The Search for a Home Theater A/V Receiver: Part 2

December 7, 2011
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Final Part of Finding a Home Theater A/V Receiver

Welcome to the second and final part of our A/V receiver search. We’ve spent quality time with the Onkyo TX-NR609, the Pioneer VSX-1021-K and the Yamaha RX-V671. In part one, we looked at aesthetics, connectivity, streaming services and iPod connectivity of the Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha A/V receivers. In part two, I examine speaker options, speaker setup and optimization, AM/FM radio, audio codec support, sound quality, warranty, video switching and quality as well as my pick for a new receiver.

Speaker Options and Multi-zone
First some background: A 5.1 speaker configuration consists of two front speakers, one center channel, two surround speakers and a subwoofer (the “.1″). A 7.1 speaker configurations add a second set of speakers to provide an additional back surround channel or height channels. Alternatively, the additional two speakers can used for bi-amping speakers or for a second zone. The Pioneer and Yamaha support 7.1 speaker configurations. The Onkyo supports a 7.2 speaker configuration, allowing for two subwoofers.

As stated, all three receivers have the ability to power a second zone of two speakers (or use pre-amp outputs to another amp). You can assign a different input to the second zone while listening to another source in the main zone. All three receivers support a second zone but you can no longer maintain a 7.1 set up in your main zone: you’re limited to 5.1. You can select a different input to zone 2 speakers, but it must not be a digital source.

Speaker Setup and Optimization
One of the advantages of modern receivers is that they include technology to automatically calibrate your receiver to marry your speakers to the particular acoustics of a room. In another words, it makes it sound better. All three receivers include their own version of this technology. I bet there are lots of folks who never run the auto-calibration and who therefore miss out on the benefits of this system. It only takes about 10 minutes to run. The Onkyo uses 2EQ from Audyssey. The Pioneer and Yamaha use their own proprietary room-correction technologies known respectively as MCAAC: Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration System and YPAO: Yamaha Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer. (Now you see why they use acronyms.)All three systems did a fairly good job of figuring out the distance between speakers and the microphone (with the exception of the subwoofer). The Onkyo was almost dead-on measuring speaker distance, while the Pioneer and Yamaha were within one foot. Audyssey takes sound measurements from three distinct positions in the room, and the Pioneer and Yamaha use one.A tip: remember that these optimization programs are NOT gospel. If you’re not happy with the results, all three systems allow you to go in and tweak the settings. If you want more bass, boost the volume of that subwoofer!

Manual speaker settings on the Pioneer
Manual speaker settings on the Pioneer
Speaker configuration on the Onkyo
Speaker configuration on the Onkyo
Manual speaker settings on the Yamaha
Manual speaker settings on the Yamaha


AM/FM Radio
All three have good FM reception. The Yamaha made it easiest to save stations to memory (it could be done from the remote). Both the Onkyo and the Pioneer require a person to manually set presets from the front panel.
Audio Codec Support
The lack of Dolby Digital Plus support on my existing receiver was what got this journey started. For surround formats, all three receivers support the latest set of audio codecs from DTS and Dolby, including DTS Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus and Prologic IIz. For audio formats, all three support MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC and FLAC. The Onkyo also supports the Ogg Vorbis audio format.
Sound Quality
Well, so which receiver sounds the best? It’s definitely a matter of opinion. There is no appreciable difference between the three receivers when playing FM radio, iPod music or CDs. I spent most of time listening to Blu-rays since they provide the best audio and video source for a home theater. To help me out, I had several friends of the Hub come to our lab to listen to the three receivers. To keep all things equal, everyone listened (and watched) to the same Blu-ray movie clip (the opening from the recent Star Trek movie). I asked everyone to notice a few things including dialog clarity, dynamic range, audio detail and surround field depth. All three receivers used the settings from their own auto-calibration process. The Blu-ray was played with each receiver’s full audio processing turned on.The group’s consensus was that they prefer the sound of the Onkyo and Pioneer over the Yamaha for movies. Of the three, the Onkyo made them feel like they were “in the action” the most. The Pioneer provided the best audio detail. Now, don’t misunderstand: as with fine wines, we were focused on subtle differences between the three. All three receivers sound great. Also, there was no noticeable distortion from any of the three.My own preference is for the sound of the Onkyo. To me, the sound from the Onkyo seems a bit richer. I was also get more bass out of the back surround speakers.

It’s hard to figure out what makes the Onkyo sound better to me. Is it the receiver internals? It could be the THX Cinema audio processing. Or is it that the Audyssey calibration does a better job in my particular environment? My gut is that Audyssey is at least part of the answer. Looking at the reported parameters from the speaker setup, Audyssey has more granular options with settings such as crossover frequencies. Basically, the crossover frequency defines which sounds are sent to your subwoofer versus the other speakers. Letting your subwoofer focus on the low frequency sounds it was designed for frees up the other speakers to do a better job with the dialog and higher frequency sounds they are better suited for. Most receivers I’ve seen over the years–including the Yamaha and Pioneer–have one setting to define this. In addition to defining a crossover for the subwoofer, the Onkyo also defines crossover frequencies for the front, center and surround speakers. I believe this made some difference.

