Onkyo TX-NR838 AV Receiver


Audio Performance
Video Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $1,199

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Ready for UHD with HDMI 2.0
Refined amplifiers headline strong sonics
Outstanding multiroom abilities, including dual HD-on-HDMI programs
Dolby Atmos capability
Minus
Proprietary auto-EQ had much subtler effect than previous-gen’s Audyssey

THE VERDICT
Onkyo’s usual benchmark audio and video get incremental upgrades, plus new features that include future-proofing HDMI 2.0 and Dolby Atmos.

Onkyo may or may not be the actual market leader in audio/video receivers, measured by unit sales, dollars, or any other B-school metric you care to name. But I’m fairly certain that, year in, year out, they produce more new AVR models combining performance, value, and innovation than anyone else. The TX-NR838 is a suitable example. On the face of things, the receiver seems identical to last year’s TX-NR828, which it replaces: unchanged power ratings, same basic specs, nearly identical quantities of inputs and outputs (this year’s version drops the composite count by one and kicks S-video to the curb altogether), and largely untouched cosmetics and user interface. But look a bit closer, and distinctions begin to come to light.

New and Different-er
The first and most visible addition, no doubt, is HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2: The TX-NR838 has the latest Ultra High Definition–ready version on all ins and outs. This means you could, in fact, adorn your system with as many as seven UHD/4K video sources (that’s humor, son) and direct them to two different UHD/4K displays, with complete impunity. (To my mind, UHD’s as yet unrealized potential for enlarged color space and greater bit depth may prove far more important than the quad-pixels thing, but that’s a topic for another time and place.) And of course, the TX-NR838 not only handles UHD/ 4K passthrough, but its video processing can also upscale HD or even standard-def material to UHD format.

The next most prominent change of note is the replacement of third-party Audyssey’s MultEQ auto-setup/calibration/EQ with Onkyo’s own proprietary system, AccuEQ, which is presumably cheaper, at least in terms of licensing fees. This covers much the same ground as the Audyssey cal-bot, although, inevitably, to subtly different effect.

Notably, the TX-NR838, following an expected free firmware update this fall, will also be Dolby Atmos-capable; with the addition of in-ceiling speakers or "Atmos-enabled" box speakers offered by various manufacturers, it will decode and render Atmos soundtracks from some Blu-ray discs or Dolby Digital Plus Internet streams. Then, there are some subtler details. One is a front-panel, MHL-compatible HDMI jack. Another is the ability to send digital audio sources— whether from streaming, HDMI, or USB origins—to Zone 2/3 stereo outputs, something the earlier model couldn’t match, and which will doubtless prove genuinely valuable in multiroom installations.

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As I continued to scratch the surface, however, it became clear that the TX-NR838 is a slightly even more different-er design than I had at first surmised. For one thing, Onkyo specifies the new model’s digital- processing hardware as dual-32-bit DSPs, while its amplifying facilities earn the company’s Wide-Range Amplifier and High-Current power- supply monikers (its predecessor claimed neither distinction), both trickle-downs from earlier, flagship- oriented Onkyo models. And there’s a weight difference, too: not much, but a couple of pounds, so some- thing must be going on in there—probably on the power-amplifier end.

What’s Inside
Enough speculation. I unboxed the TX-NR838 and hoisted it onto my rack, connecting my everyday digital-cable and Blu-ray sources, and my long-term loudspeaker suite, which includes Energy Veritas fronts and an SVS PC12-Ultra sub. The setup process proved uneventful. Onkyo’s new AccuEQ ran through its sequence of noise bursts, from which it derived channel levels and subwoofer crossovers that, while not precisely identical to my manually fine-tuned everyday settings, were very close indeed. On that basis alone, AccuEQ earns at least one accolade.

AccuEQ collects room/speaker-response data from one location only (the prime listening position), whereas Audyssey MultEQ, depending on the version, can do so from eight or more. So AccuEQ can’t be as comprehensive in its analysis (and, presumably, compensation) of room effects and, thus, in its correction of room/speaker inter- actions, at least from the theoretical perspective. For our purposes, though, this is a debate of potentials only, since to reduce variables, I as always did all of my extended evaluating with the EQ system defeated. That said, I did do a little informal listening to AccuEQ and found its results to be similar in overall intent to those of Audyssey’s systems (very slightly tighter bottom octaves; barely airier top treble) but sub- stantially less pronounced in effect. This experience mirrored somewhat the one I had prior with AccuEQ on the 838’s little brother, the TX-NR636 (review at soundandvision.com). Still, the jury remains out; to draw final conclusions about any of these systems from one or two instances in one room with one system is dangerous.

