Pioneer Elite VSX-84TXSi Audio Video Receiver

Pioneer Elite gear gets more attainable and less "elite" with each passing year. In the days of Laserdisc players, though, the Pioneer Elite CLD-97 could run you $2,500. Thank you sir, may I have another!

More recently, the Elite DV-45A universal player (DVD-A/DVD-V/SACD) at a fraction the CLD-97's price, passes on the glossy Urushi wood, yet offers performance that would make any Laserdisc player blush. If it weren't for the fact that the DV-45A lacks a digital video output (DVI or HDMI) or an i.LINK connection (meaning six analog channels of heavy cabling verses something less obtrusive than a USB cable), it would still be in my reference rack.

Today, Pioneer Elite brings seven channels of amplification to the $1,500 VSX-84TXSi A/V receiver, a receiver crammed with niceties (like a phono stage – hooorah!). But it's not just another trip down Feature Creep Boulevard. It's a breath of fresh air.

Elite Meets West!
The back panel of any AVR tells much of its story. Even before I seek out a press kit at trade shows, I sneak-a-peek to see if there's anything that excites me. The back of the VSX-84TXSi has speaker terminals for seven channels. That's interesting. And what have we here? Four HDMI inputs? Whoa mama! Hand me the remote. What? There's two remotes? Shut up!

Yes, this Pioneer Elite is feature-rich eye candy, but we're all about power and nuance here. The owner manual says the VSX-84TXSi's seven amplified channels are each capable of 140-watts with less than .09% distortion into an 8 ohm load. But there is no mention of their abilities into lower impedances. My Martin Logan Prodigy (main L/R) and Request (surrounds) speakers run more like 4-ohm speakers (dipping to 1-ohm at 20 kHz), but I never heard the Pioneer strain from the load. About a month into the review I read in the manual how you can optimize the amps for 6-ohm loads (finding buried tidbits in equipment manuals is as gratifying as finding Easter Eggs on DVDs!), and I did just that. I honestly can't say I heard a difference, though I wouldn't be surprised if the receiver measures better when matched to the load.

At the risk of being defensive, I was criticized on the Internet recently for using my current-hungry Martin Logan reference speakers when reviewing receivers like the Rotel RSX-1057 I reviewed back in October. But the Pioneer Elite is a reassuringly affordable receiver capable of taking on electrostatics with either its 6- or 8-ohm setting while exhibiting no signs of distress. Thank you, Pioneer, I'll just take my vindication medal and go home.

I mentioned the two remotes already, so best we delve in right here. The Pioneer comes with two remotes because, quite frankly, all the features won't fit on one. And I like it that way. Each source (or two) gets its own button. No more hob gobblin' around to find your high-def tuner with a single "source" button. Even within this feature rich universe, the buttons on the remote are logically laid out and, thanks to some common sense color coding, easy to understand.

One nice feature I didn't expect to find in a sub-$5,000 receiver/processor is built-in, one-step room equalization. Pioneer provides a microphone for taking measurements, but the mic is mounted on a flat base. As the only flat surface at my listening chair is reserved for a part of the body that lack ears, I swung a microphone boom into place, suspended in space where my head would eventually be, and carefully positioned the mic there. Running Pioneer's MCACC (Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration) equalization process only takes about ten minutes, provided no one keeps coming into the room and asking, "Whatchya doin'?"

The latest version of the MCACC software includes some improvements to compensate for phase lag between channels. There are now a total of nine EQ bands, from 63Hz up to 16kHz. Compare that to some other processors, like the six-times more expensive Meridian G68ADV preamp/processor, which earmarks 64 bands (between 20Hz and 250Hz) just to ameliorate problems in the bass. For the first time in its life, the Pioneer may seem a little feature poor. On the other hand, you won't be nearly as poor yourself for having selected the Pioneer Elite.

The results of the automated equalization process can be viewed on your TV. They largely substantiate the fact that in most rooms, and certainly in my room, relatively little correction is required, or provided, above the midrange. What MCACC does provide is some rather non-pinpoint correction at three frequencies in the bass. So the results, while not overly dramatic or optimized, certainly contribute to what has been one of my more sonically gratifying reviewing experiences.

Another feature you won't want to overlook is the receiver's i.LINK connection. Commonly referred to as FireWire (or even IEEE1394), i.LINK lets you send a multichannel digital audio stream to the receiver where bass management can then be performed in the digital domain, instead of using six analog cables that necessitate a roundtrip from the digital to analog realms. i.LINK, or the lack of it, is what got my last Elite kicked out of my country club, to be replaced by the Integra Research RDV 1.1 universal player. The Pioneer identified the Integra immediately by name. With that one thin cable, you'll likely get better sound, better bass management for multichannel audio discs, and less of that Snakes-On-A-Plane feel behind your equipment rack.

While provisions for two coaxial and four optical digital audio inputs may seem backward to what audiophiles have grown to expect, remember that we now share the stage with gamers who are entering a golden age in their virtual garden of delights with the Xbox 360 and PS3, two platforms (let's call them optical #1 and optical #2) that will happily take advantage of this reversal of fortune.

Today's gamers are high-def happy and digital audio savvy. Witness the most recent episode of South Park, which highlighted Cartman's willingness to freeze himself to forego suffering through the final three weeks preceding the Nintendo Wii's launch. But a freak avalanche delayed his reanimation by some 500 years, at which point he demanded his rescuers search the planet for a working Nintendo Wii. Although one was eventually found, sadly it lacked a future-proof digital output and hence continued to remain wholly unplayable to the lad. Make room on the couch for the gamers.

If you're still thinking that the two coaxial digital inputs are too few, the Pioneer has four – count 'em – HDMI inputs (version 1.2 compliant) and a single HDMI output. Why is that important? Unlike DVI, an HDMI cable can carry digital video and audio. Not needing a separate audio cable? Yeah, priceless. So an HDMI-equipped optical disc players and HD set-top boxes can free up those two meager coaxial digital audio inputs for some older gear. Like your Laserdisc player.

Of course, the PS3 is HDMI-equipped as well, which could free up another optical input. And it's important to note that HDMI 1.2 allows the Pioneer to accept multichannel PCM from Blu-ray and HD DVD players, either as native uncompressed streams or transcoded PCM from one of the new Dolby/DTS codecs.

(A caution here: Unlike the Pioneer, not all AV receivers and pre-pros with HDMI inputs will retrieve, process, and reproduce audio that's carried on an HDMI connection. Some of them merely do HDMI video switching and nothing else. —Ed)