Onkyo TX-SR605 A/V Receiver

For years, Onkyo has been known for decent, dependable gear – nothing super fancy, mind you, just good, respectable, hardworking stuff. That's not to say Onkyo's AV receivers are plain-Jane, stripped-down jobs, however. The company's newest introduction, the $599 TX-SR605, is a perfect illustration of how the opposite is true. Sure, it sports a faceplate that, after you get past the various logos and (thankfully removable) stickers splashed across it, is not much different – and often less exciting – than that which you'll find on any of a hundred other receivers. But, as the logos and marketing stickers attest, behind the average-looking façade lies a feature and performance package that should put the TX-SR605 on the short list of anyone who's currently in the market for a mid-priced AV receiver.

There's no point in making you slog through mundane bits about size, weight, number of inputs, and whether or not the remote control should ever have seen the light of day before we get to the exciting part. What most sets this receiver apart from the others on the market is the presence of two HDMI 1.3a inputs. Furthermore, the TX-SR605 is the first AV receiver we've seen that includes built-in decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

But I must digress for a moment. In my opinion, HDMI is the best thing that should have never happened to the AV world. The idyllic vision of a home theater system in which a single cable connects each piece of gear to the AV receiver – or, at the very least, one HDMI cable to run from the receiver to the HDTV – is so appealing, so utterly brilliant, that it's like having a rusty, jagged dagger thrust in your back each time you run afoul of the fact that there are multiple versions of the HDMI spec. And chances are that even the most fastidious of system designers won't be able to cobble together a home theater system in which all the components can utilize the full benefits of the HDMI format.

Now that I've had a chance to vent about the various flavors of HDMI (this was diatribe version 3.2b – I'm already working on a revision), let's look at why this matters in the particular case of the TX-SR605. Having HDMI 1.3a inputs means the receiver is capable of supporting a higher bandwidth connection between components, Deep Color (with up to 48-bit color depths), higher frame rates, a broader color space, automatic Lip Sync, and the aforementioned lossless digital audio codecs Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. (Also included is RIHD (Remote Interactive over HDMI, which is Onkyo's flavor of CEC control of connected HDMI devices using a single remote.)

Unfortunately, if you buy the TX-SR605 today, you won't find much use for most of those HDMI-based features – especially the decoding of the two new audio formats. Although most newer-model Blu-ray and HD DVD players have Dolby TrueHD decoding built in, few actually output TrueHD signals as native digital bitstreams. Most players, at best, transcode TrueHD signals to PCM, which can then be sent digitally over HDMI. [Transmission of DTS-HD Master Audio in any digital form- either as transcoded PCM or a native bitstream- is not supported in any current Blu-ray or HD DVD player. Players scheduled for release this fall are to change that. –Ed.]

So if you're planning on using all that HDMI 1.3a power the minute you take the TX-SR605 out of the box, you'll be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, owning this new Onkyo will let you sleep better at night knowing that you've bought some technological time and can wait for the rest of the AV world to catch up to you. Of course, having those capabilities available and crying out to be used will probably keep you up at night wondering what you should add to your system next in order to take advantage of them.

The good news, from an audio standpoint, is that you still only need one HDMI cable to connect your high-def disc player to the TX-SR605. Regardless of the audio format on the disc, the receiver gives you the option of playing back the sound either touched or untouched by processing in the receiver. You can also select default modes by input which will automatically engage a specific processing mode based on the input signal. You might, for example, like to play Dolby Digital soundtracks back using one of the Onkyo-developed DSP modes, such as "Orchestra". (It would be pretty silly to do this, but at least you can.) The best reason for having the ability to create default settings is for those times when someone else in the house did decide to watch a movie in the "Orchestra" mode. Then the next time you turn the receiver on to play a DVD, it will automatically engage your default mode (hopefully not "Mono Movie"). If you're an HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc player owner, you may choose to listen to the transcoded Dolby TrueHD PCM streams as unhindered as possible by choosing the "Direct" mode.

Like a lot of mid-priced AV receivers nowadays, the TX-SR605 includes seven channels of amplification – in this case, 90-watts per channel. It's a good sounding receiver, too, with plenty of power in the bottom end if you have large front speakers and run them full range. I'm a little spoiled because I recently sent back a $4,000 Primare integrated amp/processor. The Onkyo definitely can't compete with the effortless sonic character of the Primare, but it's one-eighth the price – and I can't find a bit to complain about it from that standpoint.

