Pioneer Elite VSX-94TXH A/V Receiver Real-World Performance
Listening to 2-channel music offers an excellent first impression of an AVR. You can quickly determine its ability to image and its general tonal quality with just a few well-recorded tracks. Some AVRs are not very musical when it comes to 2-channel playback. Fortunately, I found the Pioneer to be very satisfying and natural-sounding with this material. Moreover, the substantial power capabilities of the Pioneer afforded an effortless performance that was always easy and pleasing to listen to.
I started out with the track "Nothing At All" from Santana's Shaman CD. The opening acoustic-guitar chords and scattered percussion were very nicely placed, creating a spacious environment that appeared to extend beyond the physical placement of my speakers. When the tune kicked in with a tight and punchy salsa rhythm, the Pioneer really delivered, providing both depth and nuance.
Changing tempo and mood, I switched to Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" from her CD Surfacing. Her vocals had great presence, the sound field was enveloping, and there was a marked contrast between each guitar part. Sometimes, similar-sounding instruments just blend together, but each instrument was clearly distinguishable in the mix, occupying its own place in the soundfield.
Conducting an experiment with MCACC, I popped in Porcupine Tree's CD Deadwing and tracked the song "Shallow." It starts with a single acoustic guitar, simple piano chords, and male vocal. Without the MCACC settings, it was a sonic mess. There was too much sibilance on the vocals, so intelligibility and presence were lost. The guitar was thin and muted, while the piano was sharp and overbearing. Turning MCACC on provided greater distinctive characteristics among the instruments with a tranquil and fluid balance that was far more pleasing and relaxed.
I don't doubt that a manual setup would garner at least the same or better results. However, my point is to demonstrate the dramatic improvement that can be achieved from a quick 5-minute calibration using Pioneer's auto-setup features.
The Eagles Farewell Tour on HD DVD offers an extremely "peaceful easy feeling" with a highly coherent and natural-sounding 5.1-channel mix. In fact, it's so smooth and accurate, I find it hard to believe it was recorded live. All the instruments are well placed along the front, with just a hint of ambience in the surrounds. This HD DVD has the best vocal blending you are going to find.
With the Full-Band Phase Control engaged, I detected an increased smoothness in the midrange, which was most notable in the vocals, resulting in a choral-like blending. When I disengaged this function, individual voices appeared to pop out a little more, demonstrating their characteristic differences. When the function was engaged, the track sounded like it had been recorded in a studio, whereas it actually sounded more live when the control was disengaged, and there was some added distortion. I tended to become fatigued more easily when this function was disengaged for prolonged periods.
Moving on to movies, I checked out Spider-Man 3 on Blu-ray. In an early scene, Harry stealthily descends upon a hapless Peter as he rides a souped-up hoverboard. The two engage in a super battle high above the city, throwing each other into buildings and dodging flying slice-and-dice boomerangs. Since the PS3 decodes the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and sends it as linear PCM via HDMI, it didn't matter if I chose that option or the uncompressed audio track—the outcome was virtually identical because Dolby TrueHD is lossless. Uncompressed and lossless audio provides a smoother frequency response than tracks that have been compressed with lossy algorithms, such as Dolby Digital. Overall, the uncompressed soundtrack is tighter and more focused, with a brilliance and clarity that is not audible in the highly compressed Dolby Digital version.
In the Blu-ray version of Ratatouille, the rain near the beginning was staggering in its realism. The uncompressed audio allowed the 94TXH to create an immersive soundfield with tremendous depth and delicate detail. Sound-effects localization was extremely accurate and coherent. The sound was actually a little creepy when all the rats' tiny paws are scampering along the kitchen tiles.
As I mentioned earlier, the 94TXH includes a Faroudja DCDi video processor that upconverts incoming analog video signals for output via HDMI. (It does not process HDMI inputs in any way, passing what comes in directly to the HDMI output.) To test this function, I connected my HD DVD player's component and HDMI outputs to the AVR and set the player's output resolution to 480p. This allowed me to A/B the signals by switching between the two inputs—the component input was processed by the receiver, while the HDMI input was passed to the projector for upscaling. I used Lord of the Rings: Return of the King on DVD as my test material.
Fine details were generally good with the 94TXH's upconversion via component, particularly sequences with sweeping landscapes, though colors appeared slightly muted and flat. Switching to the HDMI input, the difference was dramatic—the picture popped with much more dimensionality, and it had more shadow detail, greater contrast, and enhanced color saturation, resulting in a far richer and more robust image. Just to be sure there wasn't a difference between the player's outputs, I connected them directly to the projector and saw that the image was virtually unchanged in both cases. This note in the 94TXH's manual says it all: "For optimal video performance, THX recommends switching Digital Video Conversion off."
I installed the Pioneer VSX-94TXH after reviewing the Denon AVR-888 for hometheatermag.com (soon to be posted), a model that sells for half the price of the Pioneer. At that time, I was in the middle of a PS3 game called Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (in which UAV editor Scott Wilkinson plays various instruments on the musical score).
I had just reached the part where monsters swarm deep below the ground, and the realism of the sound effects was significantly heightened with the Pioneer, which also had greater dynamic range, even at lower volumes. The intricate 5.1-channel soundtrack was far more immediate with the 94TXH than it had been with the Denon. The dripping water in the dank, dark corridors practically brushed against my neck, and the grunts and growls of the monsters seemed to be coming from another room, making it just too frightening to continue. It was obvious that the Pioneer's higher price was about performance, not just features.