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Feature Articles & Reviews
There was a time in the US when a really high-end audio receiver was looked down on. Audiophiles weren’t worth their salt if they didn’t have separates: tuner, preamp, power amp. A few Japanese companies were toying with high-end receivers, but in the US, only McIntosh and Marantz were making “audiophile” receivers. The folks who were buying Audio Research or Mark Levinson or Threshold gear wouldn’t have dreamed of lowering their sights to an all-in-one-box receiver. And the folks who were constrained by price generally weren’t looking for a high-cost receiver. So receivers were relegated to the low end of the mass market, as high-end separates became de rigueur for the aurally obsessed.
My love affair with electronics began with a tube-powered integrated amp, and in my almost lifelong pursuit of high-fidelity sound, I’ve owned only one receiver: a tiny NAD 3020, in a system that included a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. Instead of using the NAD’s anemic 20Wpc power amp, I connected its preamp outputs to two Kenwood L07M monoblocks, and strapped each of those to a Magneplanar Tympani 1D speaker. That system rocked, but soon I moved up to an Apt Holman preamp, and sold the NAD to a friend of mine; he’s still using it, 35 years later. Other than my short dalliance with the 3020, I’ve had separates ever since.
But recently, a few high-end receivers have hit the market that I could happily coexist with, especially for home-theater use. Just in the last 18 months, two receivers have passed through my system that were good enough to earn the SoundStage! Network’s Reviewers’ Choice award. The Anthem MRX 700 ($2000 USD) was the one that really turned me around. Then came the NAD T 787 ($4000), a work of art in metal with the best remote control I’ve ever used.
Here’s another to add to that pantheon. It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything new from Integra, but its parent company, Onkyo, continues to knock out new models annually. So instead of the Integra processor you often see lurking in my system, I decided to check out the top end of Onkyo’s line. Because they focus on receivers instead of separates, all of Onkyo’s best and newest technology goes into their receivers -- and the TX-NR5010 A/V receiver ($3000) comes loaded with all mod cons.
To start with, the TX-NR5010 has nine channels of flexible amplification. You can have two separate front channels: one driving the fronts of a 7.2-channel home-theater system and the other driving a better pair of stereo speakers. Or you can biamp your front left and right speakers. In my system, I used the Front High and Wide channels to drive speakers in Zone 2 or Zone 3. The TX-NR5010’s amplifiers are rated at 145W (8 ohms, 20Hz-20kHz, 0.05% distortion, two channels driven). Many makers of A/V receivers specify their products with just two channels sucking power, but I’ve run into a significant number of movies that have all channels simultaneously pumping out high SPLs. Super 8, anyone? Melancholia? Avatar? It would be nice to know what the power output is with all channels driven. Onkyo makes a big deal of the fact that the TX-NR5010 “has a massive toroidal transformer supported by two discrete transformers for audio and video processing.” Well, if it’s so massive, they shouldn’t be reluctant to specify the TX-NR5010’s performance with all cylinders firing.
If you have a couple of spare amps lying around, you can actually drive up to 11 speakers and four subwoofers from the TX-NR5010’s processing section by using DTS Neo:X or Audyssey DSX. The Onkyo is also loaded with the latest version of every other sound-manipulating program on the market. It’s THX Certified and features their Re-EQ, Timbre Matching, and Adaptive Decorrelation. The TX-NR5010 is also THX Ultra2 Plus Certified, which means it can handle rooms of up to 85 cubic meters. That’s almost exactly 3000 cubic feet, or a fairly good-size room measuring 20’L x 15’W x 10’H.
The TX-NR5010 includes Audyssey’s MultEQ XT32 room equalization, the highest level of consumer room-correction software Audyssey makes. Also built in is MultEQ Pro, awaiting a professional installer equipped with the right microphones and software. In fact, Onkyo has made the TX-NR5010 something of a custom-install dream, with built-in software and adjustments for professionals certified in Audyssey, THX, and ISF installations. Its ability to tweak both video and audio signals is unsurpassed. If you can dream of it, it’s here.
