Pioneer Elite SC-57 A/V Receiver


Audio Performance
Video Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
Price: $2,100 At A Glance: Nine Class D amps that sound good • Most fun you can have with a remote smartphone app • Home networking champ, including Apple AirPlay

I’m usually suspicious of celebrity endorsements of audio gear (think Dr. Dre’s association with the Beats headphones bearing his name). But the Air Studios logo on the front panel of this attractive-looking, innovative flagship Pioneer Elite A/V receiver represents more than a casual association.

According to a Pioneer spokesperson, engineers working at the famed recording facility started in 1969 by Beatles producer George Martin were actively engaged from the beginning in the sonic outcome of the SC-57’s designed-from-scratch Class D amplifiers, of which there are (count ‘em) nine inside.

Measurement and listening-based feedback from Air’s engineering team helped tune the switching-mode amp’s final sound. Numerous prototypes shuttled back and forth between Pioneer and the studio—an enormous multiroom venue where, appropriately, many famous orchestral soundtracks have been recorded through the decades. I toured Air a few years ago, and it’s an impressive, even awe-inspiring facility.

I could spend the entire review talking just about this three-zone unit’s ultra-flexible configurability, its wealth of features, and the dizzying amount of functionality (some of it actually useful) included in its $2,100 package, and I’ll get to most of that shortly. But what’s the value of bells and whistles if the power plant is weak and sounds bad? So, first things first.

The Sonic Back Story
As some readers know, Pioneer is among a small number of audio manufacturers releasing highpowered AVRs or amplifiers featuring Class D circuit topology. Among its chief benefits, Class D features a cool-running and energy-saving efficiency that its Class A/B and Class A brethren don’t share. Last year’s generation, called ICEpower, appeared in the Elite SC-27, reviewed by my colleague Fred Manteghian (Home Theater, March 2010), and it earned an enthusiastic Home Theater Top Picks. More recently, I reviewed Rotel’s RMB-1575 Class D amplifier (November 2010) and found it seriously wanting in terms of sound quality.

The SC-57’s release was delayed for two years by the combination of Air Studios’ involvement in the project and the introduction of new, ultra-low-distortion International Rectifier switching devices that held the promise of creating a low-distortion amp with little or no negative feedback. Waiting for the new semiconductor was key, as the high-frequency filters that previous-generation switching-mode designs used in their distortion-lowering feedback loops were said to cause signal delay that produced phase shift, among other audible problems. Pioneer engineers thought taming the negative feedback could translate into a noticeable leap in sound quality.

According to Pioneer, this new design, which has been dubbed Class D3 amplification, behaves more like a good Class A/B amp. There’s a bit more distortion at very low power output, and distortion decreases as the output increases, until, finally, distortion increases again as you approach maximum output. Thus, distortion is minimized at levels where most listening occurs.

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While the story sounded good, I remained skeptical, and not just because of my recent experience with the Rotel. The amplifier power specs in the SC-57’s owner’s manual seemed a little sketchy: Multichannel simultaneous power output was listed as 810 watts total at 1 kilohertz, with 1 percent distortion driving an 8-ohm load. Continuous power for each amplifier channel claimed to be 140 watts at 1 kHz with 0.08 percent distortion into 8 ohms. Neither was specified across the full 20-hertz-to-20-kHz bandwidth. So, loosely speaking, the AVR is specified to output 90 watts per channel, all nine channels driven simultaneously. But at lower distortion figures and across the entire bandwidth, its output might be somewhat lower.

If it performs as claimed, 140 watts times nine is an impressive amount of power for $2,100. This is especially so considering that rarely, if ever, will you drive all channels simultaneously and continuously. This 39-pound, reasonably compact AVR (heavily weighed down on its left side by a massive power transformer) should be able to effectively drive just about any loudspeaker you’re likely to mate it with. As usual, you can check our test bench measurements to see how the SC-57 fared in the Home Theater Lab. (Ed. Note: With seven channels driven simultaneously and continuously, the Pioneer achieved 109.6 watts at 0.1 percent distortion and 123.7 watts at 1 percent distortion. Of course, this test places significantly greater demands on the amplifier than any real-world content. See HT Labs Measures)

Mind-Boggling Feature Set
The THX Ultra2 Plus–Certified SC-57 decodes about every codec known to mankind and also includes a long list of Pioneer’s own listening modes for music and cinema. You can configure its nine channels of amplification to reproduce front height or width channels in addition to L/C/R, surrounds, and surround back for a total of 11 speaker connections, plus two subwoofers. There aren’t enough channels to run front simultaneous height and width speakers with this arrangement, but you can easily switch between them thanks to dedicated terminals for each. Or you can rejoin the real world and leave room for pictures on the walls.

You can also run 7.2 channels and use the extra two channels to run a remote set of speakers in another zone, or you can run 7.2 channels and biamp the front left and right channels should your speakers allow that. The instruction manual shows two more pages of speaker setup possibilities, in part because there are remote zones to consider.

In a nod to the resurgence of vinyl, the Pioneer includes an integrated moving-magnet phono preamplifier. Also included are a conventional AM/FM tuner with 63 presets and a Sirius Radio tuner port. Via the Ethernet LAN connection (wired or wireless using an optional accessory), you get Internet radio plus music services that include Rhapsody (free 30-day trial), Pandora, and Sirius (Internet subscriptions cost extra if you’re a satellite subscriber, or you can purchase them separately). A front-mounted USB port can play MP3s or show photos on a memory stick. It’s also iPod/iPad compatible, so you can connect your iDevice via the included cable and control it with the Pioneer’s remote. In addition, the SC-57 incorporates a Bluetooth receiver input, so you can stream music from Bluetooth-equipped music sources.

