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Onkyo TX-DS787 Receiver.

Manufacturer: Onkyo U.S.A. Corporation, 18 Park Way, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458; 800/229-1687;

Price: $1,049.95

Source: Manufacturer Loan

Reviewer: Howard Ferstler

The Onkyo TX-DS787 (hereafter mostly referred to as the 787) is a straightforward, very modern, cleanly designed, easy-to-set-up, easy-to-operate, attractive, and well-worth-its-price audio-video receiver.

OK, let's get some (but not all) of the more conspicuous movie-video-related details out of the way, before we get involved with its more audio-only related functions. The 787 is THX-Select certified ("Select" is somewhat less rigorous than the more upscale, more costly-to-implement "Ultra" certification), which means it will satisfy certain A/ V performance requirements that will be of interest to those for whom home theater is important. However, at least three of those THX features may still be important to those for whom home theater means little or nothing, and for whom high-quality audio performance means everything.

First, the certification means that every 787 actually will be able deliver its rated 100 watts-per-channel output into 8-ohm loads and 135 wpc into 6-ohm loads. Going beyond the THX mandate, the unit is rated to deliver two-channel dynamic power of up to 210 watts into 4 ohms. To prevent overheating at high output levels, the unit has an internal fan in the back. However, during all the time I ran it in both my main room and in my living room, I never heard the fan in operation. Either it never had to come on to cool things down or else it is a very quiet blower.

Second, while most audio buffs will not care to use Dolby's Pro Logic (DPL), matrix-oriented decoding with two-channel source material (for reasons that probably involve DPL's monophonic surround channel), at least with a processor like the 787 the ability to apply THX-style decorrelation to the surround feed does open up the possibility for better simulated surround sound with at least some musical-program sources.

Third, the THX emendations also include a re-equalization feature for the three front channels that rolls off the treble to a moderate degree. While this feature is mainly movie-oriented, it might also tame some of the immoderate upper-middle and high frequencies that show up with certain musical program sources, particularly classical transcriptions, both old and more recent. One nice feature of the 787 is that this re-equalization feature can be engaged or disengaged in any of the surround modes, or even its monophonic-movie mode.

The 787 is also one of a new wave of A/V receivers that includes a fully amplified, center-rear surround channel. Like the Outlaw 1050 receiver (reviewed below), the Onkyo unit decodes 6.1-channel Dolby Digital EX. However, it also decodes the matrixed version of DTS ES, which the Outlaw cannot do. (The Outlaw can deal with 5.1-channel DTS, but could not derive a center-rear channel from the DTS feed.) Neither receiver can decode the discrete-channel version of DTS ES, but that is really no big deal, in my opinion, since discs with that discrete track also employ the matrixed version.

The 787 can also implement the THX variant of Dolby EX. This version makes use of two center-rear surround speakers instead of just one of them, with the pair placed about 60 degrees apart behind the listener, and with the regular left and right surrounds still placed directly out to the sides. (Under most conditions, placing the left and right surround speakers to the sides is also the best way to set things up when employing only the single center-rear speaker.) This adds up to seven satellite speakers in operation, plus the .1, LFE channel, of course. However, the actual number of satellite "channels" is still six, because the two center-rear speakers get identical signals. The advantage of this arrangement mainly involves better coverage. This might be significant in some situations, but the results will depend upon how the room is shaped and sized, and where the listener sits.

To get the THX variant to work, you have to obtain an outboard stereo amplifier (Onkyo has one for about $300, list), which will be hooked to the dual line-level "surround-back" outputs. Doing this disables the internal surround-back amplifier, which is no longer used.


When I reviewed the Outlaw, I noted that a center-rear surround channel of any kind was of rather limited use with certain musical program material, particularly classical presentations. It was sometimes able to subtly change the sound of discrete 4-, 5-, or 5.1-channel sources, but it was difficult to determine if the change actually was for the better. And of course, the feature cannot be used at all with two-channel source material that is sent through DPL or DSP decoders to simulate surround sound. In short, it is hard to see it as being as significant for music as it is for movies, and even with movies, at least those that are basically 5.1-channel jobs, its impact is often slight or even out of place.