We’re finally starting to see receivers with 1080p HDMI outputs for additional zones, for those who, like me, want a central way to control media throughout the house. The TX-NR5010 is one of them, which makes it an ideal mate for anyone with a DISH Hopper system. DISH’s system is a glorious piece of work. I have a Joey on every TV in my house, which means that everyone can be watching something different at the same time. DISH’s only weakness is for those who might like to have one program -- say, a sports event -- shown on all sets simultaneously. If you want to go back and watch something that happened and push reverse at the set you’re watching, suddenly your TV is out of sync with the rest. What’s worse, it’s nearly impossible to then resync all the TVs. On the other hand, if you feed all the TVs a second HDMI output, this time from the Onkyo, you can bypass the Joeys and use the Hopper, running through Zone 2, to feed all the TVs. Problem solved.
Onkyo can also do some interesting things via its Ethernet input. Thank goodness, it has DLNA, with which you can access the PC where you’ve presumably stored lots of music and movies. Those of you who’ve been downloading 24-bit/192kHz high-definition music from sites like Linn, Naim, and HDtracks will be happy to know that 24/192 files came through the Onkyo’s DLNA perfectly. There are also a good number of Internet-based audio channels preloaded, including Internet Radio, Pandora, Rhapsody, Sirius/XM, and Spotify.
A note about Spotify: It takes some trouble to set up correctly, especially if you sign in to Spotify via Facebook. To save yourself the hours I spent searching, here’s the trick: You can’t use your Facebook sign-in to get Spotify working on an Onkyo receiver. Instead, you have to log in to Spotify from your browser via Facebook. Then go to the Overview page for your Spotify account, found in the drop-down menu under your username, in the top right corner. There, under Profile, you’ll find a gobbledigook username that Spotify has assigned to you. That’s the username you have to use. Spotify will then work seamlessly.
Onkyo’s Dual Core Video Engine uses an HQV Vida VHD1900 module to upscale everything to 1080p, and combines it with Marvell’s Qdeo technology for a sharp picture. It goes without saying that the TX-NR5010 is happy to play 3D. There are nine HDMI inputs and two outputs. That’s even enough for yours truly, the loudest complainer about most receivers’ stingy numbers of HDMI inputs and outputs. Plus, should you ever choose to feed the TX-NR5010 music from your iThing, its front USB port is set up to interface with the player.
Setup and performance
Despite the plethora of possible routes to setup disaster, I found the Onkyo TX-NR5010 very simple to get going. The Audyssey process remains the same and is still a model of efficiency. Onkyo’s setup wizard actually works -- it’s simple and detailed enough to ensure that you make no mistakes. The most difficult part is searching for the remote codes for the gear you might want to control using Onkyo’s remote. Speaking of which, Onkyo has created a perfectly adequate remote control. Most buttons are fairly easy to find, especially those for the listening modes. If I sound less than thrilled, it’s only because the Onkyo entered my system just after the NAD T 787, possessor of the finest remote control ever given away with a receiver. Onkyo’s remote is good, just not in the NAD’s class. Of course, the NAD costs $1000 more than the Onkyo.
Usually, the toughest trial you can hand a receiver’s video section is the bypass test. I plugged my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player straight into my JVC DLA-X70R projector and watched some gorgeous Blu-ray movies, then watched the same clips with the Oppo plugged into the receiver and the receiver into the projector. I saw no degradation. The opening 18 minutes of Melancholia includes drastic light changes and tightly focused shots that could be a nightmare, but it looked perfect both ways. The latest version of An American in Paris is another favorite for its juxtapositions of pastels, sunlight, and night lights. Again, all was flawless.
But the Onkyo has dozens of video settings for each input that can be adjusted, and in the hands of a talented professional, there’s a chance that its output may be better than the input it’s receiving. Typically, I’ve counseled readers that, if you have a good-quality projector or display, it’s best to let it do the work of scaling and cleaning up any problems with the source. But given the Onkyo’s ability to fine-tune each source, the smart money is now letting the receiver do all the work, and then just set the display to play nicely with the receiver. It’s amazing to think that, just a few years ago, you’d have to spend more than the TX-NR5010 costs to get an outboard device with its quality of connectivity, switching, deinterlacing, and scaling. That’s a huge step forward.
