Kenwood Sovereign VR-5900 audio/video receiver

Kenwood's entry in the category of top-shelf A/V receivers is the Sovereign VR-5900—a curvaceous, feature-packed powerhouse combining a user-friendly operating system, THX Ultra certification with all attendant processing facilities, Dolby Digital EX, matrixed and discrete DTS ES, HDCD decoding, and enough digital and analog inputs and outputs (including 2-zone operation) to satisfy almost any videophile's needs. It even includes a moving-magnet phono stage (but laserdisc aficionados will have to add an outboard RF demodulator).

While the VR-5900 decodes EX and ES, it doesn't include amplification for these formats' two rear "effects" channels, for which you'll have to supply an external 2-channel amplifier. Be sure to consider that when you compare the VR-5900's price ($3000) to the prices of receivers packing seven channels instead of five. Output power is rated at a healthy 135Wx5 into 6ohms, 20Hz-20kHz, all channels driven.

The informative, well-organized instruction manuals—one for installation and setup, one for operation—are models of clarity and organization written in plain, jargon-free English. The setup manual accurately anticipates the inexperienced user's questions, and instead of a single sheet showing a maze of wires going to and from every associated component, the manual breaks up the signal routing logically, page by page. Whoever wrote these manuals should get an award—or at least a raise.

Two-Way Setup Street
Kenwood's LCD touchscreen remote communicates via radio frequencies (RF), and the VR-5900 communicates right back. No onscreen display (OSD) is needed—all setup information normally displayed on a monitor appears on the remote. This is a very convenient feature, especially for component-video users—OSDs aren't routed through most receivers' component-video outputs.

I'm not usually a fan of touchscreen remotes, most of which I find unnecessarily complex and often unresponsive—I prefer physical buttons you can feel in the dark. But Kenwood's learning touchscreen was relatively pleasant and easy to use. You can use your fingers, or the PDA-type stylus stored in the remote's side. But because it's big, heavy, and almost square, the remote has to be held in both hands, and it drains its four C batteries all too quickly. You can get an optional plug-in power supply, but then you've got a wire to deal with—it's not exactly portable. As you would with any receiver, be sure to take the time to hold and use this remote before buying the VR-5900.

Side tabs on the remote access the three screens used to set up and control the VR-5900. Preprogrammed codes allow the remote to control other devices, and Pronto-like customization is possible without having to connect the remote to your PC or going online. You can rename, resize, and shift the positions of the controls to suit your fancy, and you can set up macros to perform multiple functions at the push of a single button. Physical buttons for Volume, Mute, System Power, Screen Backlight, and Contrast add to the ease of use. There's even a joystick for DVD and other menu-driven devices. Still, no remote control is truly "universal"—you'll want to keep the remotes supplied with your other gear handy.

Its excellent, easy-to-follow instructions make setting up the VR-5900 fast, relatively easy, and almost fun. If you connect and properly position the supplied RF antenna, you'll find that the remote can communicate with the receiver over a surprisingly long distance, even with the remote pointed away from the VR-5900. My viewing position, close to the receiver, didn't require the antenna. Of course, if you program the remote to control other devices, it will communicate via conventional infrared (IR) radiation, which will limit the distance from the receiver you'll be able to operate the remote unless you hook up an external IR receiver. The VR-9500 will convert RF to IR, which can be blasted out the back of the receiver to make your whole system (including non-Kenwood components) RF-controlled.

By now, most readers are familiar with the procedures needed to configure a modern A/V receiver, so I won't belabor the point except to say that, thanks to the Kenwood's operating system and instructions, setting speaker size, distance, and levels was among the easiest and most straightforward I've encountered. A dropdown door on the VR-5900's front panel contains duplicate setup and other less frequently used controls, but most users will want to work from the remote. Pre-assigned digital inputs and an exceedingly well-organized rear panel add to setup ease.

Features and Enhancements
Need digital inputs for a multitude of gear? The Kenwood Sovereign VR-5900 features seven pre-assigned optical and seven coaxial digital inputs, plus optical and coaxial digital outputs. There are six A/V inputs and two A/V outputs, all with associated S-video connections; two HD-ready component-video inputs; and one component-video output. Basically, the VR-5900 has you covered for inputs and outputs, both today and well into the future. A reasonably good, programmable AM/FM stereo tuner is also included.