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Founded in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, Japanese electronics firm Onkyo began by manufacturing phonograph pickups. By the 1970s, Onkyo had established global distribution of a wide range of audio products. Onkyo models are some of the most rich in features for their price points, and the company has the reputation of being among the first to implement certain features -- the world’s first THX-certified audio/video receiver was an Onkyo, in 1994. While today Onkyo makes a full range of products, from Blu-ray players to speakers, they’re best known for their AVRs and amplifiers -- their website currently lists 19 AVRs, from $279 to $2999. These range in power from 60 to 145Wpc, but even more widely in their feature sets: input/output options, processing capabilities, and five, seven, nine, or 11 channels. In terms of processing, the spec sheet for the TX-NR838 A/V receiver ($1199 USD) reproduces no fewer than 31 logos, representing those technologies Onkyo has licensed for this product.
The first thing I noticed about the TX-NR838 was its size. My Sanus Systems audio rack provides four spaces 9” high, and has been able to accommodate every component I’ve reviewed. Usually, I install amplifiers or receivers on a lower shelf, as these require less frequent manual access to the front panel than do disc players. But at 17”W x 8”H x 16”D, the TX-NR838 barely fit -- its antennas extend several more inches, and the ventilation slots in its top panel would have been compromised. It ended up on the top shelf, displacing my turntable.
The TX-NR838 looks like a traditional, full-size audio component, and weighs 34 pounds -- nearly twice the weight of my 12-year-old Onkyo TX-SR500 AVR. The case is black steel, fronted by a faceplate of black-anodized aluminum with a fold-down panel, behind which are most of its ports and controls. Despite the differing materials, the colors match well. With the cover closed, the front panel has an On/Standby button; a Pure Audio button; a large, lighted volume knob; and 12 source buttons, each of which can wake the TX-NR838 from Standby when pressed: BD/DVD, Cable/Sat, STB/DVR, Game, PC, Aux, TV/CD, Phono, Tuner, Net, USB, Bluetooth. Pure Audio disables the video circuitry, the display, the two Zones, and surround-sound processing to provide a direct audio path. The 12"-wide LCD display shows, by default, the source selected and volume level, along with icons for the digital streams (PCM, DSD) and the various Dolby and DTS formats. The Display button on the remote control toggles through several screens, showing input and output formats for audio and video. This information is also shown, in more detail, on the onscreen display (OSD) sent to the TV. The Onkyo can also be remotely controlled with free iOS and Android apps. I was surprised to see the same typeface and color used on the TX-NR838’s front-panel display as on my 2002-vintage TX-SR500.
Folding down that front-panel cover reveals more buttons -- for tuning, menus, zones, and modes -- along with input jacks: for headphones, USB, MHL-supporting HDMI, analog A/V inputs, and the setup microphone. The USB port is for playing media from a mass storage drive, not for connection to a computer; the TX-NR838 can’t serve as a USB DAC.
On the rear panel are found most of the connections. Six HDMI inputs (one HDCP 2.2 compliant), four of which support 4K/60Hz for Ultra HD content; there are also two optical, three coaxial, six analog audio, three composite-video, a component-video, and a moving-magnet phono input, and connections for FM and AM antennas. On the output side are one each of component and composite video, two HDMI outputs, a 7.2-channel pre-out, and two channels of analog audio each for Zones 2 and 3. The main HDMI output supports audio return channel, which allows for sound from a television’s tuner; the other HDMI output is for delivering HD video to a second display, or Zone 2.
The TX-NR838’s networking capabilities are comprehensive, with Ethernet, 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.1 (A2DP and AVRCP profiles). While the Bluetooth spec is now at v.4, most of the enhancements center around power usage with mobile devices and so are not missed here. Not too long ago, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth required additional dongles to be purchased for many models of AVR; having them built in is appreciated. For integration, there are a serial port, IR input, and 12V trigger, the last for Zone 2. Finally, the TX-NR838 has 11 pairs of speaker binding posts.
The TX-NR838 is rated at 130Wpc into 8 ohms, two channels driven. While this is the standard way of specifying power output, at least in the US, a more meaningful spec for an AVR would be its output with all seven channels driven, as Cambridge Audio provides.
