They say that the best place to start telling the story is the beginning, but that is dependent upon a couple of things. The first of these is how one defines beginning. The second is what the story is about, and which parts are actually important to a potential audience’s understanding.
You could begin the story of how I ended up in the market for a new audio receiver at the very beginning of the time I started to get into home theatre. I think that every videophile, even ones who tend to blunder into new knowledge like myself, have an inherent desire to experience the best and greatest of everything, subject to certain apprehensions. In years from 1999 to 2003 or so, this meant simple, little things like having digital DTS decoding built-in. (DTS, an acronym for Digital Theatre Systems, was then a lossy but far-higher bitrate codec designed for a better audio experience than the chief standard used with DVD at the time, Dolby Digital.) In 2012, and since 2007 or thereabouts, this has meant the ability to decode losslessly-compressed audio and pass a 1080-line progressive video signal to a television.
Which brings me to the first receiver I owned that had this capability. The Onkyo TX-SR606 was a nice little piece of hardware that did everything I wanted it to do when I bought it. It decoded the lossless audio signal, passed the video to the television via HDMI, and did so with nice volume capabilities.
Oh sure, it had some problems. The supplied remote control, to put it kindly, was shit. I lost count of the number of times I tried to tell my ignorant idiot male parental unit not to press buttons on that remote. You see, when one switched the receiver from input to input using the remote control, say from VCR to CD or the like, the types of signals the remote control would send to the receiver in response to the pushings of buttons also changed. So after finding myself not able to manipulate things, important things like volume, on the receiver when needed because an idiot male parental unit just pressed a random button without any query to himself about what might and will happen, I just told him to fukk off and not ever touch that remote again. Like, ever.
In related matters, whilst I was obtaining food earlier that day (Thursday, July 19, 2012), I found that bagged packs of lollies were on special again. Getting a couple of bags of jelly beans for emergency supply, I also decided to get a bag of mixed “milk bottles” because it was a new type of bag product in that section, and I was curious. This is what commericalists mean when they say that the two most powerful words in advertising are free and new. Sometimes learning things the hard way is a good thing. The flavours of milk bottle lollies in these bags are mixed, but aside from the white ones, they taste exactly like I feel whenever I hear my male parental unit’s voice. That is, they taste like hurt. Apologies to Dave Kosak for stealing one of his jokes.
Now, to get back to the subject, whilst there were other shortcomings with the TX-SR606, it was not until very recently that I encountered the worst of them. Specifically, it seems that after a span of several years, the rate at which these receivers’ video relay circuitries fail is, shall we say, high. And that is precisely what happened to me. At first, it was just failures of the television to display a signal when the output from the player changed in resolution. I thought it was the television, which had been acting up in other ways on top of that. However, after putting in my television to be repaired and getting it back, I was absolutely dismayed to find that the video signal was no longer displaying at all. So, on a hunch, I plugged the BD-Video player into the television directly.
The presence of a video signal on the television confirmed my worst fear. That the problem was with the receiver. A look online confirmed another fear. Specifically, that TX-SR606s have iffy video relays with high failure rates, and that my options basically boiled down to replacing the whole unit or having the video relay repaired. Given that even if the video relay was successfully repaired, there would be a cloud of doubt hanging over the unit forever, I decided the former option was the better one. I did not even start asking about the repair costs, mainly because the grumblings that I read online indicated that such repair costs would be high. Given that I also had been mulling over replacing the unit for a while anyway, it was a pretty easy decision to make once it had been boiled down that way.
This only left one question. What unit to purchase. I had some criteria for this, of course. It had to be capable of decoding 7.1 channel soundtracks with lossless compression. Given that the TX-SR606 had set me back about a thousand dollars when I bought it a few years ago, I was bracing myself for spending the same amount. I could have gone a more expensive route, in fact. I could have gone with something deliberately designed to have all the oomph and bells and whistles. There are several manufacturers, including Onkyo, who make receivers that cost enough money to equate to a car or two. Even looking within a realistic price-range for myself, I was mildly confronted with the temptation to purchase something as high-end as I could get in that range. But instead, I went for a Pioneer VSX-921K. The reason for this was basically that it could do everything I wanted, and more, whilst leaving me with change from a mere seven hundred dollars. Not much of it, granted, but any at all from that figure when dealing with audio-visual gear makes a difference.
