Pioneer Elite SC-95 A/V Receiver Review

Audio Performance
PRICE $1,600

Latest-gen audio and video processing
Fine-performing nine-channel Class D power
Cooler-than-ever free phone/tablet apps
Extensive proprietary auto-setup/EQ
Uninspired supplied remote
Occasional streaming audio glitches

All the good stuff—including Dolby Atmos/DTS:X, 4K/HDR with upscaling, and HD-remote-room ability—in a nicely usable, fine-sounding, fairly priced package.

It has been more than two years since Onkyo bought—or merged with, depending on your financial-accounting philosophy—Pioneer’s home-audio unit, but so far there has been no sign of their brands melding into a single entity. (Piokyo? Onkioneer?) And in all seriousness, we’ve no such expectation. For its part, Pioneer still retains two more or less discrete A/V receiver lines, the more quotidian VSX range and the higher-end SC models. More or less: All of the SCs reside in the brand’s specialist-oriented Elite series, while most of the VSXs remain in the “regular” Pioneer lineup. Yet a few sub-$1,000 VSXs, including two new ones, nestle in among the SCs on the Elite side of the ledger.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Happily, my task here today is not to make order out of Pioneer’s model nomenclature, but to examine one of the brand’s latest standard-bearers, the Elite range’s third-from-the-top SC-95. This address puts the new Pioneer squarely in what I consider the sweet spot of most receiver lines: far enough down to avoid the “every-feature-that’ll-stick” price penalty, but far enough up to ensure you get the important stuff at a fair price.

This means the latest in HDMI 2.0a fashion, i.e., HDCP 2.2, with Ultra HD HDR-readiness and 4K (2160p/60) passthrough plus video scaling to 4K. It also means nine channels of amplifier power assignable to 11 speaker terminals, distributable among height speakers for Dolby Atmos (and DTS:X, with a promised firmware update) plus width speakers, rear surround speakers, Speakers B extension duty, HDZone and Zone-2/3 outputs, and biamplification options in a truly bewildering array. The SC-95 manual, supplied on a CD, includes 11 full pages just of speaker-wiring diagrams, many of which themselves have several options. Pioneer claims up to 760 simultaneous watts (8 ohms, 1 kilohertz, 1 percent THD), which works out to, let’s see, two from six is four, carry the one, uh, 84.444 watts per channel with all channels driven—a pretty bold claim in my experience, but one that Pioneer’s efficient Class D power amps might be able to deliver (we’ll see what MJP finds in the lab). The SC-95’s stereo spec is 135 watts per channel. [Ed. Note: We are only able to test seven channels simultaneously, but at 1 percent THD, the SC-95 delivered a quite hefty 108.5 into 8-ohm loads with seven channels driven.—RS]

The long, long features list begins with Pioneer’s proprietary MCACC Pro auto-setup/EQ system and continues to high-end ESS Sabre 192/32 digital-to-analog conversion for all channels, both Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay wireless readiness (the receiver packs dual-band Wireless-b/g/n on board), and a full complement of network-audio streaming, including 2.8/5.6-megahertz DSD file playback. There’s a lot more, of course, including “hooks” for the most popular home-control systems, such as AMX, Control4, Crestron, and Savant. Phew.

The Setup
The SC-95 is conventionally laid out, with the drop-down door on the front that has become all but universal regardless of brand. The Pioneer’s is plastic but operates smoothly, and the unit’s overall finish and feel are crisp and reasonably elegant. With the receiver up on my rack, I began by bundling nine speaker-wire pairs into position: the usual five channels of LCR and surrounds plus two pair of Atmos ceiling-bounce elevation modules plopped atop my everyday fronts and surrounds. (This required moving my surrounds from their usual high shelves to stands a bit behind and astride the listening position.) Here I encountered a problem. Puzzlingly, among the receiver’s literally dozens of speaker-setup options, a 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos layout (“5.2.4” in Pio-speak, since the SC-95 features two sub outs) was missing in action. I chose 7.2.4, which requires an external amp to power either the main fronts or the rear surrounds, involving yet two more speaker wires to a pair of small two-ways pressed into service as back surrounds, which my everyday setup does not employ. (I subsequently discovered that by setting surround rear to “None” on the SC-95’s manual setup page, I could have gotten, effectively, a sanctioned 5.1.4, but nowhere in the manual is this made explicit.)

With a grand total of 12 speaker cabinets and 34 transducers connected and at the ready, I proceeded with Pioneer’s proprietary auto-calibrations and EQ routine, MCACC Pro. This entails the usual parade of clicks and noise bursts, with the SC-95’s Pro edition taking about 15 minutes in all. MCACC is quite a deep and interesting system (though it collects data from only one physical mic location), and even a cursory discussion of its powers would fill these pages. That said, the system nailed my speakers’ sizes, distances, and level adjustments with impressive precision. For my phase test, I deliberately miswired one front main and one rear Atmos speaker to see if the system would catch them, and it did so with flying colors. (I also determined, on a second run, that MCACC discovered and calibrated my 5.1.4-channel setup just fine, setting the nonexistent surround rear pair to “None” of its own accord.) MCACC Pro dialed in a room-EQ curve that, while not entirely consistent with those of other systems I’ve tried (and my own observations), was generally correct in its contours and mild in its equalizations. As always, however, I did all of my evaluative listening with the EQ defeated.