Anyway, enough with rationalizing the center-rear feature and THX parameters for possible use with music-only program material. Let's look at some of the more basic features and ergonomics of this unit and see how well it performs for those who want an all-in-one amplifier and controller for their home audio and audio-video installations.

Looking at the front panel, most of which has its functions duplicated on the remote control, we see two power buttons on the left. One is the actual main-power switch that you kind of set to "on" and forget. The other, somewhat larger in size and located above the main button, is the standby/on button, and that is the one you use when you want to turn the unit on and off during normal operation. I would prefer to have the main-power button on the rear of the unit, but it is less conspicuous than the standby/on button, and so should not be something that a user would tap accidentally all that often. Indeed, the slickest way to turn the 787 on and off is with the standby/on button on the remote control.

In that same group of front-panel controls we see a button for engaging either the unit's record-out feature or a feed the same program source material to a different pair of speakers at a different location. Also on the left side is a headphone jack.

The final item on the left side is the "audio-selector" button. Pushing it scrolls through three different audio-input modes. "Auto" is what the user would ordinarily want to use, because it allows the 787 to select the best input from a given source, should that source be hooked to both the analog and digital inputs. "Multichannel" is what would be selected if an outboard, six-channel device like a DVD-A player were hooked to the six dedicated inputs on the rear panel. "Analog" would be selected if a source were connected to both a digital and analog input and the user wanted only the analog feed to come through.

Slightly inboard of the controls on the left are buttons for selecting the brightness of the readout display in the center of the panel, as well as a button that you can press to give you a readout of the current input, program-format, or listening-mode settings of the receiver. Across the bottom of the central part of the panel, under the central information readout section, are buttons for selecting various input sources: DVD, four video inputs (with 1 and 2 also having outputs for VCR use), tape, FM, AM, phono, and CD.

The right side of the panel has A/V jacks for an outboard device, such as a camcorder and it also has the large volume control. This control is interesting, in that it has no markings to tell the user where the level is set. Instead, like with the Outlaw receiver (and with the Yamaha RX-V3000 receiver that I also am currently reviewing), the knob just goes round and round, and the level is temporarily indicated on the front panel of the receiver by a digital readout. Both they Onkyo and Yamaha knobs are rather slippery items that almost defy getting a solid grip. This feature appears to reflect a trend toward using the remote control almost exclusively, and those who prefer a more traditional feel to their volume-control may find the slick feel of the knob to be a bit disconcerting.

With the Onkyo, you can hit the "display" button on the remote if you want the digital-level readout to stay visible full time. However, if you do that the selected surround mode will not be shown. Otherwise, if you want to see just where the level is set when the receiver is in the normal-display mode, all you have to do is slightly turn the control or tap the up/down volume button on the remote and the readout will instantly appear. It will go up or down at least one dB when you do that, depending on what button you push or which way you move the knob.

Speaking of the readout, the Onkyo's central section is an information extravaganza, with the potential to deliver all of the information one might need to see just what the status of the receiver happens to be at any given time. Also included in this section is the "smart scan controller" (SSC) knob/button, that allows you to easily set up the various operational parameters of the receiver. Those set-up abilities are also duplicated on the remote control.

The remote itself is both able to learn commands from other remotes, and needless to say it also can control any other current Onkyo product besides the TX-DS787. I had an Onkyo DV-S939 DVD player on hand to review at the same time I had the 787, and its control unit was so similar to that of the receiver that I rarely bothered to fool with it, once I had both units installed in one of my systems together and had gotten the hang of working both.

I found the button layout of the 787's remote to be quite good, although the unit has so many operational options that the number of buttons required makes for a fairly busy control surface. The main thing you have to remember when using the device is to make sure you select the component you want to operate, before you start tapping command buttons. Otherwise, you might send some commands to another component that you might not care to send.

