Pioneer VSX-816 A/V Receiver

Set me up, and let me fly.

Back when Jimmy Carter was president (or was it Ford?), my first audio system featured a Pioneer SX-434 receiver. Even then, manufacturers had figured out that SX sells. My old receiver was rated at 15 watts per channel and weighed 18 pounds. Today, I'm reviewing a Pioneer VSX-816 A/V receiver (SX still sells) with 110 watts times seven. At 20.3 pounds, it's put on some weight, but what a difference a couple of pounds can make.

Even at $299, the VSX-816 is a feature-laden overachiever. If I could whiz back in time and tell my 19-year-old self that someday I'd be using a Pioneer receiver that assessed room acoustics with a little microphone and set its own surround levels, he'd probably say, "Wow!" Then he'd ask, "What are surround levels?"

A Big MCACC Attack
I set up a tripod in the soundfield of my Paradigm Reference Studio/20 speakers in front of the sofa. I placed the mike on it and trailed the wire to the rack. Then I put on my Howard Leight ear protectors, which are like giant headphones without the transducers, to protect myself from loud test tones. The tones later measured at 75 decibels, identical to the Dolby and THX reference tones. While that is not an unsafe level, you might find the tones grating, and it's better to be safe than sorry. Some auto-setup receivers spit out tones at ear-shredding volumes.

When I turned on my Sharp LCD HDTV and the VSX-816, I picked Auto MCACC—the second item on the main setup menu—and got started. By the way, Pioneer describes this procedure on page 34 of a 66-page manual, although it belongs in the first few pages, after the connectivity section. It's pointless to sell newbies an auto-setup product if you're going to make them read nearly three dozen pages to find the secret handshake.

The acronym MCACC stands for Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration and Control. It starts with an environment check, in which it gauges the amount of ambient noise in the room. Then it performs a microphone check and takes inventory of the speakers. The circuit correctly sensed that I have a 5.1-channel set with no rear surrounds and asked me to confirm.

I did, and the real show began. Four steps appeared below a legend labeled Now Analyzing—Speaker System, Speaker Distance, Channel Level, and Acoustic Cal (calibration). Speaker System identified whether my speakers were large (with extended bass) or small (with attenuated bass). Speaker Distance is self-explanatory. Channel Level set the volume for each channel. Finally, the Acoustic Cal EQ tailored each channel's frequency response to room conditions.

When the calibration was done, an Analytical Data Check invited me to check the same four settings. The Speaker System identifier correctly pegged my deep-voiced monitors as large. Speaker Distance was spot on. Channel Level adjustments were close to my typical manual settings except in the left surround channel, which was too high. The EQ settings, as typically happens with my asymmetrical speaker placement, were all over the place.

When I use a budget receiver, I prefer to reduce its workload by routing all bass below the crossover point to the powered sub. This usually improves overall dynamics. So, I reset the speakers from large to small.

For hard-core tweakers, the receiver offers a Manual MCACC routine that lets you run just the desired routines. Whether you use automatic or manual setup, you can save the results to one or more custom settings. Later on, you might want to create your own settings. For instance, you might program a high-frequency rolloff for loud action movies, neutral settings for foreground music, and bass/treble boosts for background music. There's also a Manual SP Setup menu that behaves like that of a conventional receiver, stepping through the setup options and skipping the EQ.

Chronicles, History, Games
The Chronicles of Narnia plunged me into an equalized soundfield full of splashy effects. The left surround channel was distractingly loud, possibly because the left surround speaker was closer to the wall—and therefore better reinforced—in a way that escaped MCACC. I reset all of the channel levels manually with a meter, although the other channels changed very little.

The declamatory ensemble acting style of Narnia made vocal clarity a cinch. A History of Violence revealed equally fine resolution of low-level dialogue during the quiet but terrifying moments when Viggo Mortensen confers with his embattled family, and later when he confronts the black-sheep brother, memorably played by William Hurt.

Ripley's Game became the battleground of A/B comparison, with and without EQ. On the first viewing, with EQ off, I was thrilled and titillated by the sexy scene where the diabolical John Malkovich cozies up to Uwe Mansshardt as they play a harpsichord duet. When I turned the EQ back on, there was some blurring of the music's sensuous seepage into the high-ceilinged ambience of their palatial home. A later scene in a recording studio, with a string orchestra joining the harpsichord, confirmed the impression.

The EQ performed better in a multiple-strangling scene set aboard a train. The echo of the train station's PA system, the chuckling undercurrent of the train in motion, and some quick shots of the train roaring from surround left to surround right all made dramatic sense with or without EQ. From this, I'd conclude that the EQ parameters that MCACC automatically derived for my system worked better with loud, amorphous, manufactured effects than with naturalistically recorded musical material where focus and proportion are crucial.

Bass weight was modest without EQ and noticeably lightweight with EQ. MCACC seemed to set the subwoofer level according to the response at the room's resonant frequency—a midbass hump—so all other bass information emerged too low in level. To compensate, I dailed up the sub's volume control. If I were redesigning the MCACC EQ circuit—at least, to make it work better in my room—I would focus more bands of adjustment below the crossover point.

Even without EQ, and with the sub running at its normal level, midbass was sparse above the crossover point. Unequalized, the receiver had a pretty good midrange. The relatively neutral leading edge made a good first impression. Underlying harmonics were a little vague—that, of course, is why people pay more for higher-end receivers—but you'd need a broad frame of reference with more expensive receivers to notice the difference.

The VSX-816's volume capability and dynamics were par for the price. Full-frequency all-channel volume peaks predictably generated compression. With my reference speakers' 86-dB sensitivity, this receiver had its work cut out for it.

The statements above are mainly descriptive, not disapproving. A good budget receiver is one whose shortcomings are sins of omission, as opposed to blatant, obvious, obnoxious coloration. Overall, by budget-receiver standards, the VSX-816 sounds quite good.

Satellite of Love
The VSX-816's white fluorescent display is a departure from Pioneer's traditional amber. But the new receiver also has XM radio capability with Neural Surround.

XM setup was simple with the XM Connect & Play antenna, which sells for $10 after rebate and looks like a folding travel alarm clock. I placed the antenna by a window and plugged it in. The preview channels came on immediately. At this point, you'd have to call the XM people with a credit-card number to activate your account. I fiddled with the antenna to eliminate dropouts, but I didn't have to resort to outdoor placement, despite the limited angle of exposure my apartment courtyard affords.

Sound on the talk channels had a cell-phone-like coloration. Music channels must have gotten more bandwidth, because they sounded much cleaner. Even at its best, XM has a slight veiling compared with CD sound, but there's nothing that resembles an iffy FM signal's annoying hiss and fluctuations.

You can navigate XM via the receiver's front-panel display, but it's easier with the onscreen display. Press the Category button, and you'll find both music and nonmusic channels. There's no Howard Stern—he's on Sirius—but XM does have Air America and Fox News Talk. XM has exclusives on Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

Pioneer provides a genuine bargain in the VSX-816. Getting auto setup and room equalization in a $299 budget model is an unexpected boon. It's even more amazing to get XM satellite radio, too. If you're looking for high performance, you should check out Pioneer's Elite line. But, if you're just getting into surround and don't want to risk a big investment, this may be just what you need.

Mark Fleischmann's book Practical Home Theater is available through

Auto setup and calibration at an affordable price point
Very good sound for a budget receiver
All this and XM satellite radio, too!

Pioneer Electronics