Pioneer receivers have been popular since the 1970s—long before we were even thinking about home theater. A lot has changed in 30 years; we’ve gone from simple stereos with two speakers and a turntable to complex home theaters with six or more speakers, several source components, and an HDTV— all tied into a sophisticated A/V receiver that is hopefully easy to operate when you sit down with the family to watch a movie. With that in mind, I put Pioneer’s Elite VSX-91TXH through its paces and found it to be a high-performance home theater receiver that’s not only affordable but easy to set up and use.
When I was setting up the 91TXH, it quickly became clear that at least 40 pounds worth of features are packed into this beefy 33-pound receiver. For starters, its Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration Circuit (MCACC) takes the guesswork out of setup, automatically optimizing the sound for your listening room. And with seven channels delivering 110 watts each, you won’t have to worry about power: you’ll have more than enough for a mid-sized room and THX Select2 certifi cation ensures that the receiver has met strict performance specs.
Enthusiasts will appreciate that the 91TXH uses Analog Devices’ third-generation Sharc processor to decode the new “lossless” audio formats, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio. Available on only Blu-ray and HD DVD discs for now, these formats are bit-for-bit identical to the original master recording—in other words, it doesn’t get any better than this. Two HDMI 1.3a inputs (and one output) are available for carrying digital audio and video (up to 1080p) over a single cable, which helps reduce the snarl of wires around back.
Pioneer’s VSX-91TXH is iPodready, too. Using supplied cables, you can plug in an iPod and operate it through the receiver’s onscreen controls. You can also bring Sirius or XM satellite radio into the mix by adding an optional home tuner module (each service has its own); the receiver also supports XM HD Surround Sound. Finally, you can power a pair of speakers in a remote room using the two back surround speaker outputs, which leaves 5.1 channels in the main room. Or you can use a separate amplifi er in the remote room by connecting it to the multi-zone output jacks. Both methods allow a different source to play in each room.
Pioneer’s auto calibration system is a welcome feature. Plug in the supplied microphone, shoo the kids and the dog out of the room, activate the Auto MCACC via the on-screen prompts, and the receiver does the rest, playing test tones and making adjustments for speaker size, distance, level, and so on. But the most impressive part is the auto equalization routine. All rooms have acoustic shortcomings that can cause the bass to sound boomy or the highs to sound overly bright, and the MCACC system goes a long way to correcting those problems. Advanced users can make extensive manual tweaks as well, but the sound was nicely balanced in about ten minutes using only the Auto MCACC.
Right off the bat, Boz Scaggs Greatest Hits Live DVD sounded great—the kick drum had punch, the electric bass was tight, yet warm, and the overall sound was enveloping with just the right amount of frontchannel presence and rear-channel ambience. Call me a two-channel snob but Sara K.’s “Tecolote Eyes” from the Closer Than They Appear CD [Chesky Records] sounded incredibly natural and detailed in the Stream Direct mode, which bypasses unnecessary audio circuits. Soundstage depth and imaging improved, and subtle acoustic characteristics of the performance venue were more apparent.
The suspense and fear of descending 12,000 feet to the wreckage of the Titanic was intense while watching the fascinating Ghosts of the Abyss documentary on DVD. Dialog was clear, and surround effects between the front and rear channels were seamless, creating a three-dimensional sound fi eld; the sound of the hatch closing overhead and the view of the ocean receding above was too realistic. In fact, the picture and sound were so lifelike that it was easy to imagine being inside the submersible vessel, plumbing the depths of the North Atlantic. No thanks!
Striking a balance between functionality and ease of use is one of the biggest challenges for any receiver. You want full system control, ideally with a button for every feature, yet you also want a remote control that is easy to use. Pioneer has done a nice job here and with color-coded buttons the remote control is mostly intuitive. An onscreen display would make it easier to navigate DSP features that have several modes (only setup functions appear on screen), but it’s not that big a deal as long as the receiver’s front panel with its easy-to-read characters is visible.