The TX-NR838’s extensive list of codecs and sound modes consumes five pages of the downloadable Advanced Manual. This list includes the common Blu-ray audio formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as a THX Reference mode and support for DSD, FLAC, and ALAC files. One feature I couldn’t test -- and doubt many can yet use -- is Marvell’s Qdeo upscaling of video signals to 4K. Twelve years ago, when I bought my Onkyo TX-SR500, setting the speaker levels involved playing a built-in test tone and cycling through the channels -- 5.1 of them, in that case -- and adjusting them from the listening position by ear and/or sound-pressure-level meter. Fortunately, times have changed -- the TX-NR838 comes with a setup microphone and a threaded socket, for setting the mike on a stand to approximate one’s ear height when seated. The Onkyo then goes through an automated process of playing a tone, measuring it with the mike, performing calculations, and setting crossovers, levels, and distances for the various channels. This process was rather quick, as it measures from only one mike position, rather than three or more. Onkyo’s TX-NR828, released in 2014, included Audyssey’s MultEQ room-optimization software; this has been replaced in the TX-NR838 with Onkyo’s own AccuEQ Room Calibration. Of this, Onkyo says: “AccuEQ optimizes surround-sound and two-channel audio to suit your listening space . . . to make stereo listening more dynamic and exciting . . . and optimizes frequency response and output levels for maximum clarity.”
Built-in apps and network services
Onkyo provides for an array of music-oriented network services, including Internet Radio, TuneIn Radio, Pandora, Deezer, Slacker, SiriusXM, Spotify, and Aupeo!, along with access to local USB and LAN storage via DLNA. Using the TX-NR838’s built-in webserver -- just enter the receiver’s IP address in a browser -- you can type in account information rather than do so in a tedious process with the remote control. The receiver can even store multiple user accounts for these services. While TuneIn and Pandora can be used with the Onkyo with free accounts, Spotify and SiriusXM require paid subscriptions.
From a USB thumb drive plugged into the front panel or over a local network, the TX-NR838 can access higher-quality music files, such as PCM FLACs of up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD DSF. I had none of the latter, so I downloaded a sample from Channel Classics -- but it arrived in DFF format, which the Onkyo couldn’t play via my DLNA server. Changing the extension of the file name from “.dff” to “.dsf” didn’t work, though conversion tools likely exist. Every FLAC I tried through the Onkyo worked as expected, including 88.2kHz tracks. Of course, unprotected lossy files -- MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG -- played successfully. Unlike with the last network AVR I reviewed, the Sherwood R-807, I was pleased to find that the TX-NR838’s apps loaded quickly, and retained similar user interfaces as I switched from app to app. The app user interface was well designed for navigation with a simple remote control (directional pad) from 10’ away. While the apps could be used from the front-panel LCD, especially if you know the directory tree structure, the interface is much easier to use when displayed on the far larger display of a connected TV -- you can see more than one line at a time. Pulling music off of network shares and streaming from Spotify and TuneIn Radio provided an easy way to access music with support for high-quality tracks. I could easily imagine users deciding to use only the Onkyo’s network features, and never connecting an external audio source component.
Because most of my music collection is still on discs, I also hooked up to the Onkyo TX-NR838 my Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player and Sony BDP-S590 SACD/BD player. As the TX-NR838 lacks a multichannel analog input, comparisons with my Pioneer DV-563A SACD/DVD-Audio player were limited to stereo mixes.
Although I’ve reviewed several AVRs that accept signals from an SACD player via HDMI, the TX-NR838 was the first that could reliably decode SACDs via HDMI, whether converted to PCM or as native DSD bitstreams delivered directly to the receiver. The settings of my Sony SACD/BD player include an option for converting DSD signals to 176.4kHz PCM or sending them direct via HDMI. The Onkyo’s display correctly identified the converted input signal as “PCM 2.0ch 176.4kHz,” and the native streams as “DSD 2.0ch.” Five-channel mixes were also correctly decoded.
Once Pure Audio mode has been chosen to decode a DSD two-channel signal, the TX-NR838 remembers that setting whenever it again encounters such a feed. The multichannel mix of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 (SACD/CD, Channel Classics CCS SA 21604) was never congested, but the instrumental voices sounded too far away in the fanfares of the first movement, Allegro moderato. The strings were warm and smooth, if a bit indistinct in the upper reaches of their range. The Onkyo kept up with the rapid passages, but its reproduction of the tonalities of the multiple instruments lacked details, especially in the quieter sequences. The Onkyo did a serviceable job but lacked the refinement and strict control I heard with Cambridge Audio’s Azur 651R, particularly in the orchestral tutti passages. Its wide dynamic range was a useful quality for movies. Compared with the analog output of my Sony BD and Pioneer DVD/SACD players, the Onkyo was warmer, less bright and grating, and able to extract more musical information. However, for orchestral works, some instruments got lost, as if I were sitting in a cheap seat.