Otherwise, setting up Onkyo’s latest held few surprises. The onscreen interface is clear and largely self-prompting. Onkyo has reorganized their onscreen menus from previous generations, and the new system, while less familiar to me, may actually be an easier entrée for new users. In the TX-NR838’s edition, they’ve also added a new, self-touring setup step for confirming and identifying input sources, and one that semi-automates HDMI-borne unified-remote control (CEC). This last notion opens up a whole ’nother can of worms, however, since enabling CEC on multiple components can have unexpected results—such as, in my case, dueling onscreen displays for volume control: the receiver’s and my television’s. (Anyone who has gone down the HDMI-control rabbit hole probably knows what I’m talking about.)

Music Maker
In today’s home theater context, when we talk about A/V receivers, we’re mostly talking about amplifier and digital-to-analog performance, and ergonomics. The quality differential in decoding formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, if any, is presumably very slight, and even digital-to-analog conversion has progressed such that the differences between even very modest, mass-market hardware and esoteric standalone converters is surprisingly small. I’ve heard several very inexpensive receivers, especially from quality makers like Onkyo, produce fine results in these areas.

Consequently, a higher-end model like the TX-NR838 has its work cut out for it to impress the jaded reviewer that lives within all of us. Fortunately, Onkyo’s latest proved more than up to the challenge. To begin with, direct stereo music playback (no sub- woofer, no processing) proved to be of a very high grade, with clarity, dynamics, and tonal definition that simply weren’t commonly associated with receivers a decade or two ago. And this held true with the best grade of programming, such as a high-res file of “Dreams” from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which I streamed from my desktop’s NAS library. (Yeah, I know—but I’ve used this track in so many environments on so many systems, it’s a bit of an aural Swiss army knife.) Here I heard as much clarity and definition as I’ve ever gleaned from this chestnut: The hi-hat ride had the same brass-edged, wood-sticked immediacy (Mick Fleetwood is playing it with the side of his stick, not the head), and Stevie Nicks’ airy rasp had all the convincing presence (as did the residual tape-hiss) that my everyday, separate-component system produces. And the TX-NR838 proved to have real guts: I could play Rumours, or any similar studio pop/rock program, as loud as I would ever ask (and quite a bit louder), and the receiver would give no sign of aural straining, coloration, or obvious compression.

COMPANY INFO
Onkyo
(800) 229-1687
ARTICLE CONTENTS
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COMMENTS
dommyluc's picture

Funny, I have an Onkyo TX-NR 717, which I bought in February of 2013 and which has performed flawlessly since the initial setup, and this receiver has the vtuner digital radio app instead of TuneIn, but my receiver can display the audio format and bitrate on the front of the receiver by pressing the "DISPLAY" button on the Onkyo remote and cycling through the info.

CW's picture

Mark, in the past year you reviewed roughly 32 products and did not give Top Picks to only 4 products. Giving 90% of your reviews a Top Pick you make the award pointless for the consumer. The only benefit is to the manufactures who often adds the badge to their website, making the product seem almost uniquely better then others. Only thing is Sound and Vision gives almost everything a Top Pick! Whats the point of a Top Pick award if 90% of products are a Top Pick? Maybe a more useful award would be Not a Top Pick. It certainly would be a rare award in Sound and Vision.

Rob Sabin's picture
Two things worth mentioning here that are not widely acknowledged: One, we generally don't bother reviewing products that look like duds to begin with, and try to put our reviewing resources into products we think have a shot at being recommendable. Two--and this is the big one--the TP designation on a product is not meant to suggest it's within the top two or three or five of that product type that you should buy and ignore everything else out there. It's more like a stamp of approval. We put the TP on a lot of things, but we don’t put the TP on anything that our reviewer does not think is highly recommendable for some segment of the buying audience.

