Hands-on: HEOS by Denon multi-room system review

Denon has announced the HEOS by Denon multi-room audio system that is hoping to take Sonos on "head-to-head".

The system will launch with five units to start with, but Denon is planning to introduce another speaker similar in size to Sonos's Play 1 in January 2015.

We have spent some time with the HEOS 3, HEOS 5 and HEOS 7, along with the HEOS Link and HEOS Amp to see how the system performs and give you our first impressions on the system set to hit the market in mid-August.

Simple set-up

When it comes to set-up, everything is pretty simple and literally only took a couple of minutes from taking it out of the box to setting it up with your device, whether that's is Android or iOS. Yes, we actually timed them.

You can either set it up with a network cable, or a cable that connects your device to the speaker, and the app will guide you through everything you need to do. It would be difficult to run into any trouble even if audio isn't your strong point.

An LED light at the bottom of each of the speakers will light up based on the status of the speaker, for example blue indicates connected, while flashing blue indicates it is searching for devices to connect to.

Once you have set-up one HEOS speaker in your home though, any other HEOS speakers you buy will copy the connection information so you'll only have to connect using a cable once, which is definitely handy.

Easy to navigate app

The app itself is very simple to navigate and while the HEOS by Denon system has some great features, its simplicity is certainly one of its best attributes. There are essentially three elements to the app, which compromise Rooms, Music and Now Playing.

The Rooms section is where you will find a list of all the speakers in your house connected to your device. One exciting part of this section is you can group the rooms together by holding down on the name of one speaker and dragging it on top of another, similar to how you organise apps into folders on Android and iOS. Moving one speaker above another speaker will turn it into the lead speaker.

You can also perform a feature called Pinch to Party in this section, which is where you use your fingers to pinch speakers together to create a party mode encompassing all the speakers in your home together.

The Music section of the app is where you will find all the streaming services compatible with the HEOS by Denon system such as Spoitfy, Deezer, Napster and Pandora.

Although not all streaming services will be available at launch, Denon believes it has catered for 80 per cent of people, and there will be a quarterly update to the system where the company will add another streaming service each time, such as iTunes which is on the list.

Additionally, you'll find access to local music, whether that be on your device itself or a NAS drive for example, so you can play any track from them too. So HEOS gets off to a strong start, with plenty of music options.

The Now Playing section is how you control the system itself. If you want to play, pause, control the volume or see what's playing, this is the section that you would head to.

All three sections are accessible no matter where you are in the app, similar to the base bar of apps on your Android or iOS device.

There are a couple of things that could possibly do with a little ironing out and hopefully they will come with a future update or before the system launches, such as the ability to import playlists, which is currently not possible.

The feature that allows anyone connected to the speakers to add a track to the Queue could possibly do with a disable function, as some might not like it that anyone can change the order of a Queue, or or make changes to your careful selection.

How it works

Adding to a Queue is easily done though, and you get a list of three options - Play Next, Play Now & Replace, or Add to the End. Saving a Queue is also easy and is done by pressing a star at the top of the list, which is certainly something you should do if you don't want to lose your playlist by someone overwriting it.

A saved playlist will go be stored on the cloud in your HEOS account that you will have to set-up, but from here you will be able to access your history and playlists, plus you can have multiple HEOS accounts connected to the speakers which is another handy feature.

If you want to edit a Queue, you can do so by clicking the pencil at the top of the display when you are in the Queue section and you can also rename speakers by heading into the settings and moving into My Devices, which makes them much easier to find.

The settings section of the app also gives you the option to agree to share the music on your device with the HEOS by Denon system, which means that you can access the music on any device in your household that has its music sharing turned on. We like this a lot, as if you have a device with all your music on but it is tucked away in your drawer upstairs, you can still stream music from it without having to go and get it.

Good performance

When it comes to performance itself, the speakers certainly make themselves known in a room and on first impressions they all sound good, especially the HEOS 7. We wouldn't make a judgment until we get them in for full review but they sound promising, which you'd expect from an audio brand like Denon.

The one thing we did notice was the volume control on the app seemed like it could do with a little work, as it didn't seem to pick up until it reached around a third of the way through the slider. However there are volume buttons on the speakers themselves so you can use those to crank up the volume if you need to.

However, you can control multiple speaker's volume with the master slider underneath and this will keep the ratio the same, which always a useful feature. Volume can of course be controlled separately and the response time between the app and speaker seemed to be quick.

There was a little lag when Spotify was launched and a song was selected but it wasn't anything too alarming.

Good design

In terms of design, we really like the HEOS by Denon system. All three speakers, as well as the amp and link, look premium and the £249 to £499 price tag for the speakers fits in with the competition at that end of the market.

There is a digital input on both the amp and the link units, which will allow you to add them to your TV sound system and the amp will transform any pair of speakers into a HEOS zone, similar to how Sonos Connect works.

While there didn't seem to be any issues the system using Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, there is also a HEOS Extend device available that will help extend your Wi-Fi range and access point, although we didn't get the chance to see this in action.

Overall, we were impressed with the HEOS system. It looks good, sounds great and has some interesting features that could grab the interest of the market. Importantly, from what we've seen so far, it looks like it offers many of the features that make Sonos so popular, giving you more choice when it comes to choosing your multi-room system.

Its simplicity is certainly one of its selling points and it will be interesting to see how the system performs in full review and how it expands in the future with a soundbar, speaker base and subwoofer all mentioned.

We will bring you a full review closer to launch date.