To facilitate its multitasking feature, the remote has an LCD readout at the top that you can quickly glance at to see what component it is currently configured to operate. Once you get the hang of its multitasking abilities, the device is extremely user friendly and one of the better ones that I have seen. It also allows you to slickly set up the initial parameters of the receiver from your listening chair.

The 787's rear panel is chock full of hookups, which include two switched A/C outlets, antenna connections, 4 input-assignable digital inputs (2 coaxial and 2 Toslink optical), 1 optical-digital output, 3 audio inputs, 4 A/V inputs (including S-Video, composite video, and audio), 3 S-Video and composite-video outputs (one of each for the monitor and the other two pairs for recording), 2 component-video inputs, 1 component-video output, and preamp-out jacks for all channels, including the subwoofer. If you employ a subwoofer, the 787 has a fixed, 80-Hz crossover point that conforms to THX rolloff standards.

I should also note that the component-video connections can actually pass video signals greater than 50 MHz, which means that they can be used for HDTV hookups, in addition to standard, NTSC-video material. Most other A/V receivers with component-video inputs and outputs are limited to about 25 MHz, which means that although they can handle inputs like DVD players, they cannot pass HDTV signals to high-definition monitors.

In addition, there is a six-channel set of inputs for outboard digital decoders (DVD-A player or MPEG device, no doubt), a 12-volt trigger for operating remote components like a powered front-projector screen, and five-way binding posts for all speaker outputs (which accept my favorite connectors: double bananas). The hookups for remote (zone 2) speakers in another part of the house are also banana jacks.

Unfortunately, the six-channel inputs do not incorporate a bass-management feature, which means that DVD-A players that do not have the feature themselves (most if not all current models are in this group) will automatically have all the satellite channels operating at full bandwidth. This bass-control limitation is common in most receivers available today, and works a hardship on those who want DVD-A capability but have sub/sat speaker packages with smallish satellites.

Interestingly, the owner's manual makes no mention of banana-plug use (single or double) in the section that deals with speaker hookups. Instead, they show how to strip insulation from wire tips to make the connections that way. I consider that to be the most awkward and inconvenient way to hook up speakers to five-way binding posts. The manual also warns about using speakers with nominal impedances lower than 6 ohms, even though the specifications in the back of the manual indicate substantial dynamic power-output abilities clear down to 3 ohms.

The 787 reflects the realities of the new DVD movie age, because there is no RF input for Dolby Digital laserdiscs. Those with really large LD collections that include a sizable scattering of AC-3 coded discs might want to hunt up an outboard RF demodulator if they want to make use of this receiver. Those just getting started in Dolby Digital (or DTS) audio need not sweat this detail, because the laserdisc is a defunct format.

Once all the speakers and the program sources were connected, the TX-DS787 was easy to electrically configure for customized first-class performance. The on-screen-display menu was easy to navigate (although you have to tell the unit to send the set-up-menu information to either the composite-out or S-Video-out jacks, because it cannot display the menus on both simultaneously) and it was a snap to optimize the speaker levels, speaker distances, subwoofer hookup, etc.

One interesting thing about the unit is that unlike what we have with receivers or processors that have the left and right main speakers as distance references, the 787 allows you set distances for those speakers as well as for the other satellite channels, including both center-rear speakers independently if you chose to go that route. The unit even allows you to dial in the subwoofer-to-listener distance. While this complete-distance flexibility could be called overkill, it does allow the unit to better take into account the actual size of the A/V room.

The small, disc-shaped "enter" button on the remote control (which duplicates the functions of the SSC control on the 787's front panel) can practically run the show, once you access the menu. However, the button itself is just a tad tricky to use, because you push it in the center to enter commands and push the top, bottom, left, and right edges to navigate. If you are not careful, you may accidentally enter something when you are wanting to do basic navigation. Still, once you get the hang of things it works extremely well.

