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Onkyo TX-SR800 receiver.

Manufacturer: Onkyo U.S.A. Corporation, 18 Park Way, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458

Price: $989.95

Source: Manufacturer loan

Reviewer: Kevin East

All of us of the so-called audio cognoscenti have Stories--events that prove, disprove, or sometimes ridicule sacred audiophile beliefs, the bovine myths that fuel the endless debate over what does and doesn't constitute bona fide high-end sound. To wit ...

Several years ago, long before I signed on to T$S, I was browsing through a Washington-area audio emporium, well known for a great selection of new and used gear as well as a brisk business in used CDs. The owner is a decent if prickly sort, one whose public mantra embraces the high end's multiple foibles: the superiority of vinyl over CD, analog over digital, tubes over solid state, and so on. Well, one day he connected a pair of Celestion 3 speakers to a garden-variety receiver and turned it up. As alert readers will recognize, I hold the Celestion 3 in high regard-in fact, I still use them in a secondary A/V setup. The sound was glorious. As the small crowd gaped, the guy stood back and marveled, "And that's just through a receiver!"

The point was of course that had the Celestions been connected to a pedigreed high-end amplifier, preamplifier, and blue ribbon sound source, the sound would have been that much better. By that point I had pretty much signed on to the notion that amplification and the sound source were important, but not nearly as important as speakers. I could hear marked and occasionally profound differences among speakers but grasped only with great difficulty the audible nuances, indeed if any actually existed, among a vast array of solid state amps, preamps, integrateds, and receivers. Tubes were another matter.

I'm not sure that that set of distinctions doesn't still hold true and perhaps is even more valid today. With precious few exceptions home theater and A/V applications in general are powered by receivers. As the audio reproduction of home theater becomes more varied and sophisticated, it's the receiver that carries the burden of keeping up, since both decoding algorithms and the number of channels they power keep expanding. At some point the number of speakers will top off: we're at 7.1 now, and I've read of experiments with 9.1, 11.1, and x.2, where the LF channel is stereo separated. At that point, given that the audio decoding algorithms will ever change and expand, home theater, and its audio adjuncts SACD and DVD-A, may be best served by separates: why buy a new amplifier when you've maxed out the audio outputs and all you need is an upgraded decoding preamp? This, however, is a question of engineering and economics, not sound quality. For the nonce we have the receiver, and the Onkyo TX-SR800 is as good as they come.

Basics. The THX-Select certified Onkyo TX-SR800--henceforth the "SR800"--measures 17.125"W x 6.875"H x 18.0625"D and weighs in at a solidly hefty 36.6 lbs. Like its big brother, the Onkyo TX-DS989 (Issue 89), the SR800 is very deep, requiring a good 20-21" of shelf space to accommodate it and its complement of wiring without peeking over the front of the rack shelf. The steel chassis is wrapped by a steel shell, and capped in front by an anodized aluminum faceplate, a paragon of the renowned Onkyo fit and finish.

The SR800 can accommodate up to eight speakers in a 7.1 configuration: two front channel, two surround channels, two rear channels, a center channel, and a subwoofer. It pumps a prodigious 100 watts RMS into 8 ohms and 130 watts RMS into 6 ohms into each save the sub, easily enough power to handle the most demanding DVD audio track into some fairly sophisticated speakers in an equally generous environment. Inputs are plentiful: six multi-channel analog inputs for, say, a SACD or DVD-A player, a tape loop, CD line level input, a phono input including ground, four analog audio and video inputs, and a dedicated DVD input. Each of the video inputs has an S-video counterpart. There are three coaxial digital audio inputs, three Toslink optical digital inputs and two component video inputs.

Outputs are equally generous: two video, also with S-video counterparts, Toslink optical digital audio, component video, and eight channels of preamp outs, one for each of the speakers--one could theoretically connect a separate power amplifier to each speaker courtesy of its preamp out. There is a monitor out with both composite video and S-video connections and a "Zone 2" video out. Second zone audio duty is handled by the rear channels speakers, so you can either have a 6.1/7.1 configuration in one room or a 5.1 configuration in one room and a stereo configuration in another. The six sets of speaker connections are all five-way binding posts that will accommodate large spade lugs, banana plugs, and bare wire. The posts are spaced so that one may use dual banana plugs.

The rear panel also includes two switched AC convenience outlets, dual lead AM radio antenna, a 750-ohm coaxial FM radio antenna, a dedicated connector for running additional Onkyo components from the SR800's remote control unit (Onkyo's been offering this for years, and for simple applications, it works. However, the SR800's DVD controls are rudimentary, and I'm not averse to having to wield more than one remote.), and an infrared input for connecting auxiliary remote controls. The latter is useful if your unit is enclosed in a cabinet where the on-board remote sensor is not accessible.