The Sherwood R-807 AVR failed to play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (SACD/CD, Capitol CDP 5 82136 2), even in PCM, but the TX-NR838 had no trouble decoding the signal, identifying it as “DSD 5.1ch.” “Time” was presented with crisp drums that included nice, full reverb, and clock effects that surrounded me. The flyovers in “On the Run” were seamless, but in “Us and Them” the TX-NR838’s bass control was sloppy, boomy, and ill defined. The lack of detail was such that I couldn’t make out what was said in the spoken passage that ends “Money.” Similarly, Jimmy Garrison’s double bass in John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (CD, Impulse! 314 589 596-2) was depicted as a series of amorphous notes, while McCoy Tyner’s piano sounded abnormally small. The aural images of the drums, bass, and piano were superimposed on each other in “Part II: Resolution,” while Coltrane’s tenor sax was far away at the other end of the soundstage. While the soundstage was flat, Coltrane’s distinct tone punched through, and timing and dynamics were well managed. As with the other recordings, Coltrane and his band sounded a bit too distant. I prefer a more immersive sound.
I was able to make a more direct comparison with CDs, using the Onkyo’s Pure Audio mode between the DAC built into the AVR and that of my Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player ($600, discontinued). The Onkyo offered a smoother sound, but with Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac’s double bass somewhat shadowed in the Jacques Loussier Trio’s versions of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 23 (CD, Telarc CD-83628). The decays of Louissier’s piano were truncated too soon, rather than the round, complete tones the Music Hall gave from its analog outputs. Toward the end of the first movement of Concerto No.20, the rapid bass runs were a muddle via the digital connection. Imaging was about the same for each DAC with this small jazz ensemble. In short, while the Music Hall’s sound was too bright, it provided more detail, particularly in terms of tonality. The placement of the soundstage was quite distant and not enveloping in José Serebrier and the London Philharmonic’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade (CD, Reference RR-89CD), and the delicate solo-violin passages, played by Joakim Svenheden, tended to get lost.
The TX-NR838 is able to play audio files from a DLNA server, such as my Synology Diskstation NAS, over a local network. This was easy to set up, and navigable both from the TV screen and the AVR’s display -- in fact, I typically used the latter. I successfully played MP3, WAV, and FLAC files at the sample rates of 44.1, 88.2, 96, 176.4, and 192kHz. The Onkyo played every non-DRM file I tried without problems. Kodály’s Dances of Marosszék, performed by the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier (16/44.1 FLAC, BIS/e|classical), was smooth and fluid, but the high string passages verged on syrupy. The sound was distant, and the imaging wasn’t precise enough to distinguish the layering of orchestral sections in space.
Moving to high-resolution PCM, Schubert’s Symphony No.6, performed by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra led by Thomas Dausgaard (24/96 FLAC, BIS/e|classical), was similarly warmish and distant. The first movement’s bassoon counterpoint was indistinct, lost in the mix. In general, there was insufficient projection of the woodwinds -- critical for early-romantic works such as this -- while rhythmic patterns in strings and percussion were punctuated with a heavy hand. This large-scale orchestral recording never exhibited congestion and displayed a wide dynamic range in the second movement, with delicate solo figures emerging after passages for full orchestra. The TX-NR838 was able wring more from hi-rez than from standard-rez recordings.
Listening to LPs through the TX-NR838 and a Goldring Elektra moving-magnet cartridge, I was left with the sense of the Onkyo’s built-in phono stage having been provided as an afterthought -- a mere convenience. It had limited gain and, even with the volume cranked up, gave only a hazy impression of the music in Mongo Santamaria’s Yambu (LP, Fantasy F-8012/OJC 276). Using Onkyo’s Pure Audio mode for each, I compared the built-in phono preamp with my external Cambridge Audio Azur 540P phono stage ($100, discontinued). The Cambridge better extracted information from the groove, particularly in terms of spatial imaging and control of the bass of Modesto Duran’s conga drum in “Bricamo.” To enjoyably listen to LPs through the TX-NR838 would require an external phono stage, even for background listening. On the other hand, I was impressed with the TX-NR838’s built-in FM tuner, which was able to pull in more stations than any other tuner or receiver I’ve tried at this location: a total of 36, some from 50 miles away, with a Fanfare FM-2G antenna mounted indoors.