While most of my serious testing and listening took place in my main A/V room, I ended up my research by setting up the receiver in my living-room installation. In that area the surround speakers have to be asymmetrically placed out of necessity. However, the 787's ability to independently adjust surround levels and surround distances helped to electrically balance out the surround arrangement and create a more coherent soundfield.

Another interesting feature of the receiver is that once you have set a surround mode for a given input ("Orchestra," "THX," "Studio Mix," or whatever) it will always go to that mode when you re-select that input. Of course, this can be easily overridden, and the unit will again remember what new mode you selected if you return to that input later on. There is also a feature that allows you to preset a low volume level when you first turn the unit on, even if it had been playing at concert-hall levels when you ended the previous listening session. This prevents the unit from hitting you with a loud blast of musical energy if you turn it back on a few hours after your kid was listening to the local rock station at roof-rattling levels.

Once the receiver is set up in terms of inputs, outputs, levels, and distances, the owner can get on with experimenting with and adjusting the several surround and DSP options it offers for both movie and music program sources. Of course, the unit has the usual DD and DTS decoding, and we have already discussed the EX and ES features and the THX emendations for movie use. However, for movie use the 787 also has an option called "Theater Dimensional" (T-D). This mode appears to be a refined crosstalk-cancellation circuit that allows the listener to experience surround-theater sound with only two front speakers. The user does have to remain in the sweet spot, however.

Another surround mode is called "Enhanced 7," which is designed to work with two-channel-music source material, and requires that the 787 be set up with its center-rear feature in operation. With this mode, you should get a more thorough envelopment than what is possible with standard, 5-speaker DSP, and while the program supposedly works best with two rear surrounds, in addition to side surrounds, it does function OK with only one rear speaker. As best I can tell, "Enhanced 7" appears to be a rather complex L-R extraction system that does not eliminate the 180-out-of-phase part of the program material from the front channels when that material has also been extracted and sent to the surrounds. In this respect, it resembles early Dolby Surround, but with a bit of extra delay and maybe a smidgen of reverb added in. Unlike with Dolby Surround, the extracted, out-of-phase surround signals appear to be given a stereo-like effect at the two side surrounds. The center-rear channel signal is probably a simple mono-surround feed, somewhat reverberated.

Ironically, "Enhanced 7" does not appear to make use of steering with the center-front channel, and all that appears to be there is a simple L+R version of the phantom center. Still, with some program material this mode can be very productive, although backing off the center level a couple of dB is not a bad idea. If that is not done, the soundstage tends to narrow up somewhat.

Another mode is "Unplugged," which works with smaller ensembles and stresses the left, center, and right channels, with the surround left and right gain somewhat reduced and with the surround channels also somewhat delayed in time. The signals sent to those left and right surround channels also appear to be derived from the corresponding left and right front channels (left to left and right to right), which is potentially more workable for surround-channel ambiance than a mono-derived signal or extracted signals. "Unplugged" appears to use steering with the center-front feed, and it can definitely work well with some smaller-scale material. However, a good center speaker, properly placed, will be important.

The "Studio-Mix" mode is similar to "Unplugged," but with the surrounds a tad louder. A "TV Logic" mode also appears to work similarly, but in this case with the surrounds a tad softer.

There is also an "All-Channel-Stereo" mode that reproduces the signals up front in the surround channels. This might be a handy listening mode if you had a party and just wanted background music. The unit also has two different stereo modes. One is called "Direct" and it differs from the straight-stereo mode in that it bypasses the tone controls and the subwoofer output, and sends pure, full-bandwidth signals just to the left and right main speakers. Obviously, some audio purists will like this feature, assuming they have decently bass-potent main speakers.

Those for whom a serious movie treat involves watching DVD oldies but goodies such as Casablanca and The Third Man, there is also a "Mono-Movie" mode that sends a clean mono signal to the center channel, but with some synthesized reverb to the other channels for a more movie-house feel. I thought the function was quite effective, and definitely better than some other versions I have heard.