The front panel is a neatly arranged array of source selection buttons beneath a generous display area. The SR800 has two sets of power switches, one which operates the main power, and one which, once the power's engaged, switches from "stand by" mode to operation. Onkyo intends that the SR800's main power is on pretty much all the time and encourages the user to power up and down from "stand by" mode. In the lower right corner is a fifth audio/video input with composite and S-video connections as well as analog and Toslink optical digital audio connections. There are an abundance of additional controls that allow the user to choose the audio output (mono, stereo, surround sound, THX sound, and a number of digital signal processing [DSP] algorithms), assist in the audio set up, tune and preset AM and FM radio stations, setting up the audio and video for input and playback. The display is a dot matrix affair dead in the middle of the faceplate. No matter what you or the unit is doing, it's tracked on the display. There is a standard phono jack headphone input and the omnipresent, humongous volume pot.

The remote control, however, is the instrument with which one conducts business. It replicates every ['unction on the front panel, controls other components by "learning" the functions of their remotes, learns and invokes macros to perform series of commands with the touch of just a button or two. The magic in the latter two functions is that the SRS00's remote can absorb the commands of another remote, say that of a DVD player, so then it can start itself, turn on the DVD player, play the DVD, and turn everything off when done. The remote, like so many of them, also contains functions that are not in the unit's array: muting, re-equalization (takes the "brightness" out of movie sound[racks), pink noise speaker test calibrators, and independent playback mode convenience buttons.

The user's manual is another Onkyo model of comprehensiveness. Every function is explained in considerable detail in this 76-page tome. I suggest strongly that you read every section through even if you have experience with this brand of high-end, programmable component. While doing so, it will become very, very apparent that Onkyo has designed its considerable array of home theater products so that you can pretty much run the whole shebang from the SR800"s remote. What can't be daisy-chained via Onkyo's infrared remote system, can be learned by the SR800's remote. In an age where everything has a remote control, and they proliferate like so many rodents, this is one area where the consumer's cry for help has been carefully heeded. Nonetheless, it still takes time, patience, and some dexterity to get everything running from one small module in the palm of your hand.

Associated Equipment. The SR800 was auditioned in our den, the erstwhile A/V salon, the functional viewing/listening area of which is a smallish 8_' x 9'. An Onkyo DV-$555 DVD player and a very cheap Sony VCR supplied sound and picture sources. All seven speakers were the very sexy Mirage Omnisat Micro and the subwoofer a Mirage LF100. The DVD video interconnect was an S-video cable running directly from the DVD player to the television, a ten-year-old-plus 26" Mitsubishi. The primary audio interconnect was a Radio Shack Toslink optical cable, supplemented by a hash of manufacturer-supplied cables and Radio Shack stuff. The seven speakers required over 100 feet of Radio Shack 14AWG flat wire, and a 6' Radio Shack gold-plated interconnect ran from the preamp out on the receiver to the subwoofer.

Setup. Onkyo includes in the SR800's packaging a 4-page "Basic Operation Guide", acknowledging that not every home theater enthusiast, especially with a brand-spanking new piece of gear to play with, will necessarily want to wade through 76 pages of user's manual. Indeed, the "Basic Operation Guide" will get you through the very basics of installing the SR800, connecting it to a DV D player, connecting the speakers and calibrating them. Now, I'm a manual reader. No matter how confoundedly ESL the prose, I slog through every page until I know what every button does, setting means, and flashing light indicates. Don't want no surprises. But just for grins, I set the user's manual aside and set up the SR800 using only the "Basic" guide, and in under an hour, I was watching The Matrix in glorious 7.1 sound. So, despite its advanced capabilities, if all you want is virtual "plug and play", Onkyo enables it ... tho' you're gonna miss out on some of the more esoteric stuff, like zoning the rear channel speakers and switching HDTV video.

The SR800 is designed for its setup menus to be accessed mainly on a television screen. It assumes that you'll route the DV D video output through the receiver and then to the TV. But I don't. I send the DVD signal directly to the TV since I don't have competing video signals to deal with--and the signal's cleaner (the VCR is in the antenna's signal path). So I need to access the menus through the SR800's display panel. This can be a bit disorienting, because instead of seeing cascading menus and sub-menus on a screen, you only see the name and sub-menu number of whatever you're working on. The user's manual, however, maps each menu-even emulating the cascading screens you'd see on a video display. Pay attention, and you won't get lost.

Like with the TX-DS989, you calibrate the speakers by measure the size, distance from the main listening position, and loudness. First you decide if your speakers are LARGE or small; the Mirage Omnisat Micro, if the name gives you any hint, is small. Then you measure the distance of each to the main listening position; the Onkyo is calibrated in 6" increments. Finally, a blast of pink noise is emitted from each speaker, which is first limited by the receiver because of the distances that you've input, but also--because those distances will vary--requires further adjustment. I used a Radio Shack sound pressure level (SPL) meter and set everything, including the subwoofer, to 76dB SPL. After that the receiver manages the sound distribution for you, varying the output according to how you've managed the calibration exercise.

The receiver assigns default values to each of the analog and digital inputs: the DVD input defaults to the digital signal from COAX(ial) 1, and outputs its audio signal in PCM stereo. Well, this will never do. First, I changed the DVD's audio input to OPT(ical) 1 since that's where the Toslink optical connection was, and its output to Dolby Digital EX. You simply repeat this process for each audio and video input that you've connected to the receiver.