Although you won't be able to take advantage of all the HDMI functionality at the outset, you will be able to use the Audyssey 2EQ speaker calibration feature immediately. Audyssey processing isn't unique to Onkyo's receivers, but it's a great technology to have in your system, especially if you're someone who either 1.1) doesn't have the time or know-how to set up a speaker system or 1.2) has a room (or spouse) that's really difficult to work with and can't place the speakers in ideal positions. For the person in the first situation, the Audyssey setup procedure only takes about 15 minutes. Onkyo has made it so simple, in fact, that when the microphone is plugged into the receiver's front panel jack, the TX-SR605 automatically goes into setup mode and uses on-screen menus to guide you through the process.

If you're in the latter situation, the calibration won't be able to correct for every fault in the room's acoustics or placement of speakers, but it will make the best of most bad situations. I was in the middle of moving while I had the TX-SR605, and my new home doesn't have a room that's ideal for a home theater – a situation a sledge hammer and new wall board will soon help. Over the course of multiple room changes (with boxes, without boxes, sometimes with different furniture arrangements), I was very pleased with the results of each recalibration using the Audyssey 2EQ circuitry. It did have a hard time compensating for the arrangement when the left rear speaker was on the floor directly behind the couch, but that's to be expected.

An additional audio feature worthy of note is the TX-SR605's second-zone capability. In this case, the amp channels used for the surround back speakers can be used instead for a stereo second zone. If you want to keep 7.1 in your main theater, the TX-SR605 includes a pre-amp output for the second zone. It's also smart enough to process multichannel and stereo sources separately for the two zones.

From a video standpoint, the TX-SR605 is a solid choice, too. There are a total of five video source inputs, each of which can be individually selected and assigned from a choice of the two HDMI inputs, the three component inputs or the five (each) S-Video or composite inputs. If you're using an HDMI-equipped HDTV, any input format that's lower down on the technological food chain is automatically upconverted to HDMI giving you the sweet ability to run one (expensive) cable to the HDTV from the receiver. Even if you don't have an HDTV with HDMI connectivity you can still run a single cable set from the receiver because when the HDMI connection is not enabled, the TX-SR605 will upconvert all incoming analog video signals to component. At least this eliminates the need to switch inputs at both the TV and the receiver.

The video conversion capability of the TX-SR605 is a bit of a mixed bag, however. When upconverted to be sent over HDMI, analog video signals lose a bit of detail and brightness. No one should be surprised to find this is the case in a $599 receiver, and I suspect that many will choose the convenience of not switching inputs on the TV over a small sacrifice in performance. I must admit, in this case I'd have to think twice about whether the picture quality improvement is worth it, especially when it comes to training my family how to use the system.

If you choose the switching inputs route, the Onkyo's remote control can be quickly programmed to work your television set and other components in your system. Unfortunately, only the Remote Mode buttons on the remote light up when in use, so it's tough to navigate to the right button without good room lighting. I will give credit, however, to the engineer(s) who took the time and effort to come up with a design that grouped the function buttons logically together and used plenty of different shapes for individual buttons. As a result, while I normally hate the obnoxious remote controls that come with most receivers, I found this one to be fairly easy to use. (I'd still get a Harmony remote to control the whole system.)

Other features of the TX-SR605 include an input that can be used for one of the optional direct-connect style satellite radios from either XM or Sirius. (You'll have to pay additional money for whichever tuner and service plan you choose.) Speaking of radio, the built-in terrestrial AM/FM tuner does not receive HD Radio broadcasts – a fact that will probably upset the five people who currently listen to the format. There's also an input for one of Onkyo's iPod dock/chargers that can make an iPod act like it's a full-size AV component.

When you look at the entire feature package and the price point, this is one hot receiver. For the person who has to have HDMI 1.3a connectivity and on-board Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio decoding before anyone else on the block, then the TX-SR605 is a no-brainer. But you don't have to be an over-eager early adopter to see plenty of merit in this new receiver, either. It's another hard-working success story from Onkyo, and it's a receiver with a value that will actually increase over time (the short term, at least). That's something that rarely can be said about a piece of electronic gear nowadays.

Onkyo U.S.A. Corporation
(800) 229-1687