In my opinion, the best mode for most two-channel-music sources that might need some DSP enhancements for a scaled-up surround effect is "Orchestra." It goes beyond being a mere ambiance-extraction system and combines most of the best of the other modes, meaning that front/rear delayed ambiance is parceled out left to left and right to right, with what appears to be a bit of the L+R and L-R mixed in for even more spaciousness. To top things off, it adds additional delay and additional reverb (lightly applied, nevertheless) to simulate a somewhat larger performing space. I should note that "Orchestra" does not make use of the center channel. Although I would prefer otherwise, the fact is that for proper center-channel simulations from larger-scale, two-channel sources, a rather sophisticated steering system is required, and I assume that Onkyo opted to apply the receiver's DSP power to the surround channels.

One nice feature of the 787 is that you can independently adjust the effect levels and simulated room sizes in any of these modes. This is in contrast to some other receivers that incorporate mostly global settings. You can also configure the unit to either apply or not apply DSP reverb to the front channels, while not effecting the surround channels. The combination of features should allow the unit to dovetail properly with a variety of listening tastes, listening rooms, program sources, and speaker models, including those that are not THX certified.

In terms of how it sounded, the TX-DS787 was musically top-notch in just about every way. The amplifier sections were clean-sounding (I will again note for my fans that I am an "amps is amps" kind of guy, and the Onkyo amps are good ones), and the various DSP, Dolby Pro Logic, and music-related, digital-decoding modes worked without a hitch.

I had a chance to try out a copy of the Complete Music for Solo Guitar by Villa-Lobos (Naxos 8.553987), using the 787's "Unplugged" mode, and the results were terrific. Other excellent recordings that benefited from this mode were Bach's Circle, a new Delos release (DE 3214) that includes works by J.S. and J.C.F. Bach, as well as Telemann, and Couperin, and Baroque Music for Mandolin and Lute, a new Koch release (3-6594-2) that includes music by Handel, Castello, Marais, Domenico Scarlatti, and J.S. Bach, as performed by the Duetto Giocondo. Another release that sounded sensational was the J.S. Bach Lute Suites, performed by Paul Galbraith on his custom-built 8-string guitar (Delos DE 3258).

As noted, the "Unplugged" mode makes use of the center channel, and I did much of my main-room listening with a pair of outstanding Dunlavy Cantata systems on the left and right channels and running full bandwidth, with the center feed delivered by a small but excellent NHT VS-1.2. The surrounds were my regular Allison Model Fours to the left and right, with an RDL AV-1 as the center-rear speaker.

I should note that the Cantatas are 4-ohm-rated speakers, but the Onkyo had no problem with them at all, even though, as I noted previously, the owner's manual admonishes the user to stick with speakers that are rated at 6 ohms or higher. The Cantatas worked fine, even though, as I noted, they were running full bandwidth, with no subwoofer assisting. The unit did not get hot during this session, and the cooling fan did not appear to come on. While feeding 4-ohm speakers might violate the letter of the warranty rules, I felt it was important to squeeze the amplifiers a bit, and they came off sounding fine.

With the all four of the above-noted recordings, the soundstaging, musicality, and derived ambiance was terrific, easily rivaling what my Yamaha DSP-A1 processor/amp could deliver with that same pieces of music. Indeed, with the Baroque Music for Mandolin and Lute and Galbraith/Bach Lute Suites releases, the Onkyo's delivery was generally superior to what the DSP-A1 could do with any of its DSP modes. I also tried the 787's "Studio Mix" mode, and that worked well, too, but with a larger sense of space around the soloists and ensembles.

With larger-scale material, most of which I found on my standard, Delos Engineer's Choice musical sampler discs (DE-3506 and DE-3512), as well on the Reference Recordings Minnesota Orchestra Showcase demo disc (RR-907), the "Orchestra" mode proved to be the best processing option, although the "Enhanced 7" mode often rivaled it for simulating a live-concert space. The 787 had no trouble driving all four or six speakers (depending on the mode selected) to concert-hall levels, even without the use of an outboard subwoofer. The Dunlavy Cantata speakers sounded completely at ease when driven by the Onkyo, and part of the reason they did not cause problems was because of their 91 dB efficiency rating.