Play. The SR800 decodes the standard DVD audio algorithms: Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES. It also decodes Dolby ProLogic II and DTS Neo:6 to enable multi-channel playback of stereo programs. It's a testament to the current state of A/V playback that a component as sophisticated and versatile as the SR800, even with a detailed, 76-page manual, is as easy to use as, say, a toaster or Mr. Coffee. So long as one has paid attention to where the various inputs and outputs have been directed and remembered to power up the right components, the SR800 pretty much does the rest. There's no need to input what audio algorithm you want to listen to. You set up one as a default in advance, but you're free to change any time you want. Want to compare a movie's Dolby Digital EX sound with DTSES? Simply hit a button on the remote, and, voila!, you're there.

Like all current A/V receivers, regardless of make or model, the SR800 offers a variety of digital signal processing (DSP) options. Some have come to be fairly standard: "orchestra" for symphonic literature, opera, or other large scale acoustic music; "unplugged" for small scale acoustic playback; "studio-mix" for rock and pop music; and the ubiquitous "all channel stereo" for those who seem to enjoy it. The SR800 also bas some DSP options for cinema audio: "mono movie" for older monaural movies in which the center channel carries the main audio, and the surrounds play back with varying degrees of added reverberation to emulate a movie theater. "Enhanced 7" and "TV logic" are targeted toward television programs. The former favors live sports programming, the latter live studio programming.

The SR800 also features a couple of unique switches. One, "Late Night", accessed through the "Sound Effect" menu, changes the relative dynamics of movie playback to allow all the audio, including effects and dialog, to be heard clearly at low volumes. Onkyo calls it "Late Night" on the theory that one doesn't want Lord of the Rings or Gladiator blasting away during the wee hours. The other switch is "Re-EQ" or re-equalization. "Re-EQ" is configured to take the edginess or brightness out of home theater playback, compensating for theater sound mixes. The "Re-EQ" function can be toggled from the remote.

A Note about Video Switching. One of the expanding features in home theater receivers is the ability to access multiple video sources, much like we've been accessing multiple audio sources for years. Not only can the SR800 switch among multiple video sources, it is capable of switching between two high-definition component video sources. In other words, if you have two component video inputs, you can route both through the SR800 and switch the video feed to a HDTV monitor. This is pretty cool. The difference, however, between audio and video switching is that audio is configured for different kinds of components: turntables, CD players, tape decks, and so on, which require a switch box like a preamplifier. One could say the video switching is designed with a similar notion in mind, except that most home theater configurations are going to have at most four video inputs, and only one of these will have component video connections. VCRs, cable, and satellite connections are generally coaxial. DVD players offer commonly composite and S-video connections, and with ever greater frequency component video.

If the best connection between the signal source and its output is a direct one, and if you have only one or two video inputs, depending on their configuration, video switching is unnecessary. For instance if your television source is cable or satellite, it will be fed via a coaxial cable directly into the antenna input on your TV set/monitor. If you have a VCR, you'll feed the cable/satellite input through the VCR, which is equipped with coaxial antenna in and out jacks. If you have a DVD player, it can be routed directly to the monitor with a composite, S-video, or component video connection. In other words, you've no need to switch video inputs via the receiver unless you have multiple video sources and limited inputs on your video monitor.

Although the video switching options on the SR800 are formidable, this is a component designed for a complex array of inputs, generally not the minimal installations that Ma and Pa Video are going to have. This means that you, also, need to seriously assess your needs both in the short and long term. It could very well be that your needs are minimal today. However, if they were to appreciably expand, especially in your choice of video options, a receiver with extra capacity might well be a wise decision.

The Verdict. Since our home theater playback seems to be crawling along in a protracted infancy--we have no HDTV or multiple component video inputs--our modest habits have not yielded any exotic or profound changes in switching from the Sony STR-DE485 to the Onkyo TX-SR800 receiver. As regular readers will recognize, I'm still skeptical about the virtues of the surround and rear channels. While they do add the occasional ambient effect-indeed sometimes these are quite lovely--, cinematic heavy lifting is still borne by the front channel/stereo and center channel speakers. Despite all the DSP tricks, I'm not sure that changing the playback of either movie or musical sound does much of anything except, well, change the sound. Whatever it is, it's certainly not what the producer or engineer intended when the sound was encoded for CD or DVD.

However, once our long-planned, hard-fought family room addition is complete, we'll need a home theater receiver with the capacity and flexibility of the SR800. The SR800 adds the two rear channels with as much power as I think our prospective home theater array will require. Despite my personal reservations about its efficacy, multi-channel playback is here to stay. With ever more sophisticated DVD players on the market, and SACD and DVD-A slugging it out for multi-channel audio supremacy, not having a multi-channel capability seems shortsighted at best. The Sony receiver and Onkyo DVD player will end up in the new master bedroom, while the new family room will be powered by the Onkyo TX-SR800 and a DVD/ SACD/DVD-A player yet to be selected. The SR800 is pricey, but my guess is that it is all the receiver that we'll need for many years. Recommended.--KE
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Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Previous Article:Mirage Omnisat Micro loudspeaker.
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