Pioneer Elite VSX-49TX A/V receiver

What makes one of today's complex A/V receivers friendly, and another model with identical features off-putting? I didn't ask that question when I began setting up and using Pioneer's latest, the Elite VSX-49TX , but the answer appeared as I explored this superbly-thought-out receiver, and was confirmed when, returning after a week out of town, I was able to easily take advantage of its many functions without getting lost or even needing the instruction manual.

With some receivers, you're in trouble a day after you think you've got a handle on them; with others, even with instructions in hand, you stumble. Not so with the VSX-49TX, despite its seemingly endless versatility. What the Pioneer has going for it is a clearly written, well-organized manual; an LCD remote that lives up to the promise of such devices; a well-organized front panel featuring three big, comfortable knobs; and a large display you can read from across the room. It also features an elegant and intuitive operating system in which logic replaces the usual smoke and mirrors of nested functions. Nests are for birds.

If you've gotten the idea that I really liked having the Elite VSX-49TX in my system, you're correct.

Features Galore, Plenty of Power
Pioneer rates the Elite VSX-49TX at 130Wx7 continuous power at 8ohms (20Hz-20kHz, 0.09%THD), and at 160Wpc at 6ohms. Unlike the questionable power ratings from some other manufacturers, these are meaningful specs that give watts in relation to distortion and frequency response. And thanks to thick, extruded-aluminum heatsinks that are as attractive as they are effective, no cooling fan is needed.

According to the manual, the VSX-49TX is the first receiver in the world to earn THX's Ultra2 certification. While THX Ultra2 does not appear to differ in performance standards from THX Ultra (it is not possible to know for certain, since THX releases its standards only to licensees), it does add significant new features. This means that the Pioneer includes Advanced Speaker Array (ASA) to process 5.1-channel material for 7.1-channel playback, using THX's Ultra2 Cinema and MusicMode. Also included are Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES discrete playback, as well as playback of the latest DTS 24-bit/96kHz discs.

Another significant and very handy feature for some of you is a video converter that can decode composite and S-video signals to component form. This allows you to use a single set of component connections from the receiver to a component-capable video display for all sources. The microphone-equipped Multichannel Acoustic Calibration System (MCACC) system allows for complete automatic system calibration, including levels, distance delay, and multiband EQ—or you can set most of them individually using built-in test tones and an SPL meter. (Setting speaker EQ this way requires test CDs and a lot of skill and patience.)

The superb build quality of this almost-65-lb receiver begins with its ultrarigid copper chassis. Inside are dual Sharc 32-bit Floating Point Processors, Double Precision 48-bit Motorola digital signal-processing engines, and 24-bit/192kHz Burr-Brown PCM 1704 DACs all channels. There are also 7.1 channels of A/D conversion, though you can choose to route analog signals directly through the receiver without any digital processing.

Pioneer's LCD learning remote is the first I've actually enjoyed using: Every time I touched a virtual button, it actually responded—and, unlike other such remotes I've used, it never accidentally set off an adjacent button. Add to that this remote's very long battery life (I never had to change the four AAs), light weight, and intelligent, ergonomically friendly layout of the screen's pages and hard buttons, and you have a successfully designed, easy-to-use interface. But as with any receiver, I suggest you give the remote a thorough test drive before making a final purchasing decision to make sure it meets your needs and expectations. I don't think this one will disappoint or confuse anyone.

That goes for the preprogrammed features as well. Within a few minutes, I had the remote controlling my Philips RPTV, RCA DTC-100, Pioneer laserdisc player, and Panasonic D-VHS deck. Instead of code numbers, you push a brand button for each piece of gear you wish to control. When more than one code is possible, you're given numbered choices. Because the remote's hard and soft buttons combine to control most functions, I actually put away, for the first time, my other remotes. The VSX-49TX's remote can also learn codes from non-preprogrammed products, and has a text and graphic editing feature for further customization.

Connection, Setup, Use
The VSX-49TX's front and rear panels follow the functionality and ease of use of its remote, aided by instructions that are relatively easy to follow. On the cleanly laid-out back panel are seven assignable digital inputs (three coax, four optical), plus an AC-3RF coax input (only what you'd expect from the company that championed the laserdisc), and two PCM digital outputs for recording to CD or MiniDisc. Pioneer has fitted the optical inputs and outputs with neat spring-loaded doors in place of the usual removable dust protectors. There are three VCR A/V tape loops, all with S-video connectivity, and three component-video inputs with sufficient bandwidth to pass an HD signal without degradation. There are two analog audio tape loops, an analog CD input, and a moving-magnet phono input, which sounded pretty good. And there are the usual preamp-out jacks, should you choose to use external amplification (you won't), as well as the aforementioned multichannel analog audio inputs (eight, including Surround Backs). If I've left anything out that you'd expect to find back there, trust me: it's there.

The front panel is equally tidy and functional, with infrequently used controls hidden behind a manual flip-down door. (A motorless door is one less "feature" to break, in my opinion.) There you'll find tone and tuner controls, the multiroom selector, the microphone input for the acoustic calibration system, a headphone jack, and duplicates of many remote-control functions. There's also an A/V input complete with optical digital input. The three big front-panel knobs control Volume, Input selection, and Listening mode. That last knob switches among five listening modes: Stereo, Standard Auto, Home THX Auto, Advanced Cinema Auto, and Advanced Concert Auto. Within each of these are various options selectable by pressing instead of turning the knob. Despite the multiplicity of features and choices packed into the VSX-49TX, I had no trouble finding whatever I was looking for—and I'm not the brightest bulb in the nested feature socket.