So, after paying off the price in instalments and bringing the receiver home, I went through the part of the process that does not merely taste like hurt. It hurts. In a real physical sense. That is right, I went through the rigmarole of connecting all of the pretty little wires to the appropriate receptacles on the back of the unit. I do not know whose bright idea it was to make it necessary to turn dials that are maybe a centimetre apart to open up the contacts into which the speaker wires go. But after a lot of awkward bending for access, cramping, swearing to self, and getting it all plugged in, away I went. There was one final complication that is either amusing or worrying, depending on how you look at it (my blood sugar was not low, I was just dizzy and in an anxious rush). In my haste to get the HDMI cables plugged into the back of the receiver, I reversed the plugs from the players into the inputs. That is, one player was in the other player’s intended socket, and vice versa. Correcting that mistake in a matter of seconds, I put a disc into the player, adjusted the audio settings as best I could, and have since been watching TRON: Legacy with the new receiver decoding the audio for me.
There are also some improvements that this new receiver has over the old. The on-screen display that the receiver outputs to the display unit, for one thing, is far more pleasant to look at. It is still basically in either PAL or NTSC depending on how the user sets the options, standard definition in other words, but it at least looks like someone who was not legally blind designed it. Given that users may and will wish to connect this receiver to a legacy television set, I actually regard this as a wise decision, although it also makes me long for the day when even museums no longer have standard definition televisions. Has anyone even seen a CRT-based unit lately? Although I have to get close to the receiver to benefit from this, the receiver also displays a graphical representation of which speakers are specifically encoded into the soundtrack that is playing on it. This information can prove very useful indeed when trying to diagnose perceived problems or determine things about how the speakers are performing. Or other little tasks that I am sure I cannot make most readers understand.
It has been a hard road with all of the chasing up of repairs for the display unit and the receiver going belly-up (in a manner of speaking), but I finally have a home video setup I am happy with. Barring the emergence of a progressive video solution with two thousand vertical pixels, or the demise of the current 3D fad in exchange for a 48 frame per second solution, I think that is going to remain the case for a while.
You will have noticed that I have yapped on for the lion’s share of two thousand words without saying anything about the most important thing concerning a piece of hardware whose primary purpose is to transmit sound to a set of speakers. Specifically, how does the output from this unit sound?
Bearing in mind that this is all very subjective, to my perception the Pioneer VSX-921’s sound is noticeably “cleaner” (that is, less distortion and “squaring” is apparent in what comes out of the speakers). It is also a lot more directed with sound. That is, when a sweeping effect from right surround to right rear surround occurs, the difference in output between these two channels is more noticeable. I am sure I will revisit this subject in the future, when the novelty factor has completely worn off, but for the time being, whilst I am not happy about having needed to spend this money in order to get my home theatre working to my satisfaction again, I am happy about how this new component seems to be performing thus far. So much so, in fact, that I am already umming and ahhing about purchasing new BDs in order to further test the performance of the unit. It has also, I believe I have already stated, had the side-effect of making me notice the results of getting my television in for warranty-covered servicing, and seeing that those were worthwhile.
Yes, it is a new toy. No, it is not essential in the hunter-gatherer survival sense of the word. Yes, I bent myself out of shape getting it and setting it up. Yes, there are a number of other things I could have done with that money. But the thing is, progressive video and lossless audio are amongst the most effective of the mechanisms I have to cope with the world I have around me. Not doing this would have eventually had a noticeable effect. A very negative one.
Bottom line is that if you are in a similar position to what I was years ago and are looking to build a home theatre system from scratch with a view to cost-efficiency, the Pioneer VSX-921 is definitely worthy of consideration. Yes, it is “last year’s model”, which means that finding them is going to get progressively harder in the coming year, but either it or the model that Pioneer have moved into its place are definitely worth a look. Given what I paid for my first audio receiver (a Sony, and please do not laugh), I think I am doing very well with this new piece.
(Oh yeah, and if you did not notice this from the pictures, it is nice to have a receiver that does not tell me my Blu-ray Disc player is “DVD”, something that shits me up the wall in that irritatingly subtle manner.)
Oh, and if you are thinking of telling me that your little hundred-dollar analogue-connector noisemaker can do the same stuff just fine, do not. Just. Do. Not. For one thing, no, it cannot. And if you think that lossless audio is not important, then basically congratulations, you have proven that even if you are not stone deaf, you definitely deserve to be.