The Hands-On
As usual, I began with straight-forward listening to music, first in plain, two-channel, subwoofer-less (Pure Direct) stereo. My main fronts are long-discontinued Energy Veritas speakers of considerably lower than average sensitivity and impedance alike, and the Pioneer proved plenty powerful to drive them to satisfying levels, not only without complaint but with impressive dynamic conviction on track after track. On a cut like “I’m Tired of Crying Over You” from Jimmy Rogers’ Blue Bird (one of the very few examples of classic blues recorded to audiophile standards), the Pioneer presented the vocal impact, presence, power, and the snare-drum snap familiar to me, along with perhaps an unexpected degree of elegant soundstaging and aural spaciousness.


hk2000's picture

Love S&V reviews that include test bench results, sounds like a great receiver.
On an unrelated matter, the comment section on most of your articles has turned into a a spam board, does any one monitor these? Couldn't you stop them? Simply ban members who do it? Anything- It's quite annoying.

utopianemo's picture

I've been waiting for a review on this unit. I bought an SC-95 before it was technically available, and I wanted to see how the professional review correlated with my own findings.

It sounds pretty close: Love the sound. There have been some pretty significant hiccups with the connectivity, but those have seemingly been mitigated by foregoing wi-fi and hooking it up directly via ethernet.

The one thing I would like to add is just how much using the Dolby Surround upmixer can enhance 2-channel music. It positively makes old recordings come alive, taking a flat plane of music and pulling it into a 3D hemisphere. There are some exceptions, like 80's rock(I think the synthetic gated reverb confuses the processor), and some modern electronica recordings that use reverb in an experimental way. But classical recordings sound so much better, and this is coming from someone who has traditionally hated extra processing on music.

The most incredible example of Dolby Surround at work is with theater pipe organ music. There was a pizza place here in Portland called the Organ Grinder that had a massive, beautiful theater pipe organ, that produced some of the most impactful, wonderful live music I've heard. I have a few of those recordings, and playing them using the Dolby Surround upmixer brings me closer to being in that space than I'd ever imagined possible. The brass sections in particular play out up high in the front of the room, just like they did at the Organ Grinder.

dommyluc's picture

I totally agree with your opinion of Dolby Surround upmixing for music. I personally think Dolby Pro Logic IIx Music Mode does a phenomenal job of creating a natural 3D soundfield. I have thrown just about every kind of music at it, and it never seems to falter. Of course, like anything else, the better the recording, the better the results. The works of Steely Dan and Donald Fagen sound spectacular, as does most rock, including the 2008 digital remasters of the Beatles albums, which I stream to my Onkyo receiver from my PC in WAV format (as I do all my other music). But what is really fun to listen to are the RCA Living Stereo and other landmark classical recordings that were recorded on 3-channel studio decks, since they actually contain a true center channel that the Dolby processor can extract and place in the center, and also these recordings have great ambience, since they were recorded in many of the world's greatest concert halls, and it really shines through in the rear channels.
Hey, if people prefer just straight stereo, more power to them, and if the Dolby processing sounded flangey or over-reverberant or phony like most of the music modes on many receivers during the 80s and 90s (Yamaha and a few others excepted, of course), I couldn't bear to listen to it. But when I listen to music with DPL IIx, it sounds like I'm sitting in the middle of the studio, or on stage with the orchestra, and that's the way I like it. Also, since I have a 7.1-channel system, it's really nice to be able to use ALL of the speakers. LOL!

pirroplato's picture

Nice review of a a popular receiver, published just in time for the model to be replaced.

Mrsnikoph78's picture

To get to the point -

You say that the MCACC Pro correction basically nailed the setup, but commented that it chose a different EQ curve than other auto-correction systems. Can you please Elaborate? What sort of curves do you usually see?

I am close to pulling the trigger on a Yamaha, Pioneer Elite, or Anthem, but the information on room correction is pretty sparse, and I can't figure out what their target EQ curves are. I understand that Yamaha's is "selectable", Athem's is probably "adjustable", and Pioneer grants a lot of editing but is perhaps using a "flat line". I am wanting something more like the Harman Curve.

Basically, If I know that the room correction won't nail the bass EQ response in my room (which isn't a bad room but clearly has a room mode in the 30-40hz range), I won't bother spending the big bucks. I already know how to set levels, distance, and crossovers without the auto systems. So it is the quality of EQing that matters most. I understand that Yamaha lets you EQ subwoofers down to 16 hz now, with 4 bands. But does YPAO even do anything to the sub channel?

Lewis3000us's picture

I hear stories of some difficulty with the Start-up Navi app that may be used for setting up this receiver. Can you please comment on whether or not you used this app, and if not, then how easy/difficult the setup was without the app?

Triad Steve's picture

Hi Daniel,

Knowing actually tested 8 ohm power is very helpful, particularly with 7 channels driven - so thank you. For AVRs & amps it would be helpful to see 4 ohm tested power to understand compatibility with the many 4 ohm speakers on the market. Different amplifier topologies and power supplies can greatly affect 4 ohm power and even an amp's ability to drive 4 ohm speakers without shutting down. Any chance we can see these tests in the future?

BTW, readers might be interested in the fact that Dolby Pro Logic IIX does not artificially "create" multiple channels from music like many gimmicky venue selections do. Instead it extracts real information from the recording, so you can actually hear more of the original recording space and ambience. As commenter utopianemo suggests and you verify, this can enhance many 2 channel recordings. For those who haven't tried it before, you might give it a shot.

zman's picture

After 4 months this receiver can't get Pandora thru fi. However it gets Internet radio thru wi fi. Any help?