Pioneer Elite SC-89 AV Receiver Review Page 2

One of the first things I learned about this implementation of Atmos is how dependent it is on its front drivers. In my single-sub 5.1.4 installation, 95 percent of the information came from the 5.1, and just a smidgen from the .4. The bottom of the bubble-shaped soundfield was more solid than the top, which made for good transitions in upward pans, as the front drivers handed off to the elevation drivers. I found my senses rebelling against the most audible height-layer effects; sound isn’t supposed to go there! Getting used to them required a new kind of suspension of disbelief.

Transformers helpfully defaulted to its Atmos soundtrack. This is the kind of aggressively dynamic content that presumably will make the most of height-layer effects in the near future. Aside from the mini-drone and ’copter effects that Dan Kumin has already remarked on, the most notable vertical effect was the high whine of the electromagnets that caused cars and smaller metal objects to levitate vertiginously into the air. More often, upper effects were additive, as when a largely 5.1-based car chase got some whizzing height punctuation.

Sometimes, height was conspicuous by its absence. Of course, it had no role in many dialogue scenes. But sometimes, even when I expected it, I’d put my ear to the elevation drivers and hear nothing. Ultimately, creative decisions will be in the hands of the mixing engineers, but I was surprised, for example, to find that the voice of Optimus Prime, as he towers over the humans, did not come from directly above. And why not use the height channels for any high-ceilinged room depicted onscreen? [Editor’s note: For the record, our audio tech editor Mark Peterson noted that using Atmos height drivers for voice would likely result in a timbral mismatch with the front speakers that would be obvious to viewers. For more on what Transformers mixer Greg P. Russell did include in his Atmos effects for this film, see our interview with him.—RS]

Music in Dolby Surround
Some newly minted Atmos fans might regard Dolby Surround as an unwelcome guest. Me, I loved it—from the very first bars of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, with Rudolf Serkin as soloist, Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic. With not a single synthesized effect or manmade pan in the recording, Dolby Surround steered just a tasty bit of concert-hall ambience toward the ceiling. Intrusive, it wasn’t; a natural-feeling enhancement, it was.

I played a variety of rock in Dolby Surround, including Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, both of Syd Barrett’s solo albums, and Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Dolby Surround routed lead vocals to the center speaker with a modest spread to the edges. What amazed me, though, was how it grabbed the backing vocals in the Thompsons track “The Calvary Cross” and sent them to the surrounds. Here again, the elevation drivers were discernible mainly in their absence; only when I reverted to 2.1 could I sense their abrupt departure. But when the elevation drivers were operating, it was hard to separate their output from front-driver output because the two were so well integrated. Instrumental imaging via the Pioneer speakers’ concentric driver arrays was superlative.

Does music need this? Stereo puritans often fail to recognize how much artifice is built into two-channel productions. Any classic rock mix depends on mono objects panned into a stereo soundstage. Even a 1960s orchestral project like the Serkin/Ormandy/Bernstein has the soloist and the different orchestral sections separately miked and mixed. If you’re already listening to artifice, why not enhance it? Whatever works. I’ve always liked Dolby Pro Logic II’s stereo-to-surround adaptation; I’ve tried all such modes, and until now, DPLII has been the only one that stays true to the feeling of the original stereo recordings. So to my ears, Dolby Surround is just more of a good thing.

5.1 Cinema Lives
I switched from the Pioneer Atmos-enabled speakers to my usual Paradigms for the 5.1 and stereo demos to get a better fix on the receiver’s sound quality. With my reference speakers in place, I zeroed in on the receiver’s balanced approach to tone and timbre. It’s more revealing than forgiving, with no particular warm tilt or sweetening, though not unduly fatiguing. It reproduced voices well with either set of speakers.

The Railway Man is irrefutable proof that the death of 5.1 is greatly exaggerated. The perpetually busy soundfield suggests a mixer who’s part 5.1 enthusiast, part trainspotter, filling the room with train-station ambience, the interior of a POW cattle car, war drums, and a rich orchestral score. For this nine-channel receiver, five-channel surround was a walk in the park. When planes flew overhead, I missed Atmos, but for the most part, I locked into the story of Colin Firth as a former British prisoner of war who journeys into the past to right old wrongs.