These days, what with DVD movie-program sources mostly using either 5.1-channel Dolby Digital or DTS, old-style Dolby Pro Logic decoding is pretty much confined for use with video-tape and NTSC broadcasts. However, I did do some test-disc checks, and found that the DPL decoding was essentially as good as anything I have heard. In particular, the half-left and half-right imaging (as presented by the Delos Surround Spectacular test disc, DE-3179) was top-drawer. The very difficult-to-deal-with ambiance clicks on the Delos test disc were handled nearly as well as what my Yamaha DSP-A1 could do, and appeared to be better controlled than what the $3400, THX Ultra Certified, Parasound AVC-2500 processor/pre-amp that I reviewed some time back could come up with.

One other musical release that I listened to included the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture segment from the Delos DVD Spectacular disc (DV-7001). I was particularly interested in seeing how well the center-rear channel would manage the choral parts in the beginning. As I noted in my review of the Outlaw receiver, in the normal five-channel mode, the beginning chorus on that disc is towards the rear of the hall and on either side of the listener.

However, with the center-rear feature engaged, the chorus tends to wrap more around the listener from the side walls towards the rear. As the music progresses, the chorus is supposed to appear to move down the side aisles of the hall toward the front, and with the center-rear engaged the effect is similar, although it is a bit more abrupt. On the whole, the work sounds more realistic if the center-rear feature is not employed.

As an aside, I should note that I had a few DVD-A discs on hand, and as some of you probably already know most if not all of those items also have alternate, 5-channel Dolby Digital tracks that the listener can easily listen to if they have only a standard DVD video player.

With a standard player hooked into the 787, I found that the DD tracks with most of those discs were as subjectively clean-sounding as the DVD-A tracks. (I am also reviewing a DVD-A player, so fairly good comparisons were possible.) And because most if not all the current crop of DVD-A players cannot deliver any kind of bass management, it is very likely that most sub/sat speaker packages will sound better with the DD tracks on those discs than the DVD-A tracks, no matter what brand of receiver they use.

Even more ironically, with the 787, as well as with any other receivers that I am aware of, you cannot use the center-rear-channel feature with DVD-A. However, if you use a regular DVD player and the Dolby Digital feed, you can use the center-rear feature. Consequently, with some of the rock DVD-A releases I tried, such as Stone Temple Pilots' Core and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, the center-rear feature was often, depending on the listening and surround-speaker positions, surprisingly effective. Indeed, the surround-sound result was potentially superior to what could be had with a "pure" DVD-A feed.

Whether the bass-management flaws in DVD-A and the potential musical advantages of a center-rear channel with Dolby Digital and DTS (at least with some surround-lively rock music) makes the latter two formats always sound better than DVD-A as it is currently configured will be something only the individual user can determine. Probably, with classical source material this will not be the case. However, with rock programs, who knows?

Anyway, returning to the topic at hand, I really liked what the Onkyo TX-DS787 could do. While my initial listening was done in my main listening room, I have had it hooked up in my living-room system for some time (driving AR Phantom 8.3 main speakers, Velodyne center and sub, and RDL surrounds), and it has demonstrated a very high degree of musical and home-theater competence. It is a flexible, powerful, attractive, and easy-to-use receiver that sits squarely in the upper-middle price bracket. It is worth every penny of its list price, let alone the price that some discounters or aggressive dealers might offer. And, hey, the tuner works great, too. Although there may be price-competitive models out there that are as good, it is hard to believe that any of them could be better. --HF
COPYRIGHT 2001 Sensible Sound
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ferstler, Howard
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Evaluation
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:Onkyo DV-S939 DVD Player.
Next Article:Outlaw Audio 1050 Receiver.

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