Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
As I’ve said more than once here lately: with well-established brands, once you get to a certain level of product you can very nearly take performance for granted these days. At least in the two-channel domain. It really just comes down to whether or not the product in question fits your specific needs.
And yes, that definitely applies to a brand like Denon. Just to name one example, the company’s sadly discontinued PMA-150H ($1099, all prices USD) is one of my absolute favorite integrated amps of the past decade. It’s a feature-packed digital tour de force that’s perfect for anyone with a 2.1-channel speaker system and a penchant for streaming. With only 35Wpc of rated output, though, it won’t drive my big three-way Paradigms to their full potential when those are in my system, at least not without the help of a sub, and it doesn’t have a built-in phono preamp. In fact, it’s quite limited in terms of analog connectivity across the board. But that doesn’t make it bad in any way—it just makes (made) it a specific product for a specific consumer.
The company’s new PMA-1700NE ($2099) is an altogether different horse for a very different course. First off, with its class-AB, ultra-high-current push-pull amps rated to deliver 70Wpc into 8 ohms (20Hz–20kHz, THD 0.07%) or 140Wpc into 4 ohms (1kHz, THD 0.7%), this beast should be able to drive pretty much any speaker I could realistically drag across my threshold.
It also features good analog connectivity—including an MM/MC phono input and three line-level single-ended stereo inputs (RCA)—along with one coaxial (RCA) digital and two optical (TosLink) digital ins, a USB-DAC connection that supports DSD (DoP) up to 11.2MHz and PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit, and an HT bypass labeled “EXT.PRE,” something that was missing on the 1700NE’s forebear, the 1600NE. Otherwise, this year’s model isn’t substantially different from its 2018 equivalent, as far as I can see.
You might have noticed, though, no mention in any of the above about network connectivity or even Bluetooth. That means no HEOS built in. It means no streaming to the PMA-1700NE unless you connect another source to it. There will be people for whom this is a major turn-off. There will be other people for whom this will be a big turn-on. I’m not here to judge which of these camps is right; I’m merely here to help you determine whether this particular amp suits your purposes or not.
Setting up the Denon PMA-1700NE
Network connectivity isn’t a concern with this amp, bass management isn’t a thing, and I don’t have a turntable to fuss with, so installing and configuring the PMA-1700NE was as simple as dropping it into the empty spot left by the recently reviewed Cambridge Audio Evo 150, connecting my Paradigm Studio 100 v5 towers to the amp with a pair of Elac Sensible speaker cables, plugging in a USB Type-B cable running from my Maingear Vybe media PC, and connecting my iFi Audio Zen Signature One DAC (also fed with a USB connection to my Vybe) via the iFi’s pack-in RCA interconnects.
The PMA-1700NE has A and B speaker outputs, but curiously, I couldn’t find A/B speaker selection controls anywhere on the amp or its remote. After some digging, I realized that the reason I couldn’t find them was that they don’t exist. Your options, should you decide to use the B speaker outputs, are between a biwired system and a four-speaker stereo system. Should you opt for the latter, Denon says you’ll need to make sure the nominal impedance for each speaker is between 8 and 16 ohms.
A few ergonomic observations that may be worth mentioning depending on how you plan on using the PMA-1700NE: Firstly, the volume knob is just to die for. It’s thick and chonky and weighty, with exactly the right amount of inertia and pretty much the perfect diameter. If you’re a volume-control fetishist like I am, you’re going to squee over this one.
I also really love that the balance and tone controls to the left side of the faceplate seriously want to remain locked right into the middle. It takes an appreciable amount of torque to nudge them out of the 12 o’clock position, although not so much that you’ll overshoot your target if you just want to tweak a little. And if you decide to return to the default position, they thunk right into place with satisfying tactile feedback. Denon has also moved the MM/MC switch to the front of the unit, alongside the Analog Mode and Source Direct buttons.
Another function of the amp that I dig—although I didn’t use it—is the TV Auto-Play function. The 1700NE doesn’t have an HDMI input, mind you, but either of the optical ins or the coaxial digital in can be designated as a TV input, such that when you turn the TV on, it automatically powers up the unit (assuming the amp isn’t set to one of its analog modes). There’s also an auto-standby function that’ll turn the amp off after half an hour of disuse, and you can disable it by holding the Amp Power button on the remote for five seconds.
