guitar strings clean and clipped with textured jangling as David Byrne plays Heaven on top of Tina Weymouth’s tight fuzzy bass. Even slower songs such as this came across with a sense of momentum.
It may be the 8K pass-through compatibility and next-gen gaming tech that get the upgrade headlines here, but the sonic tweaks deserve just as much attention. You can go higher for more inputs, channels and codecs, but the X-Series quality is fully in place at this entry point to the range. The tyranny of distance and local standards must contribute to the Australian RRP, notably above what conversion from the UK would yield (and of course from US tax-less price levels) but its polished, mature and effortless delivery should run a room of anything but the most difficult speakers for a full home cinema experience. And when (if) you finally do make that leap to 8K resolution, your future-proofed Denon receiver will be ready to receive.
Modern-day audio fans may be surprised to learn that back in the 1970s, Shure was far and away the biggest name in the hi-fi business, by virtue of selling more phono cartridges than every other phono cartridge manufacturer put together, and that included the world’s most expensive cartridge, the V15 (above) and variants. Shure’s US factories produced nearly 10,000,000 cartridges per year.
Pretty good for a company that Sidney Shure kicked off as a one-man operation in the back streets of Chicago in 1925. Initially named The Shure Radio Company, because Sidney sold radio parts, the name was changed to Shure Brothers after Sidney’s brother Sam joined the business in 1928, later shortened to just Shure Bros, now Shure Incorporated.
Shure was also the biggest name in the microphone business, with the SM58 being the microphone of choice for professional vocalists around the world, its proximity effect enriching the tonal quality of any singer who used one. The SM58 has been the bestselling microphone in the world since the late 1960s.
Shure never quite got its foot on the running plate of the vinyl revival as did some cartridge rivals like Ortofon, so that the news in 2018 that Shure was closing its phono division and stopping cartridge manufacturer was sad, if not a complete surprise. Almost more of a surprise is to see the company now launching more explicitly into the consumer headphone market, and into the highly competitive wireless noise-cancelling arena at that, with the Shure Aonic 50s. Given a recommended price of $599, they have plenty of competition — the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 ($599), Sennheiser Momentum 3 ($599), Bose 700 ($599), not to mention Sony’s WH-1000XM4 undercutting them at $495.
Build & features
Shure’s Aonic 50s certainly look every bit the part of a modern pair of up-market noise-cancelling over-ear headphones.
The detachable leather-and-memory-foam ear-pads are attached to robust plastic ear-cups, which in turn are connected to a leather-covered headband via aluminium arms that articulate through 90 degrees to allow the headphones to lie flat. The ear-pads are easy to remove and re-attach, making replacement possible after a few years of use.
Each ear-cup is embossed with a classy metallic ‘Shure’ logo. The leather comes in two colour choices: black and brown. Our loaners were brown, in a shade we’d describe as ‘milk chocolate’ brown.
The Shure’s left-hand ear-cup has only the 2.5mm socket for making a wired connection, which gives the best sound quality (see below), and will be essential for in-flight connection as well as being handy as a back-up when you run out of battery power.
The right ear-cup has two buttons for up/down volume control flanking a button used for play/pause, next track, previous track and answer/end/decline calls. There’s also a three-position slider to switch between active noise-cancelling, ‘Off’ and an ‘Environment’ ‘transparency’ mode that that feeds through outside noise.
Shure’s active noise-cancelling circuitry has two different levels to choose from: ‘normal’ and ‘max’, while you can also adjust the intensity of the Environment mode through 10 levels, although you need the ‘ShurePlus Play’ app to make these adjustments. This app is a free download for Android and iOS devices, and provides more than simply control, being a high-res music player serving up to 24-bit/352kHz where WAV and FLAC files are concerned. The app also offers EQ settings — there are a few presets and the facility to save quite a number of custom settings too. But again EQ adjustment is only available through the app, so that music arriving via streaming services is delivered with the Shures’ default sonic signature.
The final switch on the right ear-cup is for power on/off and Bluetooth pairing. It has a small LED built into it that signals
pairing and battery life, while a quick doublepress will summon a voice to tell you how much battery life is left.