The problem is not with us having too many products on our Top Pick list, but with lazy consumers who need to be told exactly what to buy and won't read the reviews to try to discern from the comments therein the subtleties that might make one product better suited to them than another. Speakers are voiced differently and may or may not be well suited to certain types of program material or AVRs; similarly, some amps or receivers rated at X watts per channel may have petered-out sooner with our reviewer's reference speakers or didn't deliver the same soundstaging he or she is used to hearing. Should we restrict our TP list to only those five products in a category that sounded great to our reviewer in his or her room with his or her reference gear using his or her favored source material? Or should we create a recommended list of all those things that achieve a certain high standard and allow shoppers to read the reviews and make their own decisions about what to pursue? If you want our short list, we do publish our Top Pick of the Year Awards with the turning of each new calendar year--culled from all the TPs we issued throughout the prior year. For some of these products, it's only a bit of hindsight that allows us to see how very special they are.

We do periodically cull outdated products from the active TP list we keep online; mainly anything that's no longer available for purchase because it's been replaced or dropped from a manufacturers line (think TVs and AVRs). But many products -- speakers are a prime example -- are evergreen. And there are simply too many good and impressive products out there that we touch each year to say this one or even these 10 are the only ones to consider. It’s not fair to all those other great products that were on the TP list but got cut to make room even though they're still stellar, and it’s not fair to the reader, who will dismiss considering them in favor of buying S&V's flavor of the day.

kevon27's picture

How about having top picks with bronze, silver, gold and platinum status. A $399 receiver that gets a lot of things right for its price range should get a top pick with a bronze. A $20,000 pre pro that does everything right should get a top pick rating with platinum.

notabadname's picture

Great to see this review. I just bought this unit one week ago, and I am extremely pleased. Aside from its great audio performance and flexibility in the home theater, I think more should be said about HDCP 2.2. There are only a couple of makers out there with HDCP 2.2 in addition to HDMI 2.0 support. This will likely prove to be a VERY critical feature if you want to "future-proof" your Home Theater. With out HDCP 2.2, your receiver quite likely will not pass copy-protected 4K data. But many shoppers are only looking for HDMI 2.0 compliance, and missing an important piece of the puzzle. And HDCP 2.2 cannot be added with a firmware update.

For more info on HDCP 2.2, check this out:

http://www.cnet.com/news/hdcp-2-2-what-you-need-to-know/

granroth's picture

There are two aspects of UHD that require future proofing when buying a current AVR, as far as I can tell. The first is HDCP 2.2 to support the new (consumer-unfriendly) copy protection scheme. The second is the ability to support high dynamic range for color depth (ala Dolby Vision). There may not be any receiver available that can satisfy both.

The Onkyo AVRs support HDCP 2.2 but apparently at the cost of not having the bandwidth to support the increased UHD color depth. All other makers have that bandwidth and can presumably be upgraded in the future to support full UHD when it's released... but don't support HDCP 2.2, which is typically a hardware specific fix and not firmware upgradeable.

So if you're choosing an AVR now, it looks like you're facing a future where you can play all UHD content but it won't look as good as it should OR can handle the best looking UHD content, but much of it might not play at all.

notabadname's picture

Inability to play with HDCP 2.2 will literally disable the passing of a signal. You would have to bypass your AVR, otherwise there will be no picture. While a lack of the high dynamic / Dolby Vision will not result in NO image going to your Ultra HD screen. So my greatest concern is that many people do not understand that a lack of HDCP 2.2 in the future could literally lock out a great deal of (copy-protected) content from ever making it through their AVR. An inability to pass Dolby Vision data will not defeat the presentation of an Ultra HD, 60 fps, stunning image from making it to your screen. And I would expect many of the people making the switch to a receiver such as this are doing so because they have ALREADY purchased an Ultra HD screen. If that is the case, it is not a Dolby Vision capable screen anyway. I am also a skeptic of Dolby Vision's future penetration. I like its potential, but it adds up to 15% more to the bandwidth of a signal, and Cable companies are already loath to reduce compression and send high-quality 1080p signals much less Ultra HD in the future. Netflix's Ultra HD House of Cards has issues IMO when I view it, and I clearly can see compression issues in the Ultra HD image. I am not going to hold my breath for them to both reduce compression AND add Dolby Vision data to the stream. But HDCP 2.2 is a simple inevitability with the studios in a futile effort to protect their content from perfect 4K piracy. I truly feel HDCP 2.2 is a "must have" if you don't want your AVR hobbled in the future. Not so with Dolby Vision.

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