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Test Stereo Amplifiers - Driving Your Tunes Forward (Part 1) : Denon PMA-720AE

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Pick the right amplifier and your music will flourish. We’ve tested four budget contenders to find out who’s racing ahead and who’s stalled at the lights

At the heart of any Hi-Fi system lies the amplifier. Whether you’re new to the world of hi-fi and are planning to build up your very first system or a seasoned enthusiast who’s looking for an upgrade, getting the right stereo amplifier is critical if you want the best out of your music collection.

We’ve got some familiar faces amid new contenders here.

We’ve got some familiar faces amid new contenders here.

Whether you’re playing your tunes via a CD player, a streamer or a turntable, all four amplifiers on test here are versatile enough to do the job and at a great price. With every model here costing between $539 and $809, this lot presents the proof that you don’t have to dip too deeply into your savings to get the perfect music system.

We’ve got some familiar faces amid new contenders here. The newly crowned Award-winner from Rotel goes head-to-head with its predecessor Marantz in a hotly anticipated comparison, while the likes of Denon and Onkyo join the fight in what promises to be a formidable test. So turn the page to see who excels at what, and which stereo amplifier made us bow in admiration.

Denon PMA-720AE: $626

We haven’t had a new budget amplifier from Denon for a while now, so what better way to start off this group test than with the brand-new PMA-720AE integrated stereo amplifier.

When we last saw a similar Denon – the PMA-710AE we tested back in 2010 – We claimed it to be the most thrilling Denon amp we’ve heard in ages. And the new PMA-720AE that replaces it certainly gets off to a good start.

Denon PMA-720AE

Denon PMA-720AE

Build quality is excellent. The Denon is solid and weighty, with black or premium silver finishes and an array of buttons and dials that have just the right weight and feel to them – it’s a pleasure to use and feels like a quality piece of hi-fi kit. There are five line-level inputs ample to connect to your CD player, streaming device and so on and a moving-magnet phono stage for a turntable. Two sets of speaker outputs, tape loop, headphone and precuts round up the exhaustive list of specs.

Queue up a playlist of Major Lazer, Nine Inch Nails and even Rhianna, and the Denon happily zips through with speed and alacrity

Straight away the Denon sounds strong and confident, with good levels of clear detail. We’d definitely keep the Source Direct button on – it bypasses the tone and balance controls for a more subtle and purer sound.

The 720 retains that surefooted sense of timing that we praised in the 710, with the added benefit of a tauter, more controlled bass. This amp does have a penchant for a forward-sounding midrange/treble, but there’s no excess brightness to that top end, which has space to breathe. Play Quincy Jones’s Blues in the Night and the brass section soars with energy.

A very specific sound

There is, however, hardness to the sound that the amp refuses to part with. Leave it running in and you’ll find that hard edge starting to thaw but only up to a point. The PMA-720AE is a stubborn and uncompromising performer, with a determined sound that won’t allow itself to loosen up. That doesn’t mean there’s any enjoyment lost, but such a particular presentation means the Denon will favor certain styles of music over others.

Play the record of 18 With A Bullet by Lewis Taylor and Carleen Anderson, and the Denon charges through the mellow do-wop tune with undue impatience and zeal. In its determination to get the song out, it doesn’t slow down to relay the subtleties of voices, or the track’s undulating dynamics. Switch to the Dust Brothers composed Fight Club soundtrack, and the Denon revels in a tightly controlled net of drum loops and computerized samples. Queue up a playlist of Major Lazer, Nine Inch Nails and even Rhianna, and the Denon happily zips through with speed and alacrity – if it suits your music style, the amp is a thoroughly energetic and entertaining listen.

The PMA-720AE applies the same approach to a soft, emotional song as to a metronomic drum-and-bass track

The PMA-720AE applies the same approach to a soft, emotional song as to a metronomic drum-and-bass track

The PMA-720AE applies the same approach to a soft, emotional song as to a metronomic drum-and-bass track. While it has plenty of verve, its unyielding character might not hold up against rivals at such a competitive price point.

Speaker matching

This Denon amplifier’s got quite a hard-edged, yet fast and taut delivery. If you cherish that kind of sound, you’re going to need a matching pair of speakers that’ll really do it justice. We’d go for the budget Wharfedale Diamond 121s – these speakers are fantastic value for money, and will make the most out of the Denon’s abilities.

Rating: 4/5

For: Excellent build and finish; snappy and energetic timing; taut bass and clear highs

Against: Unyielding sound that won’t suit all songs; lacks dynamic subtlety

Verdict: Entertaining and capable, but that stubborn sonic personality counts against it

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