COMPANY INFO
Pioneer
(800) 421-1404
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COMMENTS
curtiswhite's picture

Could pioneer please bring back the black wood trim glossy piano black finish" just like on my vsx-53. That made there receivers stand apart from all of the other brands.

kidd1455's picture

Pioneer is among a small number of audio manufacturers releasing high powered AVRs or amplifiers featuring Class D circuit topology. Among its chief benefits, Class D features a cool-running and energy-saving efficiency that its Class A/B.modern warfare 3

zoetmb's picture

If you use Control and the ARC, then you can't use the analog TV/SAT input. And there's no analog input for Blu-ray so if you want to use HDMI for movies, but analog for CDs, you have to take up another analog input.

Stephen Trask's picture

Michael,
This is such a great and interesting piece of writing on so many levels. First, I cannot forget your review of the Rotel RMB-1575 and how much your dislike for Class D amplification oozed all over it. So, reading your praise of the sound of this AVR and it's Class D amplification seems to mark a significant step forward for audiophile technology, the environment and and even home decor, as a cooler running amp obviously needs less ventilation. In recording and music distribution, so much of what started off wrong about digital had as much or more to do with the newness of the technology as it did any inherent limitations. Think about the advances in analogue recording from "Please Please Me" to "Abbey Road" and you get a picture of just how much tinkering it takes to make new audio technology sound good. So to read about a company working with outside audio professionals to move this technology forward to the point where a Class D hater actually turns a corner is a major feat and probably just the beginning. I also appreciate the direct link between the ratings and the review. It would seem that the narrow miss from reference quality in sound, if I am reading correctly, has to do with distortion at the low and high ends of the volume curve, thus limiting the sweet spot of perfect sound. Similarly, there are only a couple of fails in the video test bench that seem to cause the likewise reference quality near miss in video performance. This specificity is so great for consumers because it allows us to look at the failings and determine whether or not they apply to our own situation.
I would like to see and predict more cooperation between audio professionals on the recording side of the business and those on the sound reproduction end like this impressive pairing. So many of the breakthroughs in lower priced high end sound and video reproduction that have been entering the market of late are things that the recording field has been working on perfecting for many years. It seems like a very exciting time to be writing about this technology and consumer sector and this review does a great job demonstrating why.

goodfellas27's picture

Pioneer said that this AVR would have their D3 Amp, which they claim it's the most powerful AMP that they have; however, base on the HT test, I don't see that as being true. Their last year model (SC37) had better AMP base on power.

Anyway, the Sc-57 looks to be a better overall AVR, do to sound quality and features. I'm looking forward to their next year model.

Thnks for the good read HT!

Mittchell's picture

I am all for the brushed aluminum finish. It's not a fingerprint & scratch magnet like the gloss black plastic finish is. I don't want my equipment to look like junk by Emerson or DuraBrand from Walmart or something.

The gloss black aluminum finish from the higher end Elite SC-37,SC-35,SC-09tx,SC-27,and SC-25 receivers looks pretty nice but,the cheaper gloss black plastic finish from the regular Pioneer receivers is horrible. They even put the cheap gloss black plastic finish on some lower-end Elite receivers such as the VSX-31 etc.. The plastic is unacceptable to me. Even the cheap sub-$ 200 Pioneer receivers from nine or ten years ago had a better finish than the gloss black plastic.

I would like to see the wood side panels comeback but,I doubt that it's likely.

The biggest cosmetic problem with this year's Pioneer Elite receivers is the way that the clear front display face and the front flip-down cover stick out from the rest of the receiver. I like the flush appearance better.

Scottyb09's picture

Any idea as to how well MCACC performs relative to Audyssey (both in terms of set up and overall results)?

Lab3-007's picture

Just ordered one today having read the specs on just about every receiver on the planet. Needed to have a unit that would drive all my 9 Definitive Technology speakers & 2 subs in the Great Room. Plus, it had to be 3-D ready, be iPhone & iPad friendly, play SACD, have network connections, at least 5, 1.4a HDMI inputs & overall great audio & video performance. This one had it all including the fact that it's a Class D. Anyone out there have the SC-55 or the SC-57? If so, how do you like it & any tips or tricks I should know about?

grillmaster75's picture

Looking for a short education. I know one should listen to and match the receiver to the speaker. Room correction etc. Specs don't often tell the whole story. But comparing the Onkyo 1009 to the Pioneer there are some very similar #'s and some not that close. IE. the frequency response.
–0.05 dB at 10 Hz –0.25 dB at 10 Hz
–0.01 dB at 20 Hz -0.07 dB at 20 kHz
+0.07 dB at 20 KHz +1.00 dB at 20 kHz
–2.63 dB at 50 kHz –1.21 dB at 50 kHz

Onkyo left, Pioneer right. when listening to music would either of these measurements stick out say - this is way better? HT tested 5 channel driven power is close. but there is a $800 difference. can someone send me to a good research link and tell my why the Pioneer is worth the extra $800.
thanks
The Grillmaster

ShinezALot's picture

Michael:

I noticed that on page two third paragraph you mentioned that the FLAC files you tried to playback were not recognized by the SC-57.

I was recently reading the manual for the SC-67 /SC-68 and it says that these recievers will not playback uncompressed FLAC files.

Perhaps this was the reason for the lack of recognition of your files.

Skillman's picture

Michael,

I know I'm posting this way beyond the published date but just came across this while trolling around reviewing the SC-61. Thanks for a useful review. Re: MCACC, you say, "The MCACC’s subwoofer setup was the best I’ve heard from any automatic software..." But, elsewhere in a review on the SC-61, I read that MCACC doesn't do subs. Is it different for the SC-57?

A review of SC-61 and info on whether they have made improvements on the 57, particularly vis-a-vis Class D3 amplification, would help. Which of the two would YOU recommend? Thank you!

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