On the whole, I found the remote to be just sort of whatever. Don’t read too much into my apathy about it, though—it’s rare that I reach for a remote in my two-channel system. I’m a paws-on sort of fella. And if I do reach for a remote, it’s typically the one for my Control4 system. But even when trying to account for my biases, I can’t help thinking that the included RC-1249 controller is a little too cluttered and not terribly well-balanced, especially for an amp in this class. But at least it’s light and isn’t too fussy about directionality as long as the business end of the remote is pointed in the general direction of the faceplate of the amp.
How does the PMA-1700NE perform?
There are a handful of songs that I struggle to listen to at reference levels. I’ve mentioned George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” in the past as one such song. Another is “What Would You Say” from the Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming (24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, RCA Records / Qobuz). If this one comes up in rotation, my hand is drawn to the volume knob and my wrist starts rotating clockwise almost subconsciously. So although this is not where I had planned to start my critical listening, when the song popped up in a playlist as I was letting the amp warm up in the background, I had to settle in and pay attention.
With some amps—even those rated to deliver as much power as the PMA-1700NE is rated to deliver—when the bass kicks in at around the 16-second mark, I have to pull back on the volume a little more than I’d like, lest my Paradigm towers start to thin out in the bass, giving the entire song a sort of forward brightness that doesn’t do it or my system any favors.
The Denon practically dared me to keep cranking it louder and louder, though, and no matter how loud the music got, that rich, robust, tummy-rumbling bass stayed perfectly proportional with the rest of the mix. That indicates to me that the PMA-1700NE is perfectly stable with speakers whose impedance curves dip (however briefly) below 4 ohms.
The other thing that stood out to me about this amp’s delivery of this song was the wonderful depth and breadth of the soundstage. In addition to a brilliant wraparound effect, the 1700NE also delivered a layered sonic experience with excellent image specificity and a sort of “close your eyes and try to guess where the speakers are” experience.
That observation led me to dig through the catalog of Japanese lite-jazz/prog fusion band Casiopea for one specific recording of their song “Asayake,” the details of which I couldn’t remember off the top of my head. If you’re not familiar with Casiopea, the band’s output sounds like the opening-credits music for a Gran Turismo game (I also wouldn’t judge you for confusing any of their songs for a cut from the Mario Kart 8 soundtrack), and they have a habit of recording the same composition over and over in the studio (never mind all the live recordings).
With “Asayake” in particular, a lot of the studio versions are very direct and dry, but I couldn’t shake the memory of one that had an open, roomy mix that I quite liked. After a bit of hunting and pecking, I found it on the album Eyes of the Mind (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music Direct [Japan] Inc. / Qobuz), and indeed, my memory was accurate. This version is spacious as heck, with a delightfully layered soundstage that, due to the nature of the instrumentation and orchestration, comes across like a sonic pop-up book, what with its crisp edges and precise layering. Granted, there’s not quite as much width here as with the DMB track, but the soundstage still extended beyond the constraints of my speakers.
I had a lot of fun comparing this rendition to an earlier studio recording from the album Super Flight (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music Direct [Japan] Inc. / Qobuz)—a much drier and in-your-face iteration that’s out in the room, but not nearly as layered.
I honestly don’t have a strong preference for either mixing approach, but the PMA-1700NE made comparisons between them fun and, in my opinion, legitimately meaningful. To my ears this thing didn’t do a damned thing wrong in terms of digital-to-analog conversion, processing, or amplification, which really made the subtle nuances in different mixes stand out. In every respect, I found myself smitten with its sound, although in comparing the Denon’s USB-DAC input to that of my iFi Audio Zen One Signature, I didn’t have a preference for either.
I was also blown away by the PMA-1700NE’s delivery of Buddy Guy’s cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” from Bring ’Em In (16/44.1 FLAC, Silvertone / Qobuz). This duet with Tracy Chapman begins with a deep, rumbling bassline that teeters right on the edge of being too much, but the Denon kept it in control, layering the richness of Guy’s voice in the first verse with the sparse rhythm section and delicate acoustic guitar and horns, and then really punching into high gear when his electric guitar joins in at around the 48-second mark. When Chapman joins in on the second verse, though, that’s where the Denon really proved to my satisfaction that there’s nothing more you could reasonably ask of it in terms of audio quality. The textures of her voice contrasted with the output of Guy’s amp (I think he was playing through a Fender ’59 Bassman LTD Reissue here, but someone write in and call me an idiot if he’d already transitioned to his Butler Custom Sound remake by this point) are the stuff that musical dreams are made of.