Speaking of battery life, the USB-C socket on the left ear-cup functions as a charging port, though you can also play music from computer that way. Shure claims a battery life of around 20 hours with noise-cancelling and Bluetooth — similar to most, less than some, but more than sufficient for most trips. The Bluetooth supports aptX, aptX HD and aptX Low Latency for devices which support them.
The drivers are large — 50mm — backed by neodymium magnets. While that helps the sound, as we’ll hear, it makes the headphones quite large and, since their hinges lack an upward fold, that makes the sturdy circular carry case even larger, too large indeed, at 250mm in diameter, like a cake tin. At least there’s plenty of room inside for storage — a spare phone, a couple of USB chargers, a week’s worth of underwear. For day-to-day carriage we just flattened them and shoved them in our daybag. Though there is a design flaw here, as when they’re flat the headshells can bang and rattle against the yokes. Shure clearly knows about this because the headphones ship with two foam pads covering the contact points, presumably to stop them becoming marked during shipment — but not once you’re using them! One suspects this will be amended on any future MkII Aonics.
One bit of tech missing here is auto powerdown, so you do have to remember to turn them off. We won’t overly criticise this, as we’re more often annoyed by headphones that do turn themselves off, but too quickly!
Although Shure is still a wholly US-owned corporation operating in the USA, and the Shure Aonic 50 headphones are designed in the US, Shure manufactures them in China.
Streaming from a Sony Xperia 5 via Tidal, we found that the Shure Aonic 50s extracted the musical fundamentals from everything we played. Whether you like Claude Debussy or Kamasi Washington, the Aonic 50s give chapter and verse in the most natural, expressive and detailed manner possible.
The low frequencies are deep, textured and well-edged, starting and stopping with absolute control, and blending seamlessly into the frequencies above. Playing Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy in 24-bit, the Aonic 50s delivered a lesson in bass precision, with tight bass thwacks and precise, snappy clicks.
Across the midrange, the Shures demonstrated their complete command of timbre, and they are wonderfully open in the highest frequencies, the soundstage spacious, wide and coherently laid out, while overall the Shure Aonic 50s delivered an impeccable balance between attack, substance and brilliance. There was ample drive and shine to the treble, with not a hint of any hardness or grittiness. Thanks to the Shure’s appetite for detail, we could pinpoint every element of the track. Noise-cancelling at the ‘normal’ level achieves effective cancellation without the ‘sucking out’ often experienced with more extreme noise-cancelling tech of some other brands. The higher setting certainly ups the cancellation, but dramatically shifted the sonic balance of the headphones to sound thicker and introduced audible hiss caused by the noise-cancelling circuitry doing its thing; we preferred the ‘normal’ setting. While most will listen primarily via the Bluetooth (or through the app) there are two further ways to listen to the Shures — via the provided minijack-tomicrojack cable, and via USB-C, plugged from the socket into a computer. Switching to direct cable playback is quite a shift up in quality — the slight sibilance on vocals disappears entirely, and the soundstage is solidified with significantly better clarity for individual instruments; you couldn’t fail to pick the improvement in A-B switching, noting that the improvement will vary according to the quality of Bluetooth with which you are streaming and the DAC of the device to which you are cabled. You can play via cable without turning on the headphones, but if you do you can also use the ANC and talk-through modes. Invoking ANC on the cable does remove some warmth from the tonal balance, but will give fine results as the connection of choice for inflight audio.
For USB-C playback the Shures must be powered up to appear as a playback device; our Mac coupld play to them at anything from 16-bit/44.1kHz up to 32-bit/352kHz. ANC can again be used, with a similar slight thinning in sound, but the non-ANC USB playback delivered the absolute height of the Shure’s sonic abilities, which speaks well to Shure’s DAC and audio circuits, and is highly recommended, though take care with volume, as USB playback disables the volume controls on the headphones. Your only limitation here is the 108cm length of the supplied cable, though that’s ideal for use with a laptop as your music source.
Shure hasn’t put a step wrong with the Aonic 50s, levering the company’s sonic credentials to deliver a pair of comfortable, luxurious and fine-sounding noise-cancellers. It seems a bit rough to say we’d reject them on the size of the carry-case, but it certainly makes them impractical for travel, which is kinda the core market for this type of headphone. Yet they sound great — balanced, subtle, yet energetic, and they only get better when you go to their cables.