As an AVR with loads of HDMI ports and codec support, the TX-NR838 is well suited to play BDs. From the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (7.1-channel mix played through 5.1 channels) of 300: Rise of an Empire, Gorgo’s (Lena Headey) opening monologue was quite clear in the center channel, easily projecting over the rainstorm in the surrounds. Timing was managed well enough that the ringing metal of clashed swords handed off seamlessly from fronts to surrounds, following the onscreen action. There was wide dynamic range, from a peak with plenty of power in the fire-laced naval battle -- with pounding waves, shouts, arrows zipping about the soundstage, and a choral score -- to the subsequent scene of bodies floating in the shallows as waves lapped against the shore. While the imaging for music-only recordings lacked proximity, the Onkyo was better at spatially depicting a film’s soundscape. On the video side, the TX-NR838 introduced no ill effects and exhibited none of the lip-sync problems evident with Cambridge’s Azur 651R -- sound and image matched up in time. The Onkyo’s upconversion of 480p signals to 1080p, such as from a DVD, was indistinguishable from that of my Sony BD; while both were watchable, neither was to be mistaken for a native BD signal.
Audio Return Channel (ARC) typically requires HDMI CEC to be enabled in the settings, and the TX-NR838 is no exception. This worked successfully, passing along the Dolby Digital 5.1 (48kHz) mix of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final match (ABC HD, Suddenlink Cable ClearQAM). The Onkyo decoded announcers in the center channel and the din of the 75,000 attendees in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium in the front and surround channels. Some AVRs I have encountered in the past have failed to implement ARC properly, and thus couldn’t reliably reproduce a surround mix from TV programming. Those who get their TV programming over the air or via ClearQAM from a TV’s tuner will appreciate this aspect of the TX-NR838.
Other AVRs I’ve reviewed -- at half and at twice the price of the Onkyo TX-NR838 -- have been loaded with features (though perhaps not as many as this one), and some of those features just did not work. I was surprised and thoroughly pleased to find that every one of the Onkyo’s features worked fine. While the TX-NR838 does an adequate job of music playback, it’s more at home with movies on Blu-ray -- the opposite impression I got from Cambridge Audio’s Azur 651R. For readers mostly interested in video playback that supports the latest audio codecs -- Onkyo has, impressively, delivered Dolby Atmos via a firmware update -- but want to occasionally listen to music, the TX-NR838 is a solid value.
. . . Sathyan Sundaram
- Speakers -- Wharfedale: Diamond 8.2, Diamond 8 Centre, PowerCube 10 subwoofer; Infinity Primus P162; M-Audio Studiophile DX4 nearfield monitors
- Headphones -- Grado Labs SR80, Shure E3
- Analog sources -- Goldring GR1 turntable, Rega Research RB100 tonearm, Goldring Elektra cartridge; Cambridge Audio 540P phono preamplifier; Sangean HDT-1 tuner; Onkyo TA-RW244 tape deck
- Digital sources -- Music Hall MMF CD-25 CD player; Pioneer DV-563A DVD/SACD player; Sony BDP-S590 SACD/BD player; Roku XDS; Intel H61 desktop PC (2.6GHz, 8GB RAM, Crucial SSD) running Windows 8.1 Professional (64-bit) and Ubuntu 14.04 (64-bit), VLC, foobar2000, and XBMC, with Realtek ALC887 DAC/optical output (WASAPI/ALSA drivers); E-MU 0404 USB DAC (WASAPI); Synology DS211j SMB/DLNA server; Google Chromecast
- Subscription services -- Google Play Music All Access (via Chromecast); Spotify Premium (native app); Netflix (Roku); Amazon Prime Instant Video (Roku)
- A/V receiver -- Onkyo TX-SR500
- Antenna -- Fanfare FM-2G FM
- Television -- Panasonic TC-P50S30
- Remote controls -- Logitech Harmony Smart Control; Samsung Galaxy Player 5 (Android 2.3); Asus Nexus 7 (Android 4.4)
- Power conditioner -- APC Line-R LE1200
Onkyo TX-NR838 Network Audio/Video Receiver
Price: $1199 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Onkyo U.S.A. Corporation
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 785-2600
Fax: (201) 785-2650