Onkyo TX-NR1000 A/V Receiver
A receiver that doesn't handle the latest video and surround formats is a doorstop. A similarly outmoded high-end receiver is a very expensive doorstop. And that's a problem for anyone who bought one during the 20th century. Most DVDs have Dolby Digital and/or DTS soundtracks—those are must-haves. Stereo material usually sounds much better to me in Dolby Pro Logic II than in DPLI or stereo. And, for the largest rooms, Surround EX and DTS ES have added the back channels some people deem necessary. HDMI is on its way in, component video is on its way out, XM and HD radio are knocking at AM/FM's door, and, in a few years, surround receivers will be called on to do things that we can barely begin to imagine today.
What can you do to break the cycle of obsolescence and abandonment that plagues the surround receiver? If you're looking for a deal, the answer is not much. But, if seeing a mid-four-figure number on your credit-card statement wouldn't send you to the emergency room, Onkyo may have the answer—a receiver for all seasons.
The Onkyo TX-NR1000 is built of replaceable modules, somewhat like a PC. On the back, slots hold various kinds of video and audio cards. They're not standardized PC cards—only Onkyo can supply the proprietary modules that adapt the bays to alternate uses. But this hefty receiver holds out the promise of upgradeability so that, when the next big thing comes along, this big thing won't go out by the curb.
There are nine slots. The most unusual occupant has an Ethernet connector and enables Onkyo's Net-Tune feature, also present on the Onkyo TX-NR901 surround and NC-500 stereo receivers. Net-Tune allows reception of Internet radio stations, MP3, WMA, and WAV files from a local-area network with an Internet connection and a computer. One PC can serve up to a dozen Onkyo Net-Tune devices in a wholehouse audio system, and, while you may not want more than one $5,000 surround receiver, the NC-500 stereo receiver sells in just the mid three figures. I first tried Net-Tune two years ago, and it turned me into an Internet-radio addict overnight.
Two HDMI jacks provide the latest in digital video interfaces, and, as HDMI specs evolve, Onkyo eventually plans to route high-rez and other digital audio signals through HDMI. The iLink (IEEE 1394) jacks accept uncompromised digital input from compatible SACD and DVD-Audio players. Separate slots are also devoted to optical and coaxial digital ins/outs, multichannel in, analog audio in/out, composite and S-video in, component video in, and AM/FM radio. Future add-on card options will likely include satellite radio and HD radio, although Onkyo has not determined the availability date and pricing. Onkyo is also studying the possibility of adding the Dolby Digital Plus surround codec as a software upgrade.
Fourteen speaker terminals, preouts, 12-volt triggers, IR jacks, power connection, and a single AC outlet are hard-wired into the chassis in panels at the right-hand side and across the bottom. You read that right—14 speaker terminals. The TX-NR1000 supports two full 7.1-channel sets of speakers. However, only one of them can run at one time.
Switching schemes support various other scenarios. If you opt for 7.1 channels in one room and 5.1 in another, the remaining two channels can form a third zone—with multisource capability. You might also double the front left and right speakers in the main room, either using both sets at the same time or dedicating the second set to different signal sources. (Yeah, that didn't make any sense to me, either.) Perhaps the best option for performance addicts would be to biamp the three front channels.
Whichever of these ambitious configurations you choose, you'll have the opportunity to tighten the binding posts with a wrench, because the package includes one. I also loved seeing a second subwoofer output on the preout panel, since my system includes two subs, and I hate having to plug them both into a Y-adapter every time I use a receiver other than my reference piece.
This receiver is nothing if not high-powered. Onkyo quotes power output at 150 watts per channel with all channels driven. There are three ways to construct a receiver with hefty amps: make the box big, put a fan in it, or just stuff everything in and hope for the best. Onkyo has opted for number three, with some slick passive-cooling moves. Although there are ventilation slits at both sides, as well as at the top and the bottom, Onkyo has packed the chassis heavily. It would be unwise to install this heavy breather anywhere but at the open top of a very sturdy fixed-shelf rack or in a ventilated closet. It needs several inches of daylight above the top panel. Some racks might not safely support the receiver's nearly 73-pound bulk, especially if an ambitious toddler decides to climb the cables like jungle vines.
The setup menu was fairly easy to navigate with the remote's easy-action joystick. In terms of options, the Onkyo compares well with the most versatile pre/pros. You'll have to wade through lots of stuff, and the graphics are drab, but there are some delightful surprises. The best one is a notch filter. I immediately set it to knock down my room's bass hump and then set the sub-out volume a few decibels higher than I would normally dare. If your front left and right speakers are larger than the others, you'll appreciate the separate crossovers for the front, center, and surround channels. The remote is substantial, metal-faced, and nicely contoured. The buttons are rounded and bubble-shaped, providing a certain degree of tactile pleasure.
Onkyo's signature sound was much in evidence. The tonal balance was lean and not especially warm, treble clean and extended. That was refreshing. The generic surround-receiver sound nowadays seems to me to be a phony dumbed-down warmth intended to hide midband limitations and treble noise. This receiver took the road less traveled. Familiar music became more stimulatingly varied. Familiar voices on my main test CD-R became full-blown personalities. Richard Thompson's Lowden acoustic guitar on the Dolby Digital soundtrack of Live from Austin, TX blossomed with almost bell-like ringing overtones that hovered at the top of the presence region.
You can have too much of a good thing, and a lean tonal balance is not always best for cinema. But the THX Re-EQ circuit gave this receiver an alternate personality that handled action movies with blithe self-assurance. Without it—and my DVD player's dynamic-range compressor—I don't think I would have survived the abusively noisy soundtrack of xXx: State of the Union. The notch filter allowed a higher overall LFE level, so I heard more of the low-bass content of film soundtracks than I'm used to hearing, and I managed to elude the beating my ears customarily take from the room's standing wave.
My one reservation about this product is how Onkyo's ambitious upgradeability scheme compares with high-end separates. By stuffing the product with features and pricing it at $5,000, Onkyo courts comparison with some pretty decent surround pre/pros and multichannel power amplifiers. True, add-ons will probably keep this receiver going well into the foreseeable future—but the same is true of many pre/pros, including the RDC-7.1 from Integra, Onkyo's sister brand.
Even so, Onkyo has come up with a provocative response to the upgradeability crisis. Their TX-NR1000 is arguably the best compromise between disposable black-box surround gear and malleable but oft-annoying, marginal-sounding HTPCs. Now we want our systems to sound good and accommodate change. Maybe, just maybe, someday all higher-end surround receivers will be built this way.
• If you're tired of throwing your receiver in the garbage (or passing it along to your brother-in-law) every time the latest indispensable feature comes along, this is the solution
• Onkyo aims to do for receivers what high-end pre/pro designers do for separates