Receiver or Separates?
Colin Robertson, a thoughtful commentator on many UAV blogs, is facing the age-old question as he contemplates upgrading from 2-channel to surround sound:
For some time now, I've wanted to move up from stereo to surround sound. My problembesides having expensive tastes!is that my speakers, Vandersteen 2Ces, seem to dictate that I should go for separates, but my budget says otherwise. I love my Vandersteens and am not willing to part with them, nor am I willing to go with another brand for the other channels. I currently have a pair of 125-watt Rotel monoblocks and an Adcom preamp.
My question is this: Should I wait until I can afford some decent separates or go with a receiver for now, possibly suffering a drop in sound quality from my current setup? Can you recommend a receiver that will adequately drive the Vandersteens?
I agree that separates are often superior to AVRs in sound quality, but the performance gap is getting narrower all the time, and you pay a hefty premium for a diminishing advantage. For me, the main reason to get separates is so you can match the power amp more precisely to your speakerswhich is important mostly for difficult-to-drive modelsand select a pre/pro with exactly the features you want. This also lets you upgrade the pre/pro as new features become available while retaining the power amp that is already well-matched with your speakers.
I don't agree that the Vandersteens necessarily dictate the use of separatesthey would be well-served with a good AVR. According to the manufacturer's specs, their nominal impedance is 7 ohms (minimum 4 ohms) with an efficiency of 86dB and a recommended power rating of 40 to 160 watts as measured into an 8-ohm load. These are not demanding specs by any means, and they can be easily satisfied with a wide variety of AVRs.
You don't say what your budget is, but I assume it's less than $5000. If it were that high, you could consider separates like the Onkyo Pro PR-SC885 pre/pro ($2000) and NAD M25 power amp ($3000). Alternatively, you could think about the Denon AVR-5308CI receiver ($5500), which wowed long-time audiophile Wes Phillips.
If we assume your budget is more in the $2000 range, there are a number of AVRs that would fill the bill nicely. Fred Manteghiananother dyed-in-the-wool audiophileliked the Marantz SR8002 so much, he bought one to drive his MartinLogan speakers. He admits that it provides minimal video processing, so it wouldn't be a good choice if you need some horsepower there. David Vaughn raved about the Denon AVR-4308CI, though it's a bit pricier at $2500. He points out that the AVR-3808CI is $900 less while retaining most of the 4308's capabilities.
If you can wait until the fall, I expect great things from the Pioneer Elite SC-07 AVR, which will list for $2200. It features many of the same advanced technologies found in the company's $7000 SC-09TX, such as Direct Energy HD ICEpower amplification. Tom Norton is reviewing the SC-09TX for Home Theater, and his preliminary observations are very positive. UAV will be reviewing it in about a month, and I plan to publish a review the SC-07 as soon as it becomes available.
Another approach is to spend as little as you can now in order to more quickly save up for the separates you really want. In this case, I'd recommend the Onkyo TX-SR606. For only $600, you get 90Wpc (a conservative spec that our measurements actually exceeded), all the new audio codecs, Audyssey auto setup and Dynamic EQ, four HDMI inputs, and surprisingly good sound quality according to reviewer David Vaughn. It would certainly hold you over fairly well until you could afford separates.
AVRs have come a long way in the last few years, and the best ones have nothing to apologize for when compared with separates. Sure, a good set of separates might sound marginally better than a good AVR, but is that worth a seriously higher price tag? Only you can decide that for yourself.
If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.