While listening to the Guy/Chapman duet, I also took the opportunity to plug in some of my thirstier over-ear headphones, like my Audeze LCD-2s and HiFiMan HE-500s. Both sounded absolutely incredible via the quarter-inch headphone output of the PMA-1700NE, which isn’t always a given with integrated amps at around this price.
What other integrated amps in this class should you audition?
If the Denon PMA-1700NE existed in a vacuum, I could have ended this review right then and there, all dreamy and blissful. But in addition to evaluating sound quality, a big focus for us here at SoundStage! Access is on estimating value, which requires some product comparisons. And when you start pitting this amp against similarly priced competition, the glasses get a little less rose-colored.
For a premium of exactly 99 American cents over the Denon, for example, you could get yourself a Rotel RA-1572MKII with more class-AB output (120Wpc into 8 ohms, full bandwidth, 0.018% THD), dual summed-mono subwoofer outputs (unfortunately with no bass management, I think), Bluetooth reception with support for aptX and AAC, one set of balanced stereo XLR inputs, an extra coaxial digital input, network control capabilities, support for MQA and MQA Studio, and the ability to select between A and B speakers, should you choose to connect them. Mind you, there are a few features missing as compared with the Denon, such as native DSD support, support for MC phono cartridges via its integrated phono stage, and a proper adult-sized headphone jack.
For $100-ish less ($1999 to be precise), you could also pick up NAD’s C 399 without its optional $599 MDC2 BluOS-D module. Even without the add-on, you get a robust 180Wpc amp that relies on a modified version of Hypex’s Ncore amplifier technology, a subwoofer out with an 80Hz crossover point (the MDC2 BluOS-D module adds more flexible bass management capabilities), an HDMI ARC input, and two-way Bluetooth connectivity with aptX HD. If you decided to spring for the MDC2 BluOS-D module down the road, that would also add access to the BluOS streaming platform and Dirac Live room-correction capabilities.
Speaking of streaming, assuming you don’t need all 70Wpc of output provided by the PMA-1700NE, you could instead opt for the significantly cheaper PMA-900HNE ($949) and get most of what the more expensive amp gives you, just with a reduction to 50Wpc into 8 ohms (20Hz to 20kHz, 0.07% THD) or 85Wpc into 4 ohms (1kHz, 0.7% THD). But you also gain Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, plus built-in HEOS streaming. What’s more, the PMA-900HNE maintains the sexy look of the 1700NE, features a subwoofer output that’s tied to the Speakers A output, and actually allows you to select between A and B speaker outs, which is something the more expensive unit does not do.
TL;DR: Should you buy the Denon PMA-1700NE integrated amp?
Denon isn’t making this one easy for me, to be sure. It’s one thing to compare different brands of integrated amp and contrast features, specifications, and pricing. It’s another thing altogether for Denon to undercut its own value proposition by offering an amp for $1150 less that has more features, more connectivity, more control options, and a built-in streaming source, all in a chassis that’s virtually identical.
Mind you, the one thing I don’t want to do here is insinuate that Denon is charging $1150 for 20 extra watts per channel of amplification. When you look at the published specifications for how these amps respond to different loads, it’s evident that the amps in the 1700NE don’t merely deliver more power; they’re also mated to a much beefier power supply. And that costs something.
The thing is, if Denon had simply maintained the HEOS functionality of the PMA-900HNE, as well as perhaps the subwoofer output and the A/B speaker selector, I think it would have a hell of a value on its hands here. As it stands, though, it seems like the company withheld features from the 1700NE to keep it from being too competitive with the $2499 Model 40n from sister-brand Marantz. I can’t know that for sure, of course. I’m merely saying that’s what it looks like.
But what’s that old saying about comparison being the thief of joy? The simple fact of the matter is that, on its own terms, the Denon PMA-1700NE is a smashingly good integrated amplifier with excellent performance and stunning design.
. . . Dennis Burger
- Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5.
- Speaker-level connections: Elac Sensible speaker cables.
- Sources: Maingear Vybe PC; iFi Audio Zen One Signature DAC.
- Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.
Denon PMA-1700NE Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor.
Sound United, LLC
5541 Fermi Ct.
Carlsbad, CA 92008
Phone: (800) 497-8921