The Onkyo’s sound was clean and clear, if just a shade less than perfect. Both the NAD T 787 and the Anthem MRX 700 had the kind of effortless transient jump you hear from tubes. The TX-NR5010 still sounded superb, and that “massive toroidal transformer” provided all the power I could ask for with my favorite action flicks. During the train wreck in Super 8 I felt like that old Maxell ad, with the long-haired guy seated in front of his speakers. I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t seen Melancholia, but the excerpt from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the end had us pinned against the couch.
Onkyo has included a huge number of listening modes, including everything from DTS, THX, and Dolby to several of their own proprietary modes. I loved the flexibility. It drove my wife crazy. She just wanted to set it on one mode and leave it. But if you love fiddling with the sound, the TX-NR5010 is heavenly -- all of the listening modes sound completely different. If you just want something to set and forget, this may be too complicated. I finally taught her how to get to her favorite setting. She’s happy.
The TX-NR5010 also did a fine job with music. I wanted to hear how it would handle 24/192 music from my favorite sites. Linn’s Studio Master recording of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor streamed flawlessly via DLNA. Comparing its sound to the identical recording in 320kbps MP3 readily demonstrated the superiority of 24/192. There was significant improvement in soundstage depth, air around the instruments, and the ability to hear individual instruments and voices. The Onkyo did an excellent job of highlighting the differences between the two resolutions. From Naim Music, a 24/88.2 WAV download of the Neil Cowley Trio’s The Face of Mount Molehill had a big, fat, round sound that was also lovely to hear. Cowley’s band makes a big noise for a jazz trio, and their music is always a tough test for a system. Like all of Naim’s recordings, this one is topnotch, and the Onkyo handled the vicious dynamic range with aplomb.
One of the toughest demonstration tracks I know of is the first one from Danny Elfman’s score for Mission: Impossible (CD, Point Music 454 525-2). It’s closely recorded, and from the opening stick across a ride cymbal, it will challenge even the best systems. Within rational volume limits, the Onkyo sounded unflappable.
I decided to move the audio clock back 50 years and try the Onkyo’s phono section. The sound of a mint “six-eye” pressing of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue played on a Rega Research P-25 turntable with Rega’s Super Elys cartridge proved why folks are still buying turntables. Bill Evans’s piano sound was in-the-room clear. Jimmy Cobb’s cymbals rang. But most of all it was Miles, telling stories by bending and slurring notes, even allowing them to drop out of pitch. All through, the Onkyo’s phono section was perfectly usable.
The Onkyo TX-NR5010 has several distinct competencies. Foremost is its flexibility of setup. With nine HDMI inputs and two outputs, it should cover most needs. Add to that its ability to play in three zones, and to support separate ISF calibrations for each input, and this is one receiver that likes to be in control. It also has every current listening mode imaginable, as well as Audyssey’s most advanced room equalization. With all of its capabilities, you might expect Onkyo to skimp on the TX-NR5010’s looks. But as you can see, it’s quite attractive.
How does the $3000 TX-NR5010 compete with the $2000 Anthem MRX 700 and the $4000 NAD T 787? Each is an excellent receiver, and all deserve consideration. I like the Anthem’s power-amp section best -- it’s muscular and never seems to run out of power -- but its processor section lacks some of the newer surround modes. The Onkyo is loaded with every possible device, and has more setup flexibility than either of the others. NAD has that mindboggling remote control and much of the Onkyo’s flexibility, but no phono section.
Bottom line: Onkyo has a real winner here, one capable of standing proudly between two winners of the coveted SoundStage! Network Reviewers’ Choice award. The TX-NR5010 deserves that award as well. A job well done by all involved.
. . . Wes Marshall
Onkyo USA Corporation
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
Phone: (201) 785-2600