Moving to the opposite extreme, I found The Machine to be 5.1 at its most rudimentary. The soundtrack of this cybernetic B-movie consists largely of dialogue in the center channel and synthesized music and effects in all four corners of the soundfield. Pretty basic stuff—yet the receiver delivered the dialogue without any distracting colorations and made the synthesized mush almost vibrant.

The 2013 DTS Demo Disc is rich in aggressive movie soundtracks. Two that caught my attention this time, like bookends, were The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Both feature a dynamically challenging whoosh of rampaging flames, a full-band effect that fills all speakers and reaches down into the sub’s territory. The receiver powered its way confidently through the bassy wildfire in Games. The Deathly Hallows fire dragon was edgier, as it should be, underscoring the intended tension—but not enough to induce discomfort.

A Tale of Two Houses
I used both the SC-89’s built-in USB DAC and a Meridian Director to audition the high-resolution reissue of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy in 96/24 FLAC, courtesy of HDtracks. Pioneer’s DAC was warmer and less edgy, with better separation of instruments and more space around them, especially in the intense jangling metal of “Dancing Days” and “The Song Remains the Same.” It was more than a difference in voicing. I’ve heard the Meridian sounding gorgeous—in its rigorously revealing way—in other systems. But to achieve bass management from its analog inputs, the receiver performs its own analog-to-digital conversion to the Meridian’s output before doing its own digital-to-analog conversion for playback. This is why an integral computer-friendly USB DAC should be standard equipment in any receiver, not just in pricey ones.

Whereas other conductors storm through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Sergiu Celibidache declaims every phrase as if lives hung in the balance. Maybe they do. The receiver delivered his 1995 live recording with the Munich Philharmonic with a surprisingly plush, unfatiguing string sound, which just made the stately tempo even more profound. (The performance appears on Celibidache’s 14-CD Symphonies box from EMI Classics, with other works by Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann.)

The Pioneer accepts DSD bitstreams from SACDs and other sources, so the SACD of Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin lit up the display’s DSD indicator. I had been using the pure mode to switch its MCACC Pro room correction on and off, and while different content produced different results, this disc was a win for MCACC. Without room correction, the naturally ragged vocal was too raw for comfort and seemed to detach from the orchestra. With room correction, the vocal was sweeter, more natural, better imaged, better integrated with the orchestra, and more coherent off-axis.

The Pioneer Elite SC-89 is a great way to run nine channels of Dolby Atmos—and Dolby Surround. Yes, it’s expensive at three grand, though the step-down Pioneer SC-85 is roughly half the price, and we expect even more affordable Atmos models to surface soon. But this receiver has talents that transcend next-generation surround technology. The integral USB DAC is a passport to high-resolution audio, the HDBaseT video connectivity may be just what your projector needs, and the D3 amp is both powerful and efficient. Once again, Pioneer gets it right.

Click here for our review of the Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73-LR Atmos-enabled speaker system.

Pioneer Electronics USA
(800) 421-1404

Jonasandezekiel's picture

Mark, is it safe to say that this receiver sounds identical to the previous generation sc-79? Any differences?

jh20001's picture

I had first read about this on Poc ( when I realized this was the receiver I had been looking for to use in my setup throughout the house. I could care less about Atmos for the most part, although I may dabble with it later on as it becomes more available in movies. Poc's review wasn't much better, as it was pretty simple. It just caught me at the right time lol. I wouldn't mind seeing additional demonstrations of how such an AVR performs in various situations. I guess I will find out for myself when it comes in the mail. My hopes are pretty high at the moment.

hk2000's picture

I don't know what everyone is complaining about! who cares what an individual's subjective opinion of sound quality of a receiver is. Give me comprehensive measurements and feature list, and I consider it a great review- which this review does and is.