Probably the most challenging part of using a home theater receiver is getting the right settings for a particular piece of music or movie. The settings for a CD are going to be different from those of a Blu-ray. Acoustic solos may demand different settings than a orchestra playing in a concert hall. It’s one of the most challenging parts of home audio today. With so many different sources and so many different types of encoded material, it’s a challenge to make sure you’ve selected the optimal settings on the receiver. On top of this, there’s not necessarily a “right” answer to this question. Some folks may prefer simulated surround while listening to a CD while others prefer the original two-track stereo. I like the scene buttons on the Yamaha since they offer one-touch configuration for a particular source. However, this challenge will not be solved until technologies such as THX Media Director are deployed on all home theater components.

I also spent time listening to the receivers without audio processing. All of the receivers offer two versions of direct modes for folks who don’t like audio processing. One has minimal processing that only takes into account things like speaker distance and volume. A direct mode enables no processing. The Yamaha even disables its front display so there is no potential interference in this mode!

I spent some time tweaking the settings of the receivers in an attempt to get better sound. I was only able to achieve small incremental gains that did not change my preference for the Onkyo.

Video Switching and Quality

All three handle both 1080P and 3D content, and I did not notice any upscaling issues. In addition, the Onkyo will actually scale video to 4K resolution (4 times more pixels than 1080P)! Not that most of us have a 4K screen or source yet, but it does help future-proof the receiver (the current HDMI standard does work up to 4K).

When it comes to video switching, the Yamaha and Onkyo are very close in performance. I connected my TiVo Premiere to each receiver. When changing channels on the Premiere, the Yamaha handles changes in video resolutions most quickly. The Onkyo is a close second. Unfortunately, the Pioneer has some issues with changes in video resolution. When changing the channels on the TiVo Premiere, it takes up to 11 seconds to display a channel if the video resolution changes between channels. Changing between two channels with the same resolution incurs no additional delay. After receiver inputs are changed, the Pioneer requires as long as 11 seconds to switch between video sources.

The other issue I have with the Pioneer was getting HDMI pass-through to work. HDMI pass-through lets a source component (e.g. a cable box, TiVo) output video on a HDTV even if the receiver is in stand-by mode. It’s useful if you don’t want to fire up all of your speakers just to watch the news. Pioneer requires that HDMI control (CEC) be enabled on all devices for HDMI pass-through to work. Since the TiVo Premiere doesn’t support HDMI control, HDMI pass-through won’t work. HDMI pass-through works well with the Onkyo and Yamaha. The Onkyo allows you to either specify the specific HDMI input for pass-through or the last input selected. The Yamaha also allows you to change HDMI inputs even if it’s in stand-by mode.
We were not able to test Audio Return Channel (ARC), but all three systems are supposed to support it.
Warranty
Both the Onkyo and Yamaha include a two-year warranty while the Pioneer is only one year.

Conclusion

Either the Onkyo or Yamaha would be a great part of any home theater. Personally, I’m planning to go with the Onkyo. While I do like the Yamaha’s polished on-screen informational display, my ears prefer the Onkyo’s sound. When watching a movie, I felt a little bit more immersed in the action. There are a number of key differentiators for the Onkyo, such as the ability to do 4K upscaling, Audyssey room calibration and the ability to support two subwoofers. The Onkyo is also the only receiver in the group with THX certification. As much as I am a fan of Pioneer products, the video switching delay and the trouble with HDMI pass-through is a show stopper for me. Built-in Airplay is very convenient and, if I was setting up an audio-only system, I would consider the Pioneer. The other place the Onkyo shines is around ease of setup, and for that reason I would recommend it to others. After all, getting the best audio and video should be easy.

Onkyo TX-NR609 A/V Receiver
My pick: The Onkyo TX-NR609
The Onkyo TX-NR609, Pioneer VSX-1021-K and Yamaha RX-V671 can be purchased at Amazon.

Related Posts:
Why You Will Need to Buy a New A/V Receiver
Why You Need A New A/V Receiver Part II

Tags: 4K, audio, Audyssey, Dolby, DTS, HDMI, Home Theater, MCACC, Onkyo, pioneer, Premiere, receivers, speakers, surround, THX, TiVo, Yamaha, YPAO

5 Responses to The Search for a Home Theater A/V Receiver: Part 2

  1. JohnOCFII on December 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Nice review.  While my current A/V receiver is a Sony, an Onkyo is likely to be tops on the list for the next round.  Shorter term, I'm tempted to upgrade my 720p Plasma for a 1080p Plasma.

  2. DCG on December 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Did you notice any lagging on any of these devices? I have
    read a few reviews lately that using a cable box or gaming consol many users saw
    some lag.

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