Pioneer Elite VSX-74TXVi THX Select2 AV Receiver Page 2

The onscreen menus are nothing fancy to look at, but they are clear and easy to navigate, which is all that counts.

The bright orange front-panel display initially proclaims the source input in dot-matrix characters, and then switches to the currently selected surround mode. I prefer to have both of these critical functions displayed simultaneously, but you can't have everything. All of the other functions are relegated to tiny indicators that can only be read when you're standing in front of the unit.

Front-panel input selection is handled by a large knob. The volume knob ramps the sound up and down quickly and easily, without introducing lags or poorly thought out gain curves that force you to spin the knob like a top before you begin to reach a useful volume range. A flip-down panel hides a number of useful buttons, including a cursor quadrant and Enter button, so you can navigate menus without the remote.

Whether you favor art-house cinema with lots of dialog or action-adventure flicks with lots of explosions, the 74 is your ticket. With your speakers dialed in nice and flat by MCACC, the Pioneer basically fades into the background, leaving you to enjoy a wonderfully seamless, 360-degree soundfield.

I do not run a speaker system that includes five (or six or seven) identical speakers and a sub, rather I have a pair of superb full-range L/R speakers, a matching center, and a pair of excellent surround speakers from a different manufacturer. Although this combo can and does produce fine multichannel sound in my room, I am the first to admit that it sometimes fails to deliver smooth transitions from front to back. The Pioneer pulls this disparate rig together into a cohesive whole better than any receiver I've heard so far. I can only imagine how effective it will be when mated to a matched set of home theater speakers, or better yet, a full-on THX-approved speaker system.

One scene that sticks in my mind is the "Test Flight" sequence from The Aviator. This scene has numerous front-to-back flyovers and sudden shifts in sonic perspective that place an emphasis on smooth transitions, not to mention dynamics and musicality. Whether the plane is roaring past, soaring over the clouds to the strains of an orchestral arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or hissing and snapping through the field of carrots as it slides to a stop after the inevitable crash landing, the Pioneer keeps you firmly ensconced in the middle of the action.

As you'd expect from a THX Select2 certified product, the 74 can track the most demanding dynamics with no sign of stress or strain. Although I've seen it about a million times, the beach landing scene from Saving Private Ryan has lost none of its riveting power. With the Pioneer cranked up to near reference level, you don't need the visuals – close your eyes and you're there, surrounded on all sides by explosions, gunfire, screams. You become so immersed that the sudden shifts to an underwater environment or to near silence when Tom Hanks' character is momentarily shell-shocked produces a physical reaction, rocking you back in your seat. This is home theater sound at its best.

Turning to stereo music recordings, the 74 turns in smooth, well-balanced performance. The treble is relaxed rather than bright, but not closed-in or dark by any means. Soundstaging is good, though not quite up to the level of the Arcam AVR250 ($1599), which produces an almost palpable sense of 3D space when such is captured on the recording. Bass response is tight, powerful, and musical, especially in bi-amp mode.

The video switcher does a fine job with component signals at all the usual scan rates, introducing no appreciable noise or artifacts that I could detect. HDMI performance with HDMI sources was equally excellent. On the other hand, there were times when I preferred the look of 480i component DVD signals sent directly to the display in that format, rather than being processed through the Pioneer's HDMI converter. It might have been my imagination, but the HDMI conversion did sometimes seem to add a smidgeon of digital noise to the image. (On the other hand, this might be attributable to the Mitsubishi TV I was using during the review, not the Pioneer, so I'm a bit hesitant to point fingers.) I also seem to recall that the manual contains a THX footnote recommending against using the format converter "for best performance," which I admit might have prejudiced me. Still, for all but the most critical applications and viewers, the HDMI conversion works great.

The Pioneer Elite VSX-74TXVi delivers seamless and powerful multichannel sound, accurate automatic setup/calibration, and connectivity options galore. It is also an excellent value at its $1500 list price. The closest competitor is the new Denon 4306, which lists for $500 more than the Pioneer.

This sleek and attractive component is a great choice for folks who insist on owning sophisticated, high-performance products, but who have no desire to deal with complex technology during day-to-day operation. At the same time, it has enough programmable parameters to please the tweakiest surround-sound geek. In a word, the Pioneer Elite VSX-74TXVi is a remarkable product, and I recommend it highly.

Highs and Lows

Auto MCACC calibrates and equalizes the system with superb results
HDMI transcoding accommodates all component video signals, not just 480i
Bi-amp capable

